Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mixed nuts

When I think back about the hundreds of people I've met and interviewed, it's rare that I encounter someone who is obviously fabricating their stories. I sometimes encounter people who seem to be exaggerating, but in the last few days I've met a few people who are either actively creating their life stories, or they're simply not all there.

On Sunday evening my sister and I were walking home together from dinner (the rest of the family took a cab). Susie wanted to photograph doors. When we left our restaurant, I was struggling to put on my jacket (it's actually quite cool here right now) and an older woman stopped on the street to give me a hand. She introduced herself (I'll refer to her here as Marta) and told us she had lived in SMA for over 15 years. Her father, she said, had been Italy's ambassador to Mexico, so she spent most of her life in Mexico. As it turns out, she lives just a few doors down from the restaurant, and she invited us in to see her house, which she described as "just adorable." I saw this chance interaction as an opportunity for a potential interview, so I cued Susie and we said yes. For the record, most of the houses owned by Americans in SMA are quite lovely, and one of the biggest tourist attractions here each Sunday afternoon is a house and garden tour, so we thought seeing the house would be a bonus. We were wrong.

We knew something was wrong the minute we walked in the door and smelled doggy doo, but by then it was too late. Marta took us in her "adorable" little house, which looked like many of the poorer migrant houses I had visited in other towns in western Mexico. Her dogs, one that looked sweet, the other a bit frightening, were dancing around the cement stairs in front of us. Marta explained how this house had actually been the garden of her father's much larger house next door. She sold it and hired an architect to build this. This revelation was the first red flag of the evening, as there was no way this house had been designed.

Susie was eyeing the menacing looking dog cautiously, which I thought looked a lot like a Dingo. It was nervous and wiry, and kept jumping up and down the steps. When I asked, Marta explained that the dog was actually an African jungle dog, and that it was a gift from the African government (hmmm, isn't that a continent?). She had been visiting Africa on a tour a year ago, she said, and asked for one of the dogs. About six months later a "huge African man" (that's a direct quote) came to her house with this adorable puppy.

As she ushered us upstairs to see what she described as a "magnificent" garden, Marta told me she was retired, but still lectured at UNAM (a university in Mexico City) once a week. "Yes, they send a driver to pick me up at 2:30 in the morning and I lecture, then they bring me home." When I asked her what her subject area was, she told me she lectured on religion and philosophy.

We walked through the rest of the dingy house, she ushered us onto a small balcony that was filled with a variety of pots filled with bonsai trees and flowers. She then insisted that we climb the narrow spiral staircase onto he roof to see her magnificent view. By now it was raining, and I eyed the staircase warily. I had been up and down similar staircases before, but this one was particularly narrow. The stairs were further narrowed by small potted plants that she had one each step. "Go, go, you must see the view," Marta insisted. I cautiously started up the first step, and nudged a pot with my foot. "Don’t knock over the plants!" Marta urged as Susie and I climbed the steps. When we got to the top of the stairs, the view was indeed very good. The rain was coming steadily enough that now we were getting soaked through, but Marta didn’t seem to mind. I finally told her we should get inside soon, and Susie started down the steps. When she got to the bottom she saw my face contort as I looked down, and she encouraged me to come down very slowly because the rain had made the steps treacherously slick.

We made our way all the way down to the first floor, and I started our prelude to goodbye. Before we could get out the door, Marta told us about her incredibly successful son (he is a professor at Oxford) and that nearly everyday someone offers her no less than $300,000 for her adorable home. After we finally got outside, Susie turned to me with a smile and said mockingly, “Wait, you forgot to schedule an interview.”

Interactions like this one are not usually something I make note of, simply because they are anomalies and won’t be part of my research. Then today I had yet another odd interview with a woman who told me she had lived in SMA for fifteen years, but had been part of the community since 1965. When I asked her about the community here, however, she instead told me remarkable stories about her career. These included working for Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson, then moved to Mexico where had her own television show for 15 years. She was also appointed by the Mexican government to teach indigenous women about nutrition, and to accomplish this she was sent into the jungle of Guerrero for over a year. She also made fantastic salaries for a woman of her generation, with as much as $65,000 a year in 1975, and she wrote a best-selling cookbook. At the end of the interview, she did sell me a copy of the cookbook. The author’s name on the book was different from the one she had given me, so I asked her about her birth name, because I would obviously need to check the facts she had provided for me. She told me that she had several names over the years, but didn’t have time to tell me that story.

I mentioned in an earlier post that many people come here to “reinvent” themselves, I now have to consider whether this is done intentionally or because of memory loss. I began to wonder today how far these reinventions might go, and to consider ways of verifying the information that I collect in oral history interviews. For any information that might have taken place in SMA, I can confirm information from within the local community, and in fact, I am in the process of doing that now (using archival sources and confirming stories from more than one source). For events that take place before arriving in SMA, I will confirm past histories before including the information in a formal article.

In both of the cases here, I will not be using the information that I came across. In the first case, I wasn’t engaging in an interview, so I would not use it in any event. In the second case, the interview didn’t say much about SMA, so it won’t figure prominently in the study either.

Thankfully, this doesn't happen very often.

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