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A Test in Language Immersion

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This summer, I'm living in México City, México with my two children. We're gringos, all the way from Warrenton, Virginia - one of those American towns that still has a Main Street and parades and street fairs, and Santa Claus drives around on top of a fire truck each Christmas.

I should say that my decision to live in México didn't come out of the blue; both of my children have Mexican blood from their father's side of the family. Since I got divorced, it has been important to me to teach my children about their heritage; but mostly because I want them to speak Spanish. I speak Spanish myself, but I admit that I'm lazy in speaking Spanish with my children. So, to make up for my shortcomings, I brought them here a week after Olivia and Mateo finished the third and fourth grade, respectively. Bienvenidos a México and a welcome to a crash course in Español.

I've rented a furnished apartment in the Distrito Federal for two months. My children are going to a bilingual summer camp in the city, which provides a private bus service for transportation. The first day I filled their backpacks with laminated ID cards, their first cell phones (!), lunch, and I followed the school bus in a taxi the entire way to the school to make sure they arrived in one piece. When we all arrived at the school, I saw my son following someone with a clipboard heading toward the registration office because there was a problem with his registration. I looked at him through the window as registrars asked him questions in Spanish. It took everything in me not to burst into the office and save him and clear everything up, but I just watched him and his wide eyes as I mouthed "Are you okay?!"and he shrugged his shoulders with teary eyes. Minutes later, he was united with his camp counselor, Maricruz, and with the other campers and his registration was straightened out. I slipped away from the school grounds and into a taxi back home.

I chose to come to México because it's a beautiful but tormented country. This is the México that I have come to know and love through the people I have met and through the ones that I observe. In reality, we know the bad rap México has gotten in recent years. The horrific stories of gruesome crimes and corruption among political officials and drug dealers are published by every American media outlet. These stories are certainly real; and I'm not sugar coating what has happened and what happens in this country. But I do see and know a different side of México that Americans should also be aware of: that the majority of the country is the complete opposite of the narcos and those tied to these groups. These people are the hard working, trust-worthy, loyal and hopeful Mexicans. And these are the people that I have chosen to surround my children with. These are the people whose children are teaching my children songs and games and who are painting and playing sports with my kids. These are the same people who treat me with kindness when they see my blonde hair and green eyes and they can tell I'm not from México. They hear my accent and they are open to talk to me and help me.

The first week in México, I took my kids to all the places that I thought they'd enjoy and to be immersed in the culture and language: the zoo, to El Centro to eat Churros, and to the Lago de Chapultepec. We rented bicycles in a park and the children painted wooden characters from a woman who has been in same spot, selling and teaching kids how to paint, every Sunday, for thirty years. The kids started out by ordering drinks in Spanish, they gave tips and said gracias, and we worked on flash cards with Spanish and English words. They asked for elote (corn on the cob served with mayonnaise, chile, cheese and salt) on the street, paletas (popsicles) and by the end of the week they were devouring taquitos dorados de pollo (hard, fried tacos rolled up with chicken), topped with cream.

The most satisfying thing I've seen so far is watching my children play with other kids in our apartment complex. There are trampolines, tennis courts, basketball courts and a playground. In a mere two weeks, I've watched my kids go from being shy and whispering quietly in English and begging me to be at their side, to today when Juan rang our doorbell and asked for Mateo to come out and play (in Spanish). The video below shows my daughter (right) playing 'Hot Potato' with her friend Sofia.

Even though I've been to México City many times, I'm still amazed at what I see: the afilador, a man who rides a bike around and blows a special whistle to let neighbors know that he's outside ready to sharpen your kitchen knives. When you bring them to him, he pedals his bike in place with a handmade contraption that sharpens blades sharper than anything you can find in Williams & Sonoma. I'm tortured by the monotonous advertisement blaring out of blown out speakers on a truck: "colchooones, tambores, microooooondas, estufas, lavadoras o fierro viejo que venda" (mattresses, box springs, microwaves, stoves, washing machines, or old iron that you can sell). The Nissan dealership across the street from our apartment plays music out of huge, over-sized speakers and a woman dressed as a cheerleader coaxes customers in with pom poms.

I had a few unexpected struggles myself, like when I went to the grocery store and realized I don't remember anything about the metric system, so the signs that read "Mangos 1.70 MN por kilo" meant nothing to me. When I ordered ham from the deli counter, I thought I looked like I fit right in ordering 'jamon virginia' - but when the man behind the counter asked me how much I wanted, I stared at him blankly. He asked me if I wanted some particular amount that I didn't understand because it was in grams. I said yes and he said "estás segura?" (are you sure?) and I nodded. He sliced off two thin slices of ham and handed me the package. And I don't think I have to explain the shock and horror when I realized Budweiser is an import and the inexpensive California wine that I buy at home at Wegman's was triple the price in México. And the following lesson that I learned is for my Mexican friends here: Nunca coma su sopa en una Jícara, pensando que es un plato hondo normal de cocina, o su novio se va a morir de la risa cuando la vea!!

We're here for another six weeks. All I can say is this: Consider taking your child or children to another country for the experience alone. In two months they will not become completely fluent, but you might see a confidence and bravery in them that you never could have imagined. You'll see that children are adaptable if they are comfortable and feel safe. And consider México. It's a beautiful, vibrant country with positive people who are the most hospitable, welcoming people I've ever known.

And to my Mexican friends: On July 1st, a new president was elected for the next six years (pending a recount). Maybe he's not the candidate that everyone may have wanted, or maybe he is. But México is changing. The younger people in the universities are spreading their word and beliefs and they have more freedom than ever before. Those younger people are the next generation of leaders in México. Just stay strong and true to what you believe; don't sell out for money, and steer clear of corruption. México is a beautiful country filled with kind, loving people who want better. And it's a country that I'm proud to call home for the Summer, and it's a country that I'm sure my children will remember and cherish forever.

A Test in Language Immersion
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