I was a student at Ursinus College in 2007 when my Spanish professor asked me, “Would you like to study abroad in Mexico this summer?”
My reply was an instant yes, without giving any thought to what my parents would say, or exactly how I would finance the trip. As a Spanish major, studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country would be advantageous, and I was excited to immerse myself in a foreign culture. The group consisted of my professor, who, coincidentally, was from Mexico herself, her husband, her daughter, and five of us students.
After flying to Mexico City, we drove to Cuernavaca, “the city of eternal spring,” some miles south of the capital. It was home to Cuauhnáhuac, the oldest Spanish language school in the city, and we had class Monday through Friday. Our itinerary consisted of language workshops and cultural excursions, allowing us to apply our Spanish to real-life situations. Whatever time was left we could use at our discretion, and naturally, being 19 or 20 years old at the time, that meant socializing whenever possible. The way we saw it, knowing how to order a cocktail in Spanish, and how to make a pass at an attractive local was integral to the experience.
Myself and two other students were assigned to live with the Ortega family, who lived within walking distance of the school. There were the parents, who were in their sixties or so, their adult daughter, and their granddaughter, who couldn’t have been older than five. It wasn’t unusual to have several generations living happily under the same roof; the rush to push the children out of the nest once they came of age wasn’t widely practiced. The Ortegas truly went the extra mile to make our transition as comfortable as possible, and their home was quite large, consisting of the main house where they lived, and a separate guesthouse for the students.
Meals were a sacred affair, and as extended members of the Ortega family, there was no taking a plate and eating in a separate room, as I was used to doing. And when I say Señora Ortega threw down in the kitchen, whew! Breakfast was like a buffet; a spread of Mexican foods like chilaquiles and tamales, as well as foods popular in the states like French toast and pancakes, paired with a selection of fresh fruit and juices. Dinner was just as impressive, and we usually had lunch at the school during the week, or elsewhere on weekends. If we felt peckish at home outside of meal hours, Señora Ortega would whip up a little something, but even a simple torta was infused with love.
Meal times with the Ortegas, whether at Cuauhnáhuac or at a restaurant, were the perfect times to practice Spanish, because most of the time, it was Spanish or nothing. This was a while before smartphones were quite so smart; the first iPhone came out that year, but I was still married to my flip phone. If I was stuck, I had to gesticulate, use the pocket dictionary I kept on hand, or find some other way to make my point. It was awkward at times for sure, but it helped me move closer to fluency.
The teachers at the school were excellent, especially Rogelio and Estella, but neither played any games when it came to the grammar drills. During midday break, students took a dip in the pool, a refreshing way to stay cool in the summer heat.
The best excursions were Teotihuacan, home of the Aztec Pyramid of The Sun; Casa Azul, where Frida Kahlo lived; and Las Estacas, a natural park where we could jump or swing down into the turquoise waters. In cities and villages, Catholic references were everywhere, something I hadn’t seen since I had been in Italy a few years prior. Beyond the images of the Virgin and the rosaries, I saw people crawl on their bare hands and knees across cobblestones to the nearest church some feet away. I wasn’t remotely religious, but such devotion was surely something to behold.
I befriended a Mexican man at Cuauhnáhuac, who was a real bon vivant, and very keen on showing us the local hole-in-the-wall spots for delicious food. He took me to Casa Del Dictador, a gay club which played electronica and Top 40 music. While I was dancing with one of the women, I was making eyes at the Mexican guy, though it didn’t really go anywhere for a few reasons. And while we’re on the subject of fun, there’s just something about sipping some on-point Tequila while in Mexico. It spawned some adventures memorable enough for me to recall in detail all these years later…and I’ll leave it at that.
My first study abroad experience was mostly a success, with the odd spot of homesickness. I liked learning overseas so much, that I spent a fall semester in Spain for three months. By the time I returned to Ursinus, my Spanish was close to proficient, which would have been harder to do without those trips.
Take it from me, immersion will put you on the fast track to fluency. So, if you’re serious about learning a new language, even a week of being where that language is spoken will do wonders.