Monday, August 08, 2011

Habla Spanglish?

On my first day of “Survival Spanish Class” in San Miguel de Allende, I’m late. 50 minutes late even beyond the graces of “Mexican time.” By 1:50 pm, I’ve already put in my daily practice of survival Spanish with a newspaper man, a veterinarian, a hotel clerk and a waiter, to finally locate my class, situated on the second floor of the adobe yellow Plaza Principal building.

I’m ready to call it a day by the time I arrive.

"Hola, habla ingles?" I ask the first person I lay my sweaty brows on.

On first impression, the school looks more like the YMCA meets bingo night at the Suncrest Senior Center... than the name advertised on the website, Centro de Lingue. There’s a small courtyard cluttered with patio tables, a small sink flowing with coffee mugs and dishes, handmade blue and yellow posters describing Mexican crafts like what is a piñata. All the words are written in English. 

I remind myself that the classes are flexible and cheap, $24 dollars for a 2 hour session. Easy. Don’t turn around and run away, Mai.

A young man greets me and leads me through the inner doors to introduce me to the maestra herself, the founder of the school, Maria.

I explain to Maria that I’ve signed up for the Survival Spanish Class…that I’m very late, that I am willing to come back to another session.

“No hay problema,” she says, alleviating the frowns on my forehead, “You’re the only one who sighed up. You can start now if you want. Senor Paulo will be your teacher. After your class, you can pay Senor Paulo. We take cash only. There are ATMs on the plaza.”

Inside another room, chairs that were stacked on a table are taken down. A board is erased and renewed. Windows are opened and light streams into the room. A notebook, index cards and a sheet of -AR verbs are handed to me.

It appears I’m right on time.

My teacher enters. He teaches both Spanish and English. Originally from LA...the ghetto...he's been living in San Miguel for several years now; life is better here.

Both hands reveal shapes and symbols nested inside the fleshy part, where the eyes of a hand puppet would be, between the index and thumb. More markings are tucked in between the files of fingers, a cryptic calligraphy. His hair is slicked back, held down with the gravity of an invisible hair net. He wears a high collar, pale blue dress shirt, buttoned up that hangs loose and large.

I don’t mean to be judgmental but the style is unmistakable. He’s a dead ringer...albeit a slightly older version of Lou Diamond in the late 80s movie Stand and Deliver. A cholo with glasses. Maybe he’s retired. As in no longer active. We look like we could be in the same age group. What stories do the placas or tatoos tell? LA gun down to...I love pronouns? 

“So have you taken any Spanish before?” He asks in a slow, friendly voice that reminds me of Barney, the purple pimp.

“Si, una semena de espanol en Barcelona…yes, one week of Spanish in Barcelona.” One of the few phrases I know by heart.

“Barcelona…they speak a different Spanish there.”

2009. My first day in Spanish class at the Babylon Idiomas. My class is a smurf sized UN, representatives from Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland and Australia…the teacher, Xave (pronounced Cha-vy in Catalan) is pointing to his limp tongue, demonstrating the proper shape for the castellano “th” sound as in gra –thias. The class is entirely conducted in Spanish forcing us to revert to primitive means, listening, nodding, pointing, grunting. We play lots of games to test memoria, practice dialogues, we hide objects from each other, then mime, express ways to name, retrieve these objects back… experimenting with the slippery sounds and stresses of the Spanish language, the musicality awkwardly trembles against the mouth for the first time…mantequilla, regresar, zanahoria, naranja.

Mexican Spanish is to the bass as Castellano Spanish is to the acoustic guitar.

“Si, claro…a different Spanish.”

Paulo makes me review my numeros and right when I’m starting to think I’m hot shit, he throws in 55,555,555 to show me who’s boss.

The time zips quickly like mosquitos seeking skin and for homework, he gives me verbs to conjugate and basic words and formulas to construct sentences. Lines inside my notebook, lyrics that jive on the axis of canciones…songs that hide their domestic meanings.

Me gusta cocinar la cena esta noche.

I like to cook dinner tonight.

Tengo que comprar papel higienico ahora.

I need to buy toilet paper now.

Day 2

I’m ready to show off my stack of prepared flashcards like a prized watermelon at the fair. Paulo tells me that there is a slightly bigger group but more advanced. Would I prefer to join? I shake my head and tell him that I prefer a good refresher...despacio (slowly).

I’m joined by a woman who’s a flight attendant from Tucson, Arizona. She tells me that she’s been living in San Miguel de Allende for a year now but can’t get around to understand this language. She has an apartment next to the Instituto and tries to spend a week every month in SMA. She is not retired…because everyone here is retired, you know. She could easily pass. The teachers at the Instituto are not good. She likes the teachers better here. After class, she’s going to volunteer at the orphanage. There are more girls than boys, obviously, being a catholic country…

“Are you a musician?” She interjects with a mix of concern and kindness.

We read a dialogue aloud.

I go first:

Socorro mi esposa se tropezo, se golpeo la cabeza y esta sangrando!

Help my wife tripped and hit her head and is bleeding!

Tucson reads next like a bird that chirps with a strange Texan twang:

May tropay-say e may goal-pay lah fran-tay con la bankeetay.

I tripped and hit my forehead on the sidewalk.

“Muy bien. Correcto,” Paulo soothes.

"La bankay-tay…blanqueta? I hit my head on the banquet table? What does it mean? Ah, sidewalk!...con the sidewalk? With the sidewalk? That sounds incorrect. Are you sure this is right?" She probes.

“Si, con is correcto…against or with, on the sidewalk.” Paulo repeats patiently. Tucson doesn’t seem convinced.

We move on.

Ten-nay alllgoon teeepo day say-guro medeeeco?

Do you have any type of medical insurance?

“Muy bien, correcto.”

I raise my empty coffee mug to mouth, like a person lost in a desert, sucking for the last non-existent drop. The next hour, we cover everyday expressions.

“Ok, so after class I am going to have ice tea with my lunch." She does a karate chop with one hand on the table to show where the glass aught to be. "I always order ice tea. How do you say ice tea with a just a little ice?”

“Te helado con poco hielo or pocito hielo”

“Poooocoooo not pequena?” She repeats. “Tay heelaydo?”

“Muy bien. Correcto.”

She writes down the words obediently in her black notebook in cursive.

Every now and then she asks what’s the word for small again.

“Poco.” Writes Paulo mechanically.

“For the orphanage, how do you say, do you have lots of family members?”

I inch my head closer to the table ready to pound. Seriously??

At the end of class, I ask Paulo a question about the conjugation homework. There are actually 6 conjugations, but on the first day, we learn 5:


In French it would be je, tu, il/elle, ils/elles, nous, vous.

"So I noticed that we didn’t conjugate verbs the other day in vosotros?"

“Oh, we don’t use that in Mexico.” Paulo says almost with a chuckle.

Clearly, I’ve set the bar too low. It’s my own fault. I didn’t want to go to the more advanced class. No commitments. I wanted it easy and slow. I didn’t want to be fluent in Spanish. I just wanted to get by…but clearly I am a nerd, and old habits die hard. The universe is playing a hilarious joke on me. Be careful what you ask for…

Day 3

I have a Howard Hughes moment and am hating that I need to leave the house, that I have a schedule...

Paulo reviews vocabulary on the board:

llegaste (did you arrive)....written as yegaste

We move on to the names of domestic animals. El perro. El gato… the dog/cat

“Commo se dice gecko en espanol.....How do you say gecko in Spanish?"

Paulo starts to smile like the purple pimp.

“Um…I think we use the same word, es gecko.”

“In Puerto Vallarta, they call them cuizas. Is that the same here?” Why am I deliberately setting up Barney?

He confesses he doesn’t know the word and we move on to animales peligrosos...dangerous animals.

Serpiente de cascabel...rattle snake

I’m thinking of the rabbit from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. John Cleese's heavily accented Scottish, “that rabbit's….a killer!” I’m imagining the rabbit going after my neck, blood erupting like a geyser, drenching Tucson's artificially blonde fluff.

“Sobrina…nece.” Writes Paulo on the board.

Tucson speaks up. That’s spelled incorrectly, it’s N.E..I..C.E

The rabbit is now gauging out my eyes…Do I step in and put an end to this carnival or let this one just ride for the hell of it?

Day 4

I finally get the joke from the universe. The days that I was taunted..Really, you just want to learn easy, slow ESL Spanish Mai? Really? Enough to get by? I get the message loud and clear.

This class isn’t for me, time to move on. I’ll continue to learn Spanish and seriously just somewhere else.

Instead of class, we take a trolley car tour around San Miguel. I feel like I’m back in San Francisco…except its junior high and I'm the outcast without her clique. The car is filled with pre-teens bouncing to Usher on their iphones. I can barely hear over the din of hormones, the guide whispers the Spanish words to an elected student who spits out the English. She looks like trouble…too cute and confident for her own good. She takes the microphone and holds it naturally like she’s ready to sing some Justin Bieber.

Here is the convent created in 1775 where a daughter from the Canal family dies at 33 because she’s secluded from everybody.

The Rosewood Estate where you can rent a room for $450 USD a night. It has 8 pools.

An orange building, the first prison where they burned witches.

The first gas pump in 1943 when gas was 25 cents.

We finally get to the top of the city, the Mirador, the lookout point. 5 minutes of peace from the gremlins.

I take pictures of the view. Such a lovely city, dripping with beauty, earthen textures of a desert canyon, dotted by the recognizable steeple of la parroquia, mixed with trees that reminds one of a Titian landscape…the city drips with beauty.

On our way back, my ears tune to the voice of the Spanish guide. I start to pick at her words like a pigeon after a crumb. I piece things not as precise as a puzzle but an impressionistic collage. Taking her patchwork words over the English translation.

Here is the house of conspiracion…of contemplation where the revolutionary leaders plotted for the independence against the Spanish.

Who knew the revolutionary leaders where down with meditation? I start to chuckle, enjoying the historical revisionism.

The tour is over and I congratulate Trouble for her efforts.

Paulo asks me afterwards if he’ll see me next week, they’ll give me a discount.

He’s a kind person. Not the best teacher but he means well.

I shake his hand and thank him but tell him that I won’t have time in my schedule next week.

As I walk back, the radio frequency widens, I start to tune into more channels, conversations. Words, dates, numbers, expressions isolate momentarily amidst static…then disappear… the message, lost forever, how fragile it hangs on the web of moment and memory. No one is correcting or keeping track even as I make my way back home.

By Mai Brehaut

Lou Diamond, Stand & Deliver (

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