Mexican Immersion

Jon Tevlin, Star Tribune
October 16, 2005


Fourteen percent of all sentences in Spanish reflect doubt. Would have. Could have. Should have. An even higher percentage speaks of the past.

I learned that on the first day of my Spanish class in San Miguel de Allende. It was an affirming detail, an acknowledgment that too many of us live in the yesterday, the what-might-have-been.

A gap had opened in our ceaseless ant parade of life, (a house sale; an unfinished condo), so my wife, Ellen, and I decided to take a reprieve, something we’d wanted to do for years. We wanted to live in the present and future tenses for awhile, and we wanted to do it in Spanish.

So we got on Interstate Hwy. 35W and did what we’d always dreamed of doing: We kept going.

We arrived in San Miguel near dusk on New Year’s Eve to the sound of firecrackers and gunshots, the constant celebration of life and death that is Mexico.

From an overlook outside town, the Parroquia, a cathedral that looks like a sand castle church, loomed above the tiled roofs. Trucks clattered down cobblestone streets that descended like stitches into the center. Beyond, a lake and foothills rimmed the valley.

Our first question — whether we’d picked the right place — was already answered. It was gorgeous.

The second — how my rickety Spanish would hold up — was raised a few minutes later when the woman keeping the key for our rented apartment said that the American owner had not paid the bills; to avoid a cold, dark stay, I would need to summon the gas man and negotiate with the utility company. In Spanish.

Ay carumba, as they say.

Lesson 1: Keep talking
“If you feel your brain going down, just let it go down,” said Warren Hardy, the guru of Spanish language for older adults in San Miguel.

We were deep into hour three one day in class, and my mind was playing Twister on me. I studied Spanish in college, but 20 years in Minnesota had rusted my tongue. My biggest problem has always been word order since subjects and pronouns do not follow the same order in English and Spanish: Backward run the sentences until reels the mind.

My shaky grammar has cost me in my travels: I am forever paying the bill for Carlos when I’d much rather Carlos pay the bill for me. And instead of kissing Maria, I was always kissing Juan. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But you see where it can lead.

So I went to school.

I was paired with another student, Dennis Pipes, a smart-aleck 62-year-old former insurance guy who made his money early, figured the angles and walked away from work at age 47 ( my age now). He settled into San Miguel where he paints, writes satires about retirees in Mexico and swaps lies down at Harry’s Bar.

My role model, I thought.

It made class fun. When our aging brains tired, Pipes and I amused ourselves by making the repetition exercises as silly as possible, combining our found vocabulary from the day:

“Did you bring the frisky monkeys for the president?”

“Yes, I brought them for him.”

We practised our favorite sayings taught by Hardy. For example, one Mexican expression for not liking someone is: “He falls fat on me.”

We delighted in the possibility of responsibility-dodging reflexives. No one loses something in Spanish, instead, “it lost itself.” One can distance oneself from imbibing by asserting that “drunkenness was put upon” them.

“This,” said Pipes, “will come in handy.”

“After this class, Spanish will no longer be a foreign language,” coached Hardy. “It will merely be a language you are learning.”

It was a good message for the humbling experience of speaking outside your comfort zone. Hardy’s method also made it easier for older adults. While younger minds are receptive to language immersion, he explained, minds of students over 45 first need to memorize through repetition and flash cards in a “safe environment” (there are no solo performances in class) before moving to immersion.

The drill, three hours a day, every other day with lots of homework, pushed my mind in new directions. It felt good, like a brisk workout. But it was also a taxing drain that frustrated me at times.

“Brain down! Brain down!” I’d yell.

My classmates occasionally fell fat on me. And the homework sometimes made me want to put drunkenness upon myself.

“You need to break out of this crucible of really defined, narrow language of ‘repita, por favor,’ ” Hardy counseled. “When you do, it’s transcendental.”

Then Hardy told of his own language journey, how he’d practice on the streets by cornering old men and children, who were less likely to flee, and asking them questions from class.

“What did you eat for breakfast?”

“Where did you go on vacation?”

Get into the streets, he said, and talk.

Lesson 2: Go exploring
At dusk the Jardin, or central garden plaza, filled with Mexican families and Americans. Women sold balloons and strawberries with cream. Mariachis strolled, and a caballero from the country gave horse rides.

Inevitably, off in the corner, someone from Warren Hardy’s class carrying a hand full of flash cards chased an old man down the sidewalk: “What did you have for breakfast?”Where did you go for vacation?”

Such is the incongruity of San Miguel, which is both alluringly comfortable for travelers and in danger of being a homogenized outpost for the Sansabelt crowd. Because of its beauty, climate and prevalence of both art and language schools, foreigners are moving here and pushing land values to Aspen-like heights. There are expensive boutiques, posh $500 a night hotel rooms and gourmet meals.

You can hear quality jazz at Tio Lucas, sip martinis at Harry’s, which looks as if it could be in Manhattan, or watch the entire NFL Sunday schedule at Casa Payo Argentinian Restaurant.

Yet, San Miguel has not lost its historic feel. Peanut salesmen in cowboy hats wander the streets calling “cacahuetes!” Donkeys teeter with kindling. And you can get a haircut at Pipila’s barber shop from a stooped barber with one bad eye for about $2.

One downside to learning Spanish in San Miguel is that you can live here and not really have to speak it.

But the rewards for moving beyond the classroom are immense and immediate. Many nights we dropped into some of the scores of neighborhood cantinas where Americans rarely go.

Places like Bar San Miguel, with its spaghetti western swinging doors, or El Gato Negro, where we sat one night and chatted in Spanish with a lonely bartender about how the town was changing.

“It’s gotten more and more expensive for me to live here,” he said. “But the Americans don’t come in here, so I’m not making more money.”

Mostly, we understood each other. And Mexicans always appreciated that at least we tried.

A few locals had warned us against going into some establishments, so of course we did. La Cucaracha was an after-hours bar with no sign. Some nights the door would open around midnight, signaling business.

Legend has it that Neal Cassidy, the real-life model for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” had his last drink here before dying by the railroad tracks. One guidebook suggests Robert Mitchum fired a handgun in here. But it’s the land of magical realism, so I trust nothing.

We first wandered into La Cucaracha late one night. We were the only Americans. Within minutes, a young Mexican woman hugged my wife, kissed her on the cheek and said: “Welcome.”

We traded broken English and Spanish with a native artist, and found out more about the town in an hour than we had in weeks of talking with American expatriates.

Lesson 3: Relax
The area around San Miguel is historically important; the Cry of Independence in the rebellion against the Spanish happened in nearby Dolores Hidalgo in 1810. It was in San Miguel that General Ignacio Allende led the army to several victories before being caught and beheaded by the Spanish. San Miguel was also an important stop on the silver route.

So this region is a great place for day trips, opportunities to flex the language muscle and learn the culture.

We saw the bustling historical city of Queretero, with picturesque aqueduct, plazas and cathedrals and the stunningly beautiful Guanajuato, where splendid colonial architecture cuddles into sheer mountain cliffs above a maze of underground roads.

In Zacatecas, where the country’s oldest bull ring is now a posh hotel, we spent two hours speaking Spanish with a young couple who tried to coax us to come over for a home-cooked meal.

At least once a week, we’d go to one of the hot springs near San Miguel, languid gardens with thermal pools and steam-filled caves where Americans and Mexicans escaped the hum of the town. We’d lie under a tree and look out at the rolling desert plains and undulating foothills. Always it was a Spanish word that came to me: Tranquilidad. Tranquility.

It was here that I realized I was learning more than the language. The transformation Warren Hardy promised had begun, but not just because of the classes. We were being transformed, day by day, by the lazy allure of the place and the generous people, by the sense of family we saw every evening in the plazas and by the possibilities offered not only by a new language, but a new way of life.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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