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Learning Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico

© Trujillo/Paumier Scene from the Zocalo, Cuernavaca's main plaza.

Photo: Trujillo/Paumier

I’ve ended up at Los Arcos, a friendly, casual café on the zocalo, Cuernavaca’s main plaza. It is the end of another pristine afternoon; a few stars have appeared, the beginning of another soft, balmy night. The zocalo here is a mix of old trees, winding walkways, and innumerable carts selling nuts, fruits, juices, magazines, tacos, bracelets, and key chains, all ringed by restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and an Internet café. There’s no church, which is unusual for a Mexican plaza. (The massive, brooding cathedral Malcolm Lowry evoked in Under the Volcano is about a half mile away, in its own small plaza.) On the zocalo, there is music nearly every night, coming from the numerous cafés, and out of the boom boxes that the corn, candy, and taco sellers use to keep themselves company. This evening, in the plaza’s northeast corner, a chorus of young people sing those sincere, positive songs I associate with Coke commercials, the kind that lift you up when you’d rather not be. At another corner of the square, elderly couples are dancing to recorded tangos, solemn and romantic, many of them clearly campesinos, their faces lined by sun and hard labor.

Beautiful young local couples wander around, weaving their ardor into the fabric of the night, some holding hands with old-world formality, others draped over each other, their forms as thoroughly mingled as shadows on the wall.

I am listening to whatever scraps of stray conversation I can pick up, eavesdropping with such effort and intensity that my head is starting to throb. I have been coming to this spot every evening for the past week to drink beer and eat grilled chicken, and I’ve been waiting, with varying degrees of hope, for that magical moment when something will happen within my brain to signal that my life as a monolingual American may be coming to an end and my time immersed in the Spanish language is, against all odds, beginning to pay off.

Taking seriously the advice of a neurologist friend who mentioned to me that learning a language is effective calisthenics for the brain and a useful way to revive it from exhaustion, I have come to Mexico not only to learn Spanish, but also to rehabilitate my mind, which feels worn down to a whimper after a four-year trek through what turned out to be the most challenging novel I have ever written. I chose Spanish because it seemed the most practical language to learn, living, as I do, in New York, with its millions of Spanish-speaking citizens, not to mention the millions more Spanish-speaking noncitizens, whose paths I cross daily.

After traipsing through the Internet and looking at Spanish-language schools in Spain, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, I thought I would keep it simple, and chose Mexico. A little more than an hour’s drive from Mexico City, the small city of Cuernavaca is the country’s center for Spanish-language immersion. The school I finally settled on is called Cuauhnáhuac, which pleased me because that was the name given to the town by the indigenous people who ruled the area before the Spanish conquest, so I felt that the administrators and teachers would have somewhat progressive politics, which I not only find more agreeable than conservative politics but which I also felt might mean that they would be a little less strict—i.e., easy graders. Finally, I thought that if I could learn how to pronounce Cuauhnáhuac (kwa-oo-now-wok), that would in itself be a great accomplishment.

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