Four Stories — By Jennifer Shipp
Chiapas Mexico North America

Four Stories — By Jennifer Shipp

What a mess it is to build something this big.

I’m not sure what this story is about. Is it about the drive between Guanajuato and San Cristobal de las Casas? Or is it about biomagnetism and how to cure a disease with a couple of magnets? Or is it about how workshops in Mexico suck a little in terms of interactivity and hands-on learning?

I could talk about Julian, the fellow who sat in front of us, giddy to chat about make-up, dressing in drag, and the spectacular gay bars in Oaxaca. He was nice. I liked him.

Or I could talk about Moises Goiz and how he failed to wow me with his knowledge and skill regarding biomagnetism. He was long-winded and egotistical.

But I don’t want to poo-poo biomagnetism, so maybe I’ll steer clear of that story since English-speakers tend to be prejudiced against alternative medicine to begin with. Me and Moises didn’t exactly make a connection, it’s true, but I’m still sold on biomagnetism at least as a bigger part of a medical model that would sound like pure fruit-loops-and-wind-chimes to the average American or European (despite the fact that this model is all based on published peer-reviewed research). So I should probably keep that story about Moises under wraps for now.

We left our big apartment complex project behind in Guanajuato for our 12-day trip cross-country to San Cristobal de las Casas and back. Felipe, our foreman, watched our cats. He’s not just a construction worker, as it turns out, but also a farmer. And he’s good with animals. Garfield loves him. “Estamos amigos.” Felipe said in regard to Garfield after we got home. True to form, the white kitty (Babylonia), never made a showing despite Felipe’s gifts with four-legged creatures.

Finding people to watch our cats when we left on trips was nearly impossible when we lived in the states. We often marveled at how impossible it was to find people to do even the smallest things for us (even with the promise of a respectable wage in exchange for work) when we lived in Nebraska. But I have a long list of people to watch our kitties here in Mexico and even a Plan B cat hotel in Marfil that we could resort to in a big pinch. One would think that living in a tiny Nebraska town of only 400 people would have meant that we’d be tight with our neighbors and in-the-know…that we would’ve been connected to the people around us. And that moving to a city of over 100,000 people in a foreign country who all speak a different language would be alienating in comparison.

But no.

Felipe, our foreman. I don’t know what we’d do without him.

I didn’t worry about Garfield and Babylonia under Felipe’s care. Felipe works so hard for us. He’s responsible and kind. And I trust him.

But he’s a construction worker.

In Mexico.


We drove about 18 hours through Oaxaca to Tuxtla Gutierrez for a 5-day workshop that Lydi and I attended on biomagnetism, a little-known phenomenon to Americans because of its somewhat miraculous curative abilities that would endanger the pharmaceutical companies that keep it carefully under wraps. The workshop was entirely in Spanish though there were luckily two people there who spoke English. Before we got there, I was beside myself over the idea of icebreakers and introductions. I like speaking in front of a group if I’m in charge—and if I’m speaking in English. But I know myself and I say the stupidest things sometimes when I introduce myself in English. I tend to present controversial aspects of my existence first instead of saving those tidbits for a more appropriate time. What would I do in Spanish? It was hard to predict. My Spanish Self is a little delayed and functioning on its best days at about the level of a smart 2-year-old. Somewhere between Oaxaca and Tuxtla, I started repeating menos es más (less is more) over and over to myself in the hopes that it would sink into the part of my brain that thinks clumsy little toddler-thoughts in Spanish.

Luckily, I didn’t consider the possibility that they’d pass around a microphone for the introductions. That would’ve made for a lot of sleepless nights in anticipation of the seminar. I’d pictured lots of scenarios, hoping for an auditorium of people too large for introductions and icebreakers, but unfortunately, the room contained only about 15 people. And of course, since Lydian inherited a performance gene from John, she did swimmingly at her Spanish introduction which was given right before mine. She even stood up to tell everyone about herself…in Spanish. But I didn’t bother standing. I had less, not more to say about myself:

“Hello. I am Jennifer. Biomagnetism interests me.” And then, in a burst of inspiration I added “I am… interested… in it.”

The room fell silent, a gaping receptacle of embarrassment that everyone in the room felt for me and my impoverished thoughts.

I spent my break-times during the workshop contemplating the potential value of not really existing linguistically in a group of people and how such an existence was similar to living in a cave on a hill outside of a tiny, insignificant Buddhist village in a country that doesn’t participate in world politics. I worked on being Zen with my non-existence and my relative inability to participate meaningfully on a linguistic level. I was the monk in the cave with a small fire. I was surviving off the linguistic grains of rice picked out of the cow dung. My ego was utterly pained by the experience of being isolated by a lack of words and an inability to be creative with the language. My education in psychology rivaled Moises’. My experience and education in medicine surpassed his and everyone else’s in the room. But for all intents and purposes, I was the low-guy on the totem pole. The monk on the hill, tattered prayer flags waving silently in the wind. And there was nothing to do but suck it up and cling tightly to my English-Spanish dictionary and the hope that one day I will be able to speak in coherent sentences of more than three words.

John has experienced this sense of being linguistically blindfolded, hand-cuffed, and burned at the stake more than I have. He is the ambassador who manages the workers on behalf of our family’s ideas about how the building should be built. The workers, despite their extreme patience with John and his slow, arduous grasping for words, sometimes go ahead and just make assumptions about things in order to keep the building process moving along. Walls end up in wrong places. Windows are smaller than we’d intended. Bathroom fixtures take up residency in creative locations. John holds onto these misunderstandings and crucifies himself over them. There is, after all, nothing else left to do once the walls are built. Like a Bible, John could get out the dictionary and start pointing at little passages that claim to offer an interpretation of a word that cannot be taken or given out of context without repercussions. It wouldn’t matter. We know we mis-spoke because we do it often. He blames himself for communications gone awry. It’s one thing to go to an intercambio (language exchange) and chit chat in Spanish with native speakers to figure out how to tell people our favorite color or what we like to eat when we go to a restaurant, but it’s something entirely different to play-for-keeps and build a building in a language that’s not natively our own. Things happen. Shit gets real. And sometimes it isn’t very funny.

The end-result of this building project is good enough though. No one would know that we’d intended to achieve a different result, but the frustration from having spoken and been misunderstood in the most basic, mundane way lives on in our memories. I’ve spent the better part of my life mastering English and working to understand and be understood by others. In English, I tried with all my might to connect, but despite all my efforts, English is not a language of connection because it is not spoken in cultures that value connection. So I can learn the highest-levels of the English language and communicate valiantly with words that were carefully chosen and contextually applied with care and still feel like an alien or a freak of nature.

But Spanish is different. The cultures that speak and support this language are different. And so I want to participate. But alas, I should pass the microphone on to the next person and feign muteness still. There are many intercambios and Spanish classes between me and the microphone. I am the monk on the hill. It’s just me and the fire and the prayer flags sending archaic written hopes into the wind that one day I will be able to speak and make sense to the people around me.

Yesterday evening we got home and found that our fourth story had been built while we were away. Only a small portion of the roof is left before the main structure of the building is complete. The view is breathtaking from up there. We looked at the walls, measured the new rooms that are wet with rainwater leaking through the obra negra of cement blocks. We argued about the placement of things. Is it okay? Will the building be good enough?

There are a lot of questions about the building. We built it with ideas about what it might become. But the ideas move forward in halting steps because these are things we’ve never done before and we aren’t sure. Failures on one front have led to successes on others. And I suppose this is all by design. In the end, if no one follows us along the path to watch how many times we trip and fall, get lost, or eat poisoned berries, they’ll probably think that we knew what we were doing when the final product takes shape (whatever it ends up being, which will be as much a product of failure and destruction as it is a product of success and construction).

Our lives and our ideas are like this building. Filled with furniture that hasn’t found it’s place yet–ideas from a previous way of thinking, models of the universe that no longer make sense to us. The partial abandonment of one culture and the adoption of another. Skeletal sections of four stories that are strong but ugly and undeveloped. In its current state, I hesitate to present the building or the ideas to English-speakers who have preconceived notions of perfection that have been carefully molded, branded, and then sold in bulk like plastic Easter eggs that are perfect, but empty and pretty boring overall. I suppose there are reasons why this process of building is so slow. Why it takes so long and involves so many mistakes and misunderstandings. I suppose that time spent in a cave in a linguistic Time-Out is necessary and valuable in terms of breaking down what doesn’t make sense anymore so that something else can be built in its place. I balk at the breaking. I don’t like it, but these are my four stories and I want them to be properly supported. I need the people around me to build. And I have to accept the mistakes as part of the process.

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