In a recent evening in Guanajuato, a colonial city in the mountains of central Mexico, the mood was festive. Groups of competing mariachis—some in light-blue suits, others in the traditional black—sang at cafés lining the main park, with its Indian laurel trees trimmed square to resemble giant lamp shades. At one restaurant, Mexican vacationers were doing the samba between tables.
On a bandstand, our two boys were playing hide-and-seek with local kids. At our table, however, my husband, Robb, and I were playing egghead. Books were open, and papers spread out between bottles of Los Indios beer. When the waiter delivered four plates of arrachera, grilled flank steak marinated in lime juice and garlic, we called the boys over.
“Necesitamos … uh … uh?” Robb began to say to a busboy as he made a stabbing gesture. “Tenedores,” our eight-year-old, Gus, volunteered. “Cuchillo,” Gus continued, holding up a knife. “Cuchara, papá,” six-year-old Jeb chimed in, pointing to a spoon.
My husband, with a slight roll of his eyes, dutifully wrote down the words in the vocabulary notebook he kept during our month in Guanajuato—a stay that was part vacation, part exercise session for the brain lobes that manage to juggle two grammar systems at once. This was our Mexico mission: to come, to see, to conjugate.
They chose to study in Guanajuato, population 140,000, over its famous neighbor, San Miguel de Allende, because there are fewer people from the States here—hence fewer temptations to fall back on English.
The four of us were enrolled at Academia Falcon, a language school for foreigners, in Spanish-immersion classes that met our level of expertise—or lack of it. Robb was a beginner. I was an intermediate whose ambition was to be able to watch a Pedro Almodóvar movie without subtitles.
Gus and Jeb could already converse fairly well, thanks to their Spanish-speaking babysitter back in Texas. But this was their first experience in an all-Spanish all-the-time setting.