There is something about a test that, even at age 65, being retired, 40 years after taking two bar exams, LSATs, SATs, GREs and countless other tests, pop quizzes and final exams, still produces anxiety. At least that’s what I felt when I found myself last week in the cool, palm-shaded patio of the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca (ICO) looking at a cartoon of a dog on a sofa knocking over a cup of coffee.My job was to explain to the teacher, in Spanish, what was going on. Okay, I aced the test.
Lucero, the Directora, gave us our brief orientation: don’t cross the busy streets against the traffic light; don’t drink the water; and don’t sit under the palm trees because the fronds might fall off and they are very heavy and will kill you. And here’s our list of recommended restaurants, though the list is old and many of them have closed because of the pandemic. And two days later, my husband Pete and I returned to school, backpacks and notebooks and water bottles in hand to start our two-week Spanish immersion program at ICO.
We had spent three weeks at ICO in February 2020, just before the world as we knew it came crashing to a close. Early in 2020, ICO quickly pivoted to online classes. Eagerly, I began signing up for almost weekly literature classes. In those darkest days of 2020, when I craved some form of contact outside the confines of my pod, my zoom tertulias literarias with Marycarmen, an ICO teacher, with students from all over the country, were one of my lifelines to sanity. For the better part of two years, I immersed myself in Mexican writers, thrilled to be exposed to the likes of Elena Poniatowska, Angela Mastretti, Octavio Paz, Guadelupe Nettel, Elena Garro and many more. Through them I came to know Mexico in a way I had never contemplated or understood. Through them, I longed to return and learn more.
Fast forward two years. Covid had become something more to manage with caution than to fear. Pete and I were ready to see the world again—and to revisit Oaxaca.
The city of Oaxaca is a captivating place, a concentration of Mexico at its most colorful, engaging and complex self. Concentrated in its historic Centro are the brilliantly hued stucco buildings with their archways and courtyards in shades of ochre, burnt sienna, turmeric yellow, teal and deep red, the crumbling sides of ancient cathedrals and aqueducts, and street vendors under white shaded tents selling embroidered blouses, jewelry, wood carvings, leather. There are food markets and public parks filled with families and old people dancing.
Within an hour’s drive of the city are the magical indigenous villages that are brimming with woven carpets and pottery and the painted wooden fantasy dolls called alebrijes. It is the kind of place that gives a tourist like me a feeling of discovery at the same time as feeling graciously welcomed.
Now in 2022, tourists are returning to Oaxaca. The streets and restaurants are lively, though not nearly as packed as in 2020. What I hear is that the pandemic was devastating to Oaxaca. It relies on tourism.In the city that is awash in art galleries and world-class eating, it is easy to overlook that the state of Oaxaca—which stretches from these mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean– is actually one of the poorest in Mexico. So the symbiotic relationship between Mexico and the USA continues. They need our money and we need—what is it exactly Americans look for in Mexico?
When people ask me why I dedicate myself to Spanish, I have a few answers, depending on my mood and the person asking: I want to read Neruda in the original, I want to not sound like a hopeless gringa, I want to work with immigrants to the US, I like traveling in Latin America and Spain; 580 million people speak Spanish; I want to open my mind.
Now, I am once again learning from Marycarmen in person, but behind masks. The school is quieter now, but still with that sense of lively curiosity. There are the same mix of students as before—students at both ends of the learning spectrum, the retired folks like Pete and me and the young ones, who are just setting out in life. My class has one of each beside me. Everyone has a story, a dream, something that draws them to learn in what feels like our private hacienda.
I find something comforting in strapping on a school routine for a few weeks. Showing up at nine, doing my homework, having a schedule. Listening. Learning. When I did a year abroad in Jerusalem, in 1976-77, I had a classmate who was a retired woman. She and her husband spent their retirement going from country to country, signing up for semesters abroad, staying in a place, and getting to know it. I was only 20 at the time, but I remember thinking “Note to self; that’s how I want to retire”.
In just the day to day-ness of it, I learn a bit more about Mexico and Mexicans. In many ways, not an easy place, it can be messy and chaotic and yes, I could write about violence. But here are two observations.
Look at the picture below.
It’s the street I walk on the way to school. And what do you see? PEOPLE WEARING MASKS. Everyone is wearing a mask here. When we took our taxi from the airport to Mexico City, our cab driver warned us that some streets might be closed because of protests. “What are they protesting,” I asked, “mask requirements?” He looked puzzled. “Why would we protest masks?” he asked “we wear them to protect people.”
A few months ago, Pete and I spent a week in Madrid, our first trip out of the country since the pandemic. I was eager to use my Spanish (which is actually pretty decent). But the madrilenos seemed to have no patience for it, constantly cutting me off in English. In Mexico, people wait till I finish, listen, reply in Spanish. Except today. I went to the tiendita where I buy a diet Coke for my class. The lovely woman behind the counter asked me if I was at the school across the street. I told her I was. And then she switched to halting English. “I am a fan of you,” she said, “because you make an effort to learn Spanish.” Mi corazon está lleno.