My husband, Jonathan, and I sat in a walled garden under a palapa, drilling our –ir verbs and chatting haltingly with our teacher en español. Fifteen yards away, under their own open-sided, thatched-roof dwelling, our two boys, Benji, 10, and Theo, 12, could be heard struggling to roll their r’s, too. I looked around at the cheerful, freshly painted school and the bakery across the street, where my boys had bought a Mexican sweet bread for breakfast, and thought, Una semana no es bastante. One week isn’t enough.
The four of us were in Felipe Carrillo Puerto in La Zona Maya, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, to study Spanish at Na’atik Instituto de Lenguas y Culturas, a small language school. (To’on Na’atik means “We understand each other” in Mayan.) For our family the trip was the culmination of a months-long quest to accomplish something that had seemed long overdue.
My husband is a Fernandez. He grew up in New Jersey speaking no Spanish, his surname a link to a Latin past that his secretive, Spanish-speaking grandfather had refused to discuss. After college, Jonathan became semifluent while studying in Argentina for a year on a Rotary Scholarship. He could converse superficially with our cleaning lady (¿Necesitas algo?) but was hard-pressed to discuss politics or describe complex feelings on topics like immigration or education. Now we were raising our boys (also named Fernandez) in L.A., where the population is mostly Latino. If we didn’t do something fast, our sons were going to grow up lacking any knowledge of the culture, history, or language that defines much of their city and runs in their blood.
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In my attempts to get us to learn Spanish, I’d tried less dramatic methods than full-on immersion in a 100-degree jungle. I had bought Living Language Spanish, a box set of books and CDs, and forced the boys to listen to it in the car while driving them to baseball practice. I’d downloaded the Duolingo app on our iPad, so we learned some basic vocabulary, which we tried to put to use around our Hollywood Hills dinner table. But after months of erratic practice, we were still beginners who could barely ask the way to the nearest bathroom.
I was determined to change that, and not just by showing up once a week at a local language school (I’d tried those classes and never got much momentum). There was something else, too: I liked the idea of our boys experiencing another culture. I wanted them to understand how lucky they are to live in the United States and how easy their lives are relative to the lives of preteens in other parts of the world. I wanted them to learn why immigrants risk everything to get across the border—and also to get a glimpse of what those immigrants leave behind.
Finding a language school that would accept children was harder than I thought. Searching through guidebooks and travel Web sites, I discovered that because adults make up the vast majority of their clientele, most schools don’t publicize whether they work with students of all ages. Fortunately I found that many will, if you ask. I narrowed my list of schools to a dozen and asked each one: Would they enroll four students of varying abilities, ages 10 to 48? Only a few said yes. One was Na’atik, which I’d found on a list titled “Top 10 Off the Beaten Track Spanish Language Schools in Latin America.” It’s in tiny Felipe Carrillo Puerto, population 25,000, which was carved out of the forest on the highway that runs south from Tulum to Belize. Though the city is isolated, it is easily accessible—just a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Los Angeles to Cancún, plus a two to three-hour drive in a rental car. (The school arranges pickup at the airport on request.) The Yucatán Peninsula is a relatively safe area of Mexico, and we could also visit nearby Mayan ruins in Tulum and Cobá.
You might think that, given all those pluses, our course was set. Then I happened upon a second school that took kids, this one in South America. I went to my husband with a crazy idea: Why not go to both? The language schools would be the starting and end points of a larger two-month odyssey, a summer adventure that would begin in Mexico, at Na’atik, and conclude at the Academia Buenos Aires in Argentina, where my husband had lived long ago. Would we be Spanish speakers when we returned? We hoped so.
By one estimate, there are more than 200 languages and dialects spoken daily in Los Angeles. How handy it would be, I thought, if we could master just one more of them.
Before we left home, I sought out Catherine Gray, Na’atik’s cofounder, who was designing our week of study. For kids, she said, more than a couple of hours a day of Spanish instruction would be too much. She also strongly recommended that we live with a local family. Homestays, as they’re called, would force us to use our español outside school and offer a glimpse into real life. In the end we opted for four hours of study a day for the adults, two-and-a-half hours a day for the kids, and a homestay with a modern Mayan family.
We drove into sleepy Felipe Carrillo Puerto on a Sunday afternoon and met Gray at her modest home on a little-traveled side street. She was enthusiastic, friendly, and down-to-earth as she gave us our schedule of classes and field trips. Then she took us to a simple cinder-block house that sat a hundred yards from the edge of a densely wooded thicket on the last paved road in town. We were welcomed inside by Doña Norma, the matriarch of our host family and the mother of two daughters and two sons, three of whom still lived at home.
Warmly but nervously (we were the first family she’d hosted), Doña Norma showed us the one room we four would sleep in, with nothing to cool us but a single fan. Gray hung up hammocks for our boys and showed them the correct way to get in (there is an art to it). My husband and I were the only ones in the house who had a bed. And we soon learned that the toilet seat in the bare-bones bathroom had been installed especially for us.
For the next seven days, we ate all our meals in the kitchen of our host family, which included Doña Norma, her husband, Don Chucho, and their daughters (another son and his family lived on the property in a house next door). Our family was fed separately (there wasn’t room enough for all of us to sit at the table together). Doña Norma hovered, making sure we liked the aguas frescas she made from scratch.
Our weak Spanish led to some uncomfortable misunderstandings. “Comida sin picante no es comida,” Doña Norma said with a smile one morning as she pushed a little bowl of salsa toward us. We got her gist: What’s the point of eating food without spice? We were about to learn, though, that we were novices when it came to culinary heat. Benji doused his breakfast taco and took a bite, and his face went red. The salsa was a paste of habanero chiles, among the spiciest on earth. Jonathan switched tacos with Benji, thinking he could handle it. But that afternoon he took to bed, sweating and clutching his belly. It was 24 hours before the chile peppers worked their way through him.
Gastric distress aside, the homestay was a key part of our study because when we wanted or needed something, we had to stand there groping for the right word—in the air or our minds—until we found it. Since no one spoke English, there was no way to cheat. Sometimes my kids were doing nothing but waving their arms about in a mad game of international charades. Immersion is like improv, I remember thinking. But when they found the word they were looking for, I could see their brains locking onto it forever.
Every morning after breakfast, we headed to class. Despite the difference between my husband’s and my abilities (I was an advanced beginner), we were taught by the same young teacher, who turned out to be the great-grandson of a local folk hero, a Spanish colonist who’d been kidnapped as a child and raised by the Maya. Edwin Alejandro Valerio Vega appeared each day in freshly pressed shirts, his hair spiked, briefcase in hand, and spoke to us only en español. In addition to the basics of grammar, writing, and conversation, Edwin taught us subtle, sweet nuances. For example, I’d always assumed a cafecito was just a “little coffee.” But Edwin said that when someone offered you a cafecito, it was an expression of intimacy and affection. The next morning, when Doña Norma asked me whether I wanted a cafecito, I felt her kindness beaming directly at my heart.
Another day, at my insistence, Edwin broke down the difference between the swear words I overhear constantly in L.A. but never get to ask about: cabrón (“bastard” or “dumbass”) and pinche and chingada (two permutations of “fuck”). I didn’t need to use them, but I wanted to know when to be offended. As he acted out various situations, I realized that trying to learn a language by merely drilling and repeating recorded phrases was an exercise in emptiness. Context imbues meaning. So does emotion. I felt like we were accessing a richer dimension, as if discovering a color you never knew existed.
The boys’ teacher was a husky-voiced, playful woman named Irene Méndez Graf. She taught them how to count, introduce themselves, and go shopping. She took them to buy fruit and rewarded them by slicing up the fresh mango and mamey (another tropical treat) and letting them dig in. She taught them songs, which they would sing at night as they swung in their hammocks in the dark: Todos somos hijos de la tierra. We all are children of the earth. Madre Madre Madre.
When Theo and Benji weren’t in class, Gray arranged for them to run with the local track team, which has trained champions despite the fact that some kids couldn’t afford shoes. I dropped them off in the afternoon at the sandy, unpaved track, where they practiced two hours a day in the blistering heat. Gray’s eight-year-old son, Piero, acted as translator. I watched my boys sprint down the track, red-faced, as young Mexican girls with ponytails and perfect form left them in the dust. When the older kids couldn’t communicate, they would surround Theo, talking and laughing, shoving a phone toward him with some random English phrase generated by Google Translate.
At night the local children would stick their heads through the curtains into our room and invite our boys to join them. Benji played kickball in the street under the low-hanging jungle moon until 11 p.m. Theo walked down the road to try to master an arcade game on the neighbor’s front porch. Sometimes the little ones poured into our room to challenge us to games of lotería (Mexican bingo), while Itzel, the eight-year-old daughter of our homestay family, relentlessly corrected our pronunciation.
By the end of the week, Theo was asking if he could hang a hammock in his room back home and Benji was singing himself to sleep at night with Mexican folk songs.
Seven weeks later, after visiting Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, we enrolled in a second week of Spanish school in Buenos Aires. By now our boys spoke enough to get around and were conjugating verbs in their spare time. They would skip along beside us as we walked to school, shouting, “Give me an –ar verb! Past tense!”
We were staying in an Airbnb apartment in the Palermo Soho neighborhood, a vibrant bohemian part of the city with tree-lined cobbled streets and trendy boutiques. Its hipster vibe bears a resemblance to that of New York’s SoHo, for which it is named.
Each morning we rode the subway downtown and climbed four flights to the school. After dropping the boys off with their private teacher, who encouraged them to draw pictures with Spanish labels and watch YouTube videos of Argentine children’s singers, Jonathan and I would sneak out to a café downstairs for a quick espresso. We read the local newspapers, gossiped with the waiter, practiced our subjunctive together, and corrected each other’s homework. Even after 13 years of marriage, I felt like I was having a flirty study session with my nerdy high school sweetheart.
Academia Buenos Aires was more like a college than the rural language school where we’d begun. If we wanted to see Argentine movies, take tango lessons, or spend a weekend at an estancia—a grand estate among the pampas—the school would arrange it. The Academia was less personal, simply because it was larger, but the instruction was excellent. By now my husband and I could talk—albeit clumsily—about los desaparecidos, the alleged political dissidents who “disappeared” during Argentina’s Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”) and whose mothers still march in Plaza de Mayo. We were making the transition from merely practicing to actually communicating.
By the time we came back to L.A., we had been living in Spanish for ten weeks. The language was in our bones, and now we could finally tune in to a frequency that had been there all along. Two nights after our return, we ate dinner at Musso & Frank’s, the fabled steak place we’d frequented so often before. This time, though, we paid attention when our waiter shouted orders across the restaurant in Spanish. Then he turned to us. “What would you like?” he asked. We met his English with our own, ordering our steaks like we always had. But after he left, Benji whispered in my ear: “I feel like I should be ordering in Spanish.”
I smiled. Maybe someday he will.
Hilary MacGregor is a writer living in Hollywood. Her book We’re Outta Here: On the Road with the Family in South America is being released November 1 on Amazon.