Spanish Immersion in the City of Eternal Spring
By Emily Morse
Nestled in the Sierra Madre Mountains and just an hour south of one of the world’s largest cities, the city of Cuernavaca reigns as the premier destination for Spanish study abroad.
Known to the world as the City of Eternal Spring, Cuernavaca boasts both the calm of perpetual temperate weather and the lively activity of a city. The temperature is ideal for spending the day in classrooms and the nights exploring downtown.
Since the 1960s students have flocked to Cuernavaca to study Spanish and the industry has only grown in the last few decades. More than fifty language schools operate in Cuernavaca today.
One of the most famous and most beautiful schools is The Center for Linguistic Multicultural Studies, a part of the Universidad Internacional. Amidst tangerine stucco walls, magenta flowers, and cool palms, this school offers Spanish immersion courses from 8 am until 5 pm.
My program, the basic immersion course, has classes until 2 pm with optional free classes afterward for additional practice on conversation skills or work on specific grammar issues. Like the scheduled classes, these are small courses with a lot of individual attention. The Executive Program involves an additional three hours of scheduled classes a day, usually in the form of private lessons.
With stories, conversation, games, music, and even the familiar worksheet, students learn Spanish grammar for three hours every morning. After a break, the second part of the day commences with Latin American or additional grammar courses.
Beginners usually take another form of grammar classes, but as I only have a week at the Center for Linguistic Multicultural Studies, I enroll in a hodgepodge of courses from ‘Mexico Today’ to business. I spend the final hour of the day in conversation classes where students discuss cultural differences between Mexico and their home country.
An Advanced Beginner
As an advanced beginner, I am enrolled in a class where we learn new adverbs, the imperfect tense and the past progressive. However, more than the basic grammar skills, the school emphasizes learning Spanish by using it. Almost all students choose to live with middle-class Mexican families handpicked by the Center.
Before arriving in Cuernavaca, I had been told this city was the “Beverly Hills of Mexico.” The statement echoes in my head as soon as my car, arranged with the Center to gather me up from the Mexico City Airport, delivers me to my home for the week.
A Warm Welcome
Like much of Cuernavaca, including the Center itself, the house is tucked inside a gated community, where doormen allow entrance with a friendly smile. Inside the house, there are silk Victorian chairs, a thick wooden dining set, and portraits of the family.
On lemon-colored stucco walls, colorful paintings reminiscent of the murals of Diego Rivera bring life into the house along with a beautiful indoor garden growing up from the ground floor.
My Mexican “mama” Esperanza Carrillo Perez welcomes me warmly and calls me ‘mija’ conjunction of “mi hija” or my daughter. For a weary traveler arriving in a foreign city, being received as a part of the family is soothing. My room is equally convivial. Pink blankets with a picture of a cartoon character lie on my bed while a massive dresser and a closet have been emptied for my clothing.
The Universidad Internacional offers four housing options with families as well as helping students to find hotels if they wish. I chose to live in a private room with a shared bathroom. The only other student, Mariela comes from Switzerland and is nearly fluent in Spanish. I am the only English speaker in the house.
Throughout the week, I realized that Mariela’s seeming fluency in Spanish is augmented by her hands. She plays charades during every conversation. Eating, drinking, dancing are all acted out as she speaks so that she can be understood if she has a vocabulary lapse or is simply not sure if her verb tenses or noun choices can be comprehended. It is a gift I begin to acquire, especially for conversations with my host family.
The first time I understand a normal conversation with the family is when Adrianna points to her chest, while Esperanza sadly shakes her head, and says that Adrianna wants new ones because of her ex-boyfriend.
It takes me a minute, but I realize we are talking about implants. Soon we are all looking at pictures of this ex and I feel like I am back home with my girlfriends, having the same conversations. I still cannot understand everything, but girl talk seems to be the same in Mexico and America.
English is Forbidden
In the classes at Universidad Internacional English is forbidden. Even beginners communicate solely in Spanish. My professor Elizabeth handles this challenge gracefully. Her ability to explain complex ideas using a basic Spanish vocabulary takes incredible talent and creativity. All of the professors here have such skills and all have degrees in Education or attend university to acquire such degrees. The professors of advanced elective courses hold degrees in their specialty and it shows.
Professor José Aspe wears his long hair and dresses in baggy pants and a red sweatshirt. He conveys the brilliance of sophisticated cool, reminding me of many English teachers I studied with in college in the States.
As a teacher for Mexican students in literature for many years, he has decided to try his hand at teaching Latin American literature to students learning Spanish at the Center. We struggle for two hours to cover the entire history of Mexican literature from the religious texts of the Mayans to the poetry of the Nahuatl and the chronicles of the conquistadors to the periods of romanticism to modernism.
He usually teaches advanced Spanish students, since reading complicated stories in Spanish takes skill, but the course is adapted well for my benefit. Likewise, most classes involve one topic with reading, as opposed to the whole history of literature. For two hours is all I have, we do our best.
The classes are relaxing. Although some students study for companies or universities and need grades, the emphasis is placed upon improvement. Tests merely measure where students should be in the weeks ahead. Conversations at home with Mexican families or out in the city of Cuernavaca are the real measure of success. Understanding the family over lunch will mean more to a student than any grade.
Many Different Reasons
Students descend upon Cuernavaca from all over the world. They are all ages, races, and professions. During my stay, I meet an overwhelming number of American college students immersed in Mexican culture to complete Spanish minors or university requirements. However, the students in my Spanish class are a range of ages and study Spanish for different reasons.
Casey comes from college accompanied by at least eight other students. Many live in the same home together. Another classmate, Nancy, studies Spanish to bond with her Mexican husband. She spends a few weeks living with a Mexican family and a few in a hotel with her children and husband. She misses her Mexican family at the hotel.
My last classmate, Dean, has left his kids at home for a few weeks to join the immersion program with a colleague from Washington. He studies Spanish for fun and to advance his studies at the university. We are all Americans, but around campus, I hear English, German and other languages spoken by the students (despite the signs requesting Spanish-only).
The Center for Linguistic Multicultural Studies has special programs for children, seniors, and teens. For the benefit of all, highschoolers are generally sequestered in separate classrooms on another part of campus. Likewise, seniors can join in personalized programs where they study with other seniors and generally with an older professor.
Specialized kids’ classes utilize Spanish games and songs to teach children as young as five to speak a new language. Professor Alvaro Vergara individually places all students in classes based on their level and ages. Even more impressive, students in the executive program can expect to have a professor within their age range.
Once the favorite getaway for Maximilian Von Hapsburg, the onetime French emperor of Mexico and Hernán Cortés, the most notorious Spanish conquistador, Cuernavaca has a long history dating back to the Nahuatl and the Aztecs.
Museums, like the Robert Brady Museum and the Palace of Cortes are open most days for viewers to partake of famous murals by Diego Rivera, his wife Frida, and artwork from pre-Colombian times and beyond. Even better, many of these museums are free with a student ID, which the Center will provide.
Authentic Mexican Food
I learn on my first day after a conversation with one administrator that most Mexican food in America is actually Tex-Mex, the hybrid creations developed by the migrant movement of Mexicans to America over the years.
He laughs remembering a time when someone asked him, as a Mexican, to make some authentic fajitas. He explained, “I’ve never made fajitas before in my life.” Tex-Mex generally dwarfs traditional Mexican food in size and calories.
Taco Bell Horrors
One burrito from Taco Bell might have more cheese than all of the Mexican food I consumed in a week in Cuernavaca. But I can’t deny that both have their charms.
The Mexican family provides three meals a day for students. Breakfast is filling and delicious. Usually, it consists of a small plate of fresh mixed fruit, often bananas and mangos or papaya, two slices of toast, juice, and coffee or tea.
But the grand meal in Mexico is lunch where the family comes together to eat for hours. Throughout my week I try spicy meat and potatoes, beans, Mexican rice, tortillas wrapped in towels to hold in warmth, soup with chicken, pickles, and vegetables, and my favorite, taquitos, deep-fried tacos, two filled with cheese, two with beans, and topped with chopped lettuce, tomatoes, and a splash of a saucy sour cream.
Authentic Mexican food is unbeatable and the drinks usually surpass the food. Esperanza makes fresh pineapple juice, and around town, it’s possible to find juice made to order from watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya and any fruit found in Mexico.
In Cuernavaca, students can learn a lot about Mexican life. The safe enclave of the school with overflowing gardens and clear pools contrasts sharply with some neighborhoods built from corrugated steel on rocky hillsides. Around noon, many homes open up tiny corner restaurants, offering smoothies, juices, and a whole range of Mexican cuisine.
Al Centro brings everyone in Cuernavaca together. Street vendors sell long beaded necklaces, shell bracelets and Mexican trinkets to tourists who descend on Cuernavaca both from abroad for the language schools, and from Mexico City where those with the means to escape from the city, drift down to Cuernavaca on the weekends for the breezy temperature and the calmer pace.
Meeting people in Cuernavaca is easy. At the school, students are eager to explore Mexico. Everyone at The Center for Linguistic Multicultural Studies is on some kind of vacation. Interaction with Mexicans enhances everything learned in grammar class and conversation courses.
Club Amigo is one such way the Center creates interactions between Mexicans and students. The Center finds Mexican students and pairs them up with a student at the Center. My housemate Mariela and her amigo go out to a movie one night. The two have been friends since their first introduction at the center.
Asking for directions is another great way to practice Spanish. I immediately get lost on my first walk, but three women (on two stops for directions) provide instructions in a clear, simple Spanish. They have patience with my faltering Spanish, and can even interpret my facial expressions when I fail to understand.
With a face full of wrinkles, an old woman tells me to turn left at the church and just keep walking. Her smile assures me that I will find my way. And I do, despite banging on the gate on my street before realizing that my house is actually behind another gate about a block further down the road.
A number of students venture away from campus to take on internships. This enhances their immersion experience. By volunteering at hospitals or delving into Mexican social work, students learn about Mexico, practice Spanish, and gain credits. The program is free although students need to fund their own transportation.
Stories about visiting the orphanage in Cuernavaca tops many students’ lists of memorable events while at the Center. Just a few hours playing with orphans often impacts the students more than the children. Internships at orphanages, schools, businesses or even hotels and restaurants help students fulfill requirements or give professionals a way to understand Mexico while practicing Spanish.
The Executive Program
Companies from Ford to GM and BMW to Pepsi-Cola International have patronized the Executive Program at the Center for Linguistic Multicultural Studies. With an additional three hours of study, private lessons, and an executive lounge, the Executive program offers students an even faster language immersion experience.
Popular with businessmen and -women, the program is open to anyone interested in paying more for more individual attention. It is ideal for those with less time to spend in Cuernavaca and those with energy for nine hours of Spanish a day.
Entrepreneurs can find additional courses of interest. I join one business class. We learn that “capitalization de deuda” means debt-equity swap, “domicillaria” is door-to-door sales, and “seguro” means insurance.
This class would be beyond my grasp even in English, but there are times when I can answer my professor’s questions about the best transportation for when something needs to arrive quickly and safely with a one-word answer in Spanish.
A banker from Jamaica nods throughout the class. By the end, she can define a wholesaler in Spanish. The woman from Canada, a member of the executive looks a little baffled but has new subjects to practice in her next private lesson.
The nightlife of Cuernavaca draws students, tourists, and Mexicans together for dancing, tequila, and live music. Sounds of street vendors calling out “real turquoise” or “real silver” (a claim that may or may not always be true) mingle with the strumming of mariachis and the performances by locals wearing clown costumes or holding portable karaoke machines.
Clubs close at five in the morning and most nights energetic crowds remain until the last call. On three consecutive nights, I heard a few of the same very popular Mexican songs. Everyone excitedly sings along with these songs. They are all old favorites and by the third night, I feel the same infectious joy on hearing them again. One night I find myself wrapped in the arms of my Mexican sister Yvonne, her best friend Adrianna and their friends, singing along in Spanish to these songs that I only half-understand.
While Cuernavaca is a great place to find cheap jewelry and souvenirs, it has its share of pricey restaurants mixed in with the cheap taco stands dispersed throughout the city. Expensive restaurants can be spotted by their more ornate seating areas when in downtown and by their resort-like feel in other areas.
On my third day, I meet Diego, a Colombian working in the city who leads me around on a grand tour. We rest silently inside the Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria, the most peaceful church I have visited.
The sense of peace there exceeds even the older, more famous Cathedral of Cuernavaca. Another day we stop at the Cascada de San Anton, a waterfall seemingly a million miles away from the city. Unfortunately, its natural beauty is tarnished by an abundance of litter and pollution.
My Last Night
On my last night, I go out for a meal with my friend Diego to El Agave, to a fairly upscale Mexican restaurant. We eat modern Mexican cuisine, spicy fried stuffed mushrooms filled with sour cream and peppers, a soup with avocado and chicken and a Mexican version of chicken cordon blue.
Stuffed, we brave an evening downpour common at the beginning of summer and head to El Tercera, an unmarked, but impossible-to-miss restaurant overlooking the central plaza. Friday night a band plays rock music, often famous songs in English. Most people flock there to savor cheap beers and snacks and to bask in its spirited atmosphere. From the square, the mariachi music drifts up as the band takes breaks.
Later, over tequila shots, we discuss everything from literature to politics in Spanish and I know I could never have managed without a week of intensive classes. Although we still have to discuss complicated issues with remedial Spanish, conversing in a new tongue offers motivation for fluency. I am overcome by a desire to improve my Spanish, to return to the Center for Linguistic Multicultural Studies, and to talk again with Yvonne, Esperanza, Elizabeth, Jose, Alvaro, and Diego and laugh at my former grammar confusion.