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.
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.
We 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. But Guanajuato has other attractions, including a mummy museum and the Diego Rivera house, where you can trace the evolution of the muralist's style. The magnificent centro, designated a unesco World Heritage Site, is filled with 18th- and 19th-century buildings painted in sunset shades and decorated with ironwork balconies and door frames of green or gray cantera stone, mined and carved here. Winding cobblestone alleys climb the steep hills.
Our school was in one of the best neighborhoods, La Presa. With its steeply pitched roof, blue and gray stripes, and gingerbread flourishes, Falcon's main building looks like a Mexican version of a Swiss chalet. Behind this charming architectural aberration is a leafy campus with a modern four-story structure for classrooms.
Our lessons were in the morning. Robb was taking a "survival Spanish" course intended to help students avoid catching the wrong bus and coming off as Yankee yokels. He'd also signed up for a cooking class to learn to make dreamy tres leches cake (he is now required to practice for me at least once a month). My grammar classes—of no more than five students, mostly Americans like me who had some college Spanish—focused on verb tenses, including the wildly frustrating subjunctive form, and I also took a conversation course in which not a grunt of English was permitted. The boys' classes, for kids six to 12, were devoted to building vocabulary by playing hangman, singing songs, and creating stories to go with comic-strip drawings.