Mexico Construction: How We Got Scammed and Still Survived — By Jennifer Shipp
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Mexico Construction: How We Got Scammed and Still Survived — By Jennifer Shipp

What a mess. Everything was in progress, and nothing finished at our property in Mexico until we ditched the engineer and took control of the project ourselves.

Someday, when I have time to reflect on things, I’m going to look back on the past five months of my life and say, “Wow. That’s was fucking hard.” When that day comes, sometime in the future—maybe a decade or so from now, I’ll feel it and I’ll probably think that I handled things okay under the circumstances. But right now, and for the past year and three months, I’ve felt mostly stupid, vulnerable, concerned, and deeply confused to an extent I’ve never experienced before in my life.

I’ve chalked it up to language most of the time. Sometimes I’ve been right. At other times, the sense of being totally lost comes from living in a different culture where nothing makes sense. Mexico may be somewhat familiar to me, but that doesn’t make it any more comprehensible to my U.S. mentality. But then, there have been other situations where I was truly prey; situations where someone was purposely trying to dupe and confuse me. What with all the different types of confusion and disorientation, I missed a duping that occurred over the course of several months’ time. The sheep costume for the wolf doesn’t have to be that convincing if I already have wool in my eyes.

I recently learned that all architects and engineers in Mexico (and Guanajuato specifically) are shady. The information came a little late after John and I had learned to trust a guy named “Beto” who claimed to be an engineer. We felt lucky because this man spoke broken English. We believed that our wishes would be better represented by a man who could understand our native tongue.

“I learned English at the bar!” He would joke with us. “It’s easier to speak a different language when you’re drunk!” And we laughed. It seemed like a joke. A strange joke, but still…

On my fourth meeting with Beto, he bent my ear for over 4 hours in English, which, as a rule is a red flag for me. I

Beto was enamored with this hole in our wall. He put his workers on this space to carve out what would later become a shower. They spent an inordinate amount of time on this space. When we kicked Beto out, it was still just a big gaping hole with nothing but dirt on the other side of it.

could’ve become a counselor with my degree, but I don’t want to be a counselor. That’s not what I do. But Beto preyed on my good nature and did an emotional dump at this meeting, saying that he thought his girlfriend was cheating on him and then, in a digressive stream of consciousness, shared a story about how his brother killed a man while driving drunk and Beto bribed the police officer to let his brother go.

I tried numerous times to excuse myself gracefully from this conversation but with no luck. Beto just kept talking. And I didn’t want him to get angry with me or dislike me, after all because he was working on our new house.

In English, and in the United States, this relationship that John and I had with Beto would’ve become pretty straightforward about 8 weeks after the initial meeting. But our Spanish language skills at that time were at about the level of a smart 4 year old. All of Beto’s workers spoke only Spanish (as well as a language that involves nothing but whistling) and they use a lot of slang so every time we met with Beto we had to speak a combination of English and Spanish, switching back and forth rapidly. Beto’s English is broken. It’s good, but he lacks certain subsets of vocabulary in English (like “feeling words” for example). So whenever we had to communicate with this man, we used a mathematical-sort-of algorithm to choose our words in either English or our limited Spanish. We did this to be polite and to facilitate communication.

By the third month of work on our house, I stopped going to check on progress because the progress was hard to really see. And Beto talked so much to me. I got weary of it. I mean, Beto would take John from room to room to show him the progress each day. The tour would take an hour or more. At the end of each day though, nothing was really finished. Bits and pieces of the project were finished and there were tons of workers in our house at all hours of the day, including overnight to “guard” the property and tools. So it seemed like things were getting done and there was literally never a time when we could go over and check on things and really stand back and consider the progress without someone else standing there with us.

In March, John and I got sick. Our feverish stupors gave us time for reflection on Beto, The Engineer. A week later, we hatched a plan to kick him out. It was a delicate situation though. Because in Mexico, if things go south with a person, the police won’t necessarily show up to help out. Neighbors might get involved. The workers might get involved. I’m not sure what happens after that. I don’t want to know. So our goal was diffuse the situation as quietly and quickly as possible.

We knew that Beto had been not paying his workers even though we’d been paying him. So his workers thought we weren’t paying them. So, we needed to do all our Beto-Transactions in Spanish from then on, which made us both sweat a little.

Beto had purposely not finished the parts of the house that would allow us to lock up. The perimeter was open. When John and I were sick, we reminded ourselves and that though we didn’t have a lot of experience building with concrete, we’d done plenty of building in our lives together. So we bought some wood and created a plan to board everything up in the middle of the night after we’d kicked out Beto and his team.

On top of everything else, Beto had worked really hard to make John and I feel like we’d purchased a lemon of a building in a terrible location:

“The horse next door smells terrible in the afternoon.” He said.

Beto would take us through the house each day on a tour to show us the tiny baby steps he’d taken toward finishing our gargantuan project. The effect of this tour was disorienting. After an hour of being shown what had been done with hardly a breath from Beto for us to ask questions, we felt like things were moving forward. This tiny corner in our house was one of the things that Beto showed John one day on a tour about 3 months ago.

“The old man is mean. He hates you because you’re white.”

“The fumes from the painter next door is really strong. You should try to get rid of him or you may need to board up all the windows in your house.”

“This is the most poorly built building I’ve ever seen.”

And so on and so forth.

His words ate at us, but we persevered. While we were sick, John and I worked to corner Beto and leech out his true colors via text/in writing. We were sick, after all. We couldn’t go to the house to meet with him in person, and he couldn’t come to see us either. We pushed on him and stopped using the algorithm to choose our English words. We spoke fluently in our own language and made it more difficult for him to understand what we were saying. Within 24 hours, he said,

“I’m seeing a therapist. I think I’m bipolar.”

And John said, “Get out… Go now (you Fucker).”

I waited down the hill. I had nothing nice to say to Beto. If John called me in, my job was to utterly humiliate him to the best of my ability, loudly, and in Spanish so that all the neighbors and workers could hear. But John, being John, handled things with diplomacy. As he extracted the man and his workers from the house, one of the workers, Felipe discreetly came up to John and said (in Spanish), “I’d like to talk to you later at your house. Cristian and I want to work for you directly.” Then, Felipe quietly walked away from the situation. Beto never saw this transaction.

John and I had tried to talk with Beto’s workers many times but Beto had always interfered and blabbed with us in English instead. We were skeptical of Felipe and Cristian though because we were skeptical of everyone after having dealt with this Beto-Parasite for five months. At the time, we felt convinced that our best plan-of-action would be to take up masonry and figure out how to build the rest of the house ourselves.

It was 9:00 PM before they got all their shit out of the house, but what a relief to finally see that building without anyone else in there to obstruct our view! John and I immediately got to work on things to board it up so that nothing would be stolen overnight. Lydian had been doing a callejoneada with her musical group in the centro and she arrived just a few minutes after I did to help too.

This doorway into a bedroom in one of the apartments is still unfinished. It looks better than in the picture here, but Beto systematically left bits and pieces of every project unfinished to make it all seem overwhelming and impossible. If John and I hadn’t had any construction-type experience we would’ve probably given up on the building and sold it after being strung along by Beto all this time.

We gave ourselves the weekend off to think and come up with a plan for how to finish this 4,000 square foot mess. In Mexico. In Spanish.

During this time, Felipe continued texting John saying that he’d like to work directly for us. Felipe had been Beto’s maestro (master). He said that Beto had been hijacking the project on purpose.

“Be sure to make this project take 3 times longer than it should,” were Beto’s instructions to the team according to Cristian and Felipe. They were pissed. Also, Beto had been paying them less than minimum wage at about $3.00/hour.

Still, we were reluctant to trust anyone. But on Monday, John went ahead and met with Cristian and Felipe at the house. We decided to give them a week to show us what they could do without Beto in charge. We paid them more than minimum wage for their work and at the end of the week, things were moving and John and I felt hopeful again.

So far, Felipe and Cristian have been amazing. They work so hard. One day, John gave them a list of tasks. One of the tasks was to put bars on a window that’s two stories high, suspended above the neighbor who has a giant tent hung across the entire lot down below. So they couldn’t use a ladder to get to the window. Instead, they decided to build something using an old, recycled piece of wood and barbed wire to lower Cristian down to the window to put the bars on.

Over the past few weeks, Felipe and Cristian have helped us understand what was really going on at our house. Beto is an engineer. Yes, he is…but he’s a topographical engineer, which means that he knows nothing about building houses. Thankfully, John and I do know how to build houses. I bought a book called Manual del Arquitecto Descalzo, (Manual for the Barefoot Architect), by Johan van Lengen and started reading it to get some construction vocabulary going in Spanish. The book though, has turned out to be really helpful in better understanding how to construct a house using all kinds of materials including cement and concrete as well as bamboo and thatch. My job is now to do project management on the building of this house… and paint. I’ve done this kind of thing before thankfully when we built Cornstalk and then later when we renovated the school. And, if I’d known at the beginning of my life how much painting I would do between age 15 and age 45, I’d have probably just called myself a painter and said nevermind to the business of medicine or writing. I don’t bother taping the edges anymore when I paint. My hand is that steady. Lydian has been painting with me and she jokes around about how she someday hopes to be able to do “speed painting” like me. She’s definitely paying her dues. We’ve painted two apartments together so far. This coming week, we’ll varnish cabinets for 3 kitchens.

John’s job is to function as an electricista or electrician. He’s also doing project management on the plumbing. Apparently, there’s a real short supply of electricians here in Guanajuato and as a result, the focos (lightbulbs) are always exploding in town (this per our Spanish language teacher). Doing electrical work on a cement-built home is a different beast than doing electrical work on a stick-built structure. John had to buy a power hammer to chisel out where the conduit goes.  And Beto, of course, built in a labyrinth of bull-shit electrical wiring that John has had to figure out and re-route. In one place, on our patio, he actually cemented a spiraled up piece of conduit attached to the lights into place. John had to completely rewire it.  He’s had to do all of this in addition to all his other web development work, of course.

At night, I sit and think about the construction site and plan ahead for the materials to keep things moving forward. We can get some of the supplies here in Guanajuato, but we have to travel to Irapuato or Leon for a lot of it. Guanajuato has only small, family-run shops. The lumberyard cuts the lumber from trees to the size and shape of my choosing. But it’s not really a “girl-friendly” place. Wood is my thing, but besides the very machismo atmosphere of the lumberyard, the wood is also harder here than back in the states. That’s not a euphemism. It really is. In trying to cut a 2 x 2, I can burn out a whole blade on my circular saw. I have to drill pilot holes into everything and often, even after I do that, I can’t get the screw into the hole without leaning all my body weight into it. Again, not a euphemism. Building with wood here is something I have to relearn like everything else.

For example, centimeters and meters. I think in inches and feet, you see. And I’m good at it. If I’m working on a project, I can guess within about a half-inch on most measurements even without a measuring tape. But that’s a totally worthless talent here. Why? Because everything here is measured in centimeters and meters. So, while I’m standing in the cabinet aisle at Home Depot trying to make sure that I get the right sized cabinets, I have to translate not only my words into Spanish but also my measurements into centimeters and meters. I struggle just to county my change in Spanish, but this kind of mental acrobatics makes my brain hurt. I know now that 2 feet is roughly 61 centimeters and that 61 centimeters is the regular depth of cabinets here, which is my basis for imagining anything in a pinch.

The thing is, this “house” isn’t just a house. It’s actually going to be 5 apartments. So there will be 5 kitchens and 9 bathrooms. There will be something like 20 doors in the whole building. I discovered a “metal-and-door-man” just down the street from where we live in Marfil and he’s now my go-to-door guy. This week, he’s building doors that have reflective you-can-see-out-but-no-one-can-see-in glass for two window-less bedrooms on our bottom level. John discovered a hardware store just a few blocks down the street from our new house. You have to take a number and wait in line, but the clerks really know their thing and they’re patient with John as he describes what he wants in Spanish. I know how words like doorknobs and hinges now. John knows how to ask for tuercos y valvulas or whatever other plumbing or electrical supplies he needs.

Last week, while John was doing electrical work at the house, Lydian and I had to get all of the utilities moved into our names. We had to go to SIMAPAG, the water utility place, CFE, the electrical utility place, and we had to talk to an architect about getting permits for our third floor. On Monday morning, I felt nervous—as though I was going to be getting on a stage with a huge audience to do public speaking. In the end though, partnered up with Lydian (my language-buddy), we were able to get through all but the last few strips of red tape (two visits to CFE and 3 visits to SIMAPAG). We even opened a bank account for Lydian since she’s 18 now (in Spanish), went back to the bank to do some kind of U.S. tax thing, and got her a Mexican driver’s license in addition to all the administrative hoop-jumping involved with the utilities. Lydi and I high-fived after we named off all the vocabulary sectors we touched on at that week: electricity, banking, water, architecture, and the Mexican version of the DMV.

Beto showed up to ask for money a few days ago. We’d expected this. After a few weeks had passed and we’d had the

The kitchen was initially really disgusting and Beto worked hard to gut it early in his tenure with us. He seemed like a hero at first. But then, about 2 months into the project, all progress slowed to a crawl. By that time, we’d decided that we “trusted” Beto and figured that the cement work was much harder than it seemed since John and I had little experience working with cement.

opportunity to spend some time at our new house working on it, we realized what a great location it actually is. The neighbors are nice overall. No one hates us. The horse doesn’t smell and neither does the painter. The view is spectacular. I mean spectacular. On the top two floors, we’ll have a 360 degree view of the city and the mountains. And five minutes downhill and there are at least 3 fruit and vegetable vendors selling everything we need. In the afternoon, the fresh roasted smell from a rotisserie chicken place wafts in through the windows. It’s literally only about 30 meters from our house. And a 15-minute walk takes us into the heart of the city where there are live musicians, street actors, outdoor restaurants, and several well-known Mexican tourist attractions. Every day of the year, the centro feels like a Renaissance Festival. And while we can walk everywhere, a bus can also drop us off right in front of the chicken rotisserie place or we can park on the street right outside our door.

With all this in mind, John and I have hypothesized that Beto’s original plan was to poison our minds against the house, make a big mess of everything construction-wise, and then offer to buy it from us for next to nothing. Felipe and Cristian told John that Beto hadn’t believed either one of us when we’d told him that we’ve done our fair share of construction work. But now he knows. When he stopped by to ask for more money, John video-taped the interaction. Beto stuttered. He tripped over his words and didn’t know what to say. But John never insulted him personally. He did, however, state facts regarding the mess Beto had created. At one point, Beto got close to John and John backed up and got into a stance. He was ready. But John never had to throw any punches. Beto decided to leave as soon as John puffed up a little. Obviously, this transaction didn’t go the way Beto had been expecting.

I’ve had a hard time forgiving myself for not getting rid of Beto sooner. A part of me knew from the very beginning that he was a problem. But I didn’t listen to my intuition, in part because I’m in Mexico and in part because I don’t speak Spanish fluently yet. I gave Beto an extra benefit of the doubt that I wouldn’t have given a U.S. worker. Why did I do that? But, the upside is that Felipe and Cristian are excellent workers. John has been working with them every day this week at the house and they wait patiently for him to form his sentences in Spanish to manage them. And they work hard once they know what to do. They’re both upset with Beto too because Beto is a scam artist. So, despite the shitty experience with Beto, I’m glad to have met Felipe and Cristian.

Over the past three weeks, our family has ranked up on the Spanish language, mostly out of necessity, but it was good

Remember the kitchen from the photo above? This is the same space 2 weeks after John, Lydian, Felipe, and I started working on it.

for us. Maybe we needed the push. And though this whole Beto Situation was difficult, I’m glad that we dove into this construction project the way we did. We got duped and cheated. Yep. Getting scammed is a pretty ubiquitous experience that I’ve had everywhere in the world. We always try not to get duped and cheated but I think it’s always a gamble. Some people are just inclined to do things that way. Maybe we needed this whole ordeal in order to push our thresholds and get us to integrate more. Now I can lament about all the papeleo (paperwork/red tape) with my neighbors and friends here in Mexico. And we can all role our eyes like the other locals when people talk about construcción en Mexico.  I get it now. And I suppose that’s a gift, but maybe one that I won’t be able to appreciate fully for several years.

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