Oh, Say, Can You Sí?

After a week of Spanish lessons in the charming Mexican city of Guanajuato, I was able to tell my fellow students a story. In español, of course.

September 1997By Comments

I REMEMBER THE EXACT MOMENT I DECIDED to spend my next vacation at an intensive Spanish-language school. I was in a cab at a traffic light in Acapulco when an American woman rolled down her window to ask my driver for directions. “Say-nyor!” she called out, speaking loudly and slowly, as if he didn’t understand much Spanish. “Don-day es-tah el aero-puerco?” Without batting an eye, the cabbie gave her directions—not to the destination she’d requested but to the airport. Either he was accustomed to hearing his language butchered every day of the week, or he simply didn’t know the way to the flying pig.

A few months later I found myself climbing the steep hills of Guanajuato, a picturesque town in the mountains of central Mexico, to the Instituto Falcón, a private school that teaches Spanish as a second language. Locating the school’s small sign above a nondescript door, I climbed on, this time up a long flight of steps, thinking that this truly must be an instituto of higher learning.

It had been a long time since my four inattentive years of high school Spanish. When school director Jorge Barroso handed me the placement exam, just opening it caused my palms to sweat. I had hoped to be placed in an intermediate-level class, but I didn’t have a clue about direct object pronouns or copreterit tense conjugations. Proving that I had not come so far since high school, within minutes I was reduced to peeking at the exam of the woman next to me. Finally, Señor Barroso returned and gave my papers a cursory glance. “Oh, so you haven’t studied any Spanish at all,” he said.

That was the first time I thought about sneaking out of school and never coming back, and it wasn’t the last. But I stayed, mostly because I’ve got 300 million reasons for wanting to learn Spanish. That’s the number of Spanish-speaking people in the world—people with whom I can’t manage more than a perfunctory exchange. I’m tired of being an ignorant gringo, and I can’t afford to be one: Mexico bought $27 billion in goods from Texas last year. We’re a bilingual economy, so we might as well start acting like one.

The Instituto Falcón’s teaching method is simple: Classes of no more than six students speak Spanish all the time with smart and energetic teachers. The program is flexible, with new students starting every Monday and staying for as many weeks as they like, and my two weeks of study cost $220. I had five daily classes, and during each I filled page after page with copious notes: vocabulary, rules of usage, and conjugations, all the while feeling as lost as the lady searching for the flying pig. Somehow I couldn’t quite keep up with anything. I’d open my dictionary to look up a word I didn’t know, and while I was doing that I’d miss five more.

Exhausted at the end of the day, I excused myself as my classmates made plans for drinks and dinner, and headed to my hotel. To provide a total immersion in the language, the instituto recommends that students stay with local families, a bargain at only $19 a day, including meals (arrangements should be made in advance through the school). But long set in my traveling ways and unwilling to give up my privacy, I was staying at the venerable Hotel y Museo Santa Fe. The former Prussian Embassy, it features spacious rooms overlooking one of Guanajuato’s main plazas. The Santa Fe also has one of the best restaurants in town, and I spent much of that first evening sitting at its outdoor cafe, studying my class notes and reading Spanish Lingo for the Savvy Gringo, an excellent book that sprinkles palabras españolas with gringospeak. (By the way, technically speaking, a gringo is any foreigner, not just a visitor from the United States.)

I had chosen Guanajuato for my schooling because, unlike San Miguel de Allende and Cuernavaca, which have large English-speaking communities, this place is typically Mexican. Only two narrow one-way streets traverse the four-hundred-year-old town, both of them winding uphill through a narrow valley full of buildings. In an ingenious solution to modern traffic problems, at the top of the valley traffic goes underground, moving back beneath the city on a thoroughfare built in the channel of a diverted river. You can get where you’re going by car or cab, but it’s more fun to walk the streets, one of which is so narrow that a couple on facing balconies may kiss above it.

Among the many people parading by my hotel that night were my fellow students from the school, several of whom joined me for refreshments and a chance to practice what we’d learned. Everyone seemed to be working on our tarea, or “homework,” which was to tell a story in Spanish the next day in class. My story was a chiste, or “joke,” that seemed to go over well: It was about a man I saw in the streets who was wearing a hat shaped like a giant wedding cake. Hardly believing my eyes, I followed him through the crowd and discovered that he was a baker delivering a special order that was balanced on his head.

As the week progressed, these stories in carefully constructed Spanish became the highlight of my day. A student in his twenties told us excitedly that he was renting a room from a family with four college-age daughters, all single. This sounded like trouble to me, but by the end of the week he was considering getting engaged. A teacher named Kimon, who was on a summer sabbatical from a private high school in California, told us of his upbringing in a strict Greek family. When he was thirteen, he went away to summer camp, where he changed his name to “Ken” so that he’d fit in with the beach kids. Alas, after camp was over, his father found out when kids started phoning the house and asking for Ken. A student from Japan who spoke no English referred frequently to his Japanese-Spanish dictionary to tell us about his favorite scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s classic movie Seven Samurai. 

By Thursday we were practicing our usage by taking turns arguing the advantages and disadvantages of being married as opposed to being single. Since I was the only married person in the class, Kimon was asked to take that side as well. He began by pretending to be married with many children, but it’s difficult to lie in a language you do not know well. Soon he was telling us the real story—that he had recently split up with his fiancée, who had just married another guy. I could not think of anything to say in Spanish or English. That night we all took Kimon out for drinks, reminding him after a few margaritas that the plural of the word for “wife,” esposas, is also the word for “handcuffs.”

When I was not in class, I was usually busy coming to the conclusion that Guanajuato is one of the most appealing cities in Mexico. Its altitude of 6,700 feet provides an ideal year-round climate, especially cool and pleasant during Texas’ hot months. Small parks and plazas are scattered among the ancient buildings, and the air is filled with the aromas of fresh-baked bread and sweet-smelling gardenias sold by street vendors.

With 50,000 university students among a total population of just 120,000, the atmosphere stays lively. In the evenings, in an age-old tradition called las estudiantinas, troupes of singing students in splendid Renaissance costumes roam the city, gathering an ever-larger audience as they go from plaza to plaza. It’s a fine way to fill an evening and, once again, put me in a situation where I could practice my Spanish outside of class.

Thursday night is the big night in Guanajuato because on Friday afternoon many of the college students head to their family homes in the neighboring cities of León or Irapuato. With my weekend also free, I toured some of the local sights. The mummy museum is full of bizarre-looking bodies—partially preserved by the region’s dryness as well as by gases and minerals in the soil—that were exhumed between 1865 and 1985 because their families had stopped paying for their graves. Also of interest are the Valenciana mine (for 250 years the source of 20 percent of the world’s silver) and the spectacular La Valenciana church, the Diego Rivera Museum, and in the chic residential suburb of Marfil, the Presa de los Santos, an ancient masonry dam topped by stone columns bearing statues of saints.

Late that Saturday night I was reminded of something I had discovered while living in Italy many years ago—that the best part of learning a new language is not what you can say but what you can understand. In Mexico everyone has a story. And when the locals realize that a conversation can go beyond rudimentary greetings or simple bartering, they are usually very willing to tell theirs.

 That night, the manager of a small hotel told me how the mayor of a neighboring city had been arrested in a house of ill repute with cocaine in his nose and, the manager said, a young man in his bed. From the police station, the mayor had called the governor of the state to bail him out. Though the story had already been printed by one of the local newspapers, the mayor’s cronies bought every copy of the morning edition and thus saved his career. Back in class on Monday morning, I began to retell the story (in Spanish, of course) and realized that I was using a wide range of vocabulary and verb tenses that had been completely foreign to me just a week earlier. My mention of the local scandal led to a discussion of a variety of cultural differences between Mexico and the U.S.

Some of our favorite study aids were the cheap photo “comic” books that are sold at newsstands all over Mexico. Because the language is colloquial, those little rags can be a big help in conversational Spanish. The plots are mildly racy—about like an American daytime soap—but I was surprised to learn from one of our teachers that you have to be eighteen years old to buy these publications. In a similar vein, most Mexican people I spoke with were astonished that so many American kids drink alcohol and experiment with drugs at an early age.

One criticism I had of the instituto was a lack of overall coordination of classes. After listening to three teachers repeatedly cover the four uses of the pronoun se, I was ready to run away screaming. Worst of all, I’m still not certain what the four uses are. I was confused about a variety of other topics as well, but that’s not surprising when you consider the complexities of the Spanish language. There are so many ways to express an idea that many native Spanish speakers find learning English difficult because to them it seems so vague. The precision of Spanish, in which a change of one letter at the end of a word can radically shift its meaning, is enough to drive a slow learner completely bonkers. After repeated memorization, I am finally able to remember that, when asking or giving directions, derecho means “straight ahead” and a la derecha means “to the right”—unless it’s the other way around.

Of course, if a basic vocabulary and minimal understanding are all you’re after, there are easier ways to learn than in an intensive classroom. There are hundreds of books, audio tapes, and even CD-ROMs devoted to teaching Spanish. If you’ve gotten past the standard phrase books, you’ll need a good grammar book (like Spanish Grammar from Hippocrene Books) or a complete conjugation of Spanish verbs. I’m also partial to Mexican Slang, a guide to street language by Linton H. Robinson. After you consult it, your conversational skills may still be a little unpolished, but at least you’ll know that mierda doesn’t mean “fear” (that’s miedo) but … well, look it up yourself.

Near the end of the second week of classes, my mind began to wander out the windows to the streets below. When I realized that I’d reverted to the classroom clock-watcher of my youth, I knew that I was done. Playing hooky on Friday morning, I wandered around town, for once not talking to anyone except my regular newspaper vendor, who noticed that I had shifted back to buying only the English-language editions.

When it began to rain, I ducked into a fabric store, where a man who was pushing eighty asked in formal and deliberate Spanish if I was from America. He’d been there once, he said with great pride, had traveled in 1944 to Billings, Montana, where he worked as a stone crusher on a highway crew. “The strong men of the United States,” he told me with a slurring accent and a faraway smile, “were fighting the war that must be won.” We spoke of the beauty of Montana, then he sold me some hand-crocheted baby clothes, wonderfully detailed baptism outfits priced at an astounding $4 each.

Waiting in the doorway for the rain to stop, I heard him tell someone in the back room that an American had been in, an American who spoke Spanish. I smiled at the compliment, happy to have had a little more than the perfunctory exchange but also knowing that what the old man had said about me was not true. Two weeks had taught me just enough to know that I will probably never master the complexities and subtleties of Spanish.

I was reminded of a joke one of our teachers had told us on the first day of class. What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. And what do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. So what do you call a person who speaks one language? An American.

Travel Information american airlines and continental Airlines have direct flights from Dallas and Houston to León, and Aeromexico flies from San Antonio to León with a stop in Monterrey; buses and cabs are available at the airport for the seventeen-mile trip to Guanajuato.

Instituto Falcón, Callejón de la Mora 158, Guanajuato 36000, GTO, Mexico (011-52-47-32-36-94; e-mail www.infalcon @redes.int.com.mx). Advance registration recommended (applicants will be sent an information packet). Tuition depends on the number of classes taken (students may take from two to six classes a day).

Hotel y Museo Santa Fe, Jardín de la Unión 12, Guanajuato 36050, GTO, Mexico (011-52-47-32-00-84; fax 011-52-47-32-46-53). Double room $55; reservations recommended.

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