Part 2: Spanish Language School, AGAIN

By Mari Pintkowski
This is Part 2 of a story that appeared in the October issue of SacBe. Mari Pintkowski took time off from offering hospitality at La Selva Mariposa, the jungle inn she and her husband own near Tulum, to improve her Spanish language skills at the Instituto Culturo de Oaxaca.

The first day of school, whether you are six or sixty-three, elicits a wave of emotion like no other. Will I see any familiar faces in my class? Are my clothes right for the occasion? Will I understand what my teacher is saying? Am I smart enough?

I tried to hide my anxiety as I approached the breakfast table already bustling with multiple conversations in Spanish, mixed with a bit of Italian, German and English, among the other half-dozen students living in our posada, an inn located not far from the school.

The señora, Veronica, was preparing a typical Oaxacan breakfast of cheese, eggs, chiles and tlyudas (a type of large tortilla), while the house señor, Nicholas, sat with the women and kept the conversation flowing as we ate our fresh fruit, granola and yogurt and sipped the local coffee.

My friend and I were the new-comers, but Aline’s fluency in Spanish, Italian, and French immediately put her at ease as we took our places at the table. We chatted about how we spent the opening weekend of Guelaguetza in and around the city and the enthusiasm was highly contagious.

The Guelaguetza is a celebration of the music, dances, food and handicrafts that indigenous groups from all over the State of Oaxaca offer to the inhabitants and visitors of their State capital. At the end of their dancing, each group distributes its giveaways, always products and produce of their respective regions, (such as straw baskets, small black pottery animals or cookies) among the audience. The highlight of this month-long celebration takes place on the next two Mondays following July 16th each year.






These fiestas have their origin in the colonial times and are related to the Fiesta of the Virgin of the Carmen Alto Church, built by the Carmelita monks in the place that was once the temple of the goddess Centeotl, a mexica goddess of the green corn, whom the tribes honored by making important offerings. Recently, other folkloric events have been added to the festival, such as the Parade of the Delegations that we had observed on Saturday and the crowning of the “Goddess of Centeotl,” who is chosen from a group of young women because she is wearing the most elaborate and expensive costume.






One by one we left the breakfast table and before long departed the posada, for our twenty-minute walk through the cobblestone streets, under the ancient aqueduct, and through two beautiful city parks ablaze with blooming bougainvillea flowers until we reached the stone entrance of the Instituto Culturo de Oaxaca.







The Institute’s friendly staff was waiting to show us to our assigned classes. I glanced at the class lists on the bulletin board and noticed that there were six other students in section 3-B. Students were assigned to classes based on the results of the exam and interview that is given every Saturday. There were usually four levels, but this session also included a fifth level of fluency, where my traveling companion, Aline, was placed.

One of the things that attracted me to this school was the fact that there would be six or seven other students in the class, as opposed the one-on-one teaching situation my husband and I experienced when we went to school in Antigua, Guatemala. I felt that I needed to be forced out of my comfort level and required to speak in front of a group of my peers. I was delighted to see that there was actually one student in my class older than myself; perhaps proving Lou’s theory about age and language learning to be untrue Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who thought you’re never too old to learn new skills.

Only two other students attended this first Monday of our two-week session. The others had been excused because they were attending the ten o’clock performance of Guelaguetza at the big amphitheater on the hill behind the city. Our youthful male teacher, a native zapotec from one of the neighboring pueblos, arrived with his lap top and wrote on the chalkboard “el secreto del español” (the secret of Spanish). He never explained what this meant, but it was evidently how he started each day. Only Spanish was to be spoken in class, even in side conversations with each other. A few times he had to remind us, “Only Spanish, please.” He had a relaxed manner and infused the lessons with his sense of humor. On this particular day, he asked us to each share a few discoveries from the past weekend, before the formal grammar lesson began.

For me, the new student, there was no explanation of what we had covered previously and why we were starting the lesson with the past perfect tense. I learned that books were provided for each session, but they never seemed to be used by our teacher. He sometimes had photocopied sheets for us to work on and invited us to use any resources we brought along. I carried my big verb book and dictionary to class the first week, but since I used it very little, I decided it was not necessary and was way too heavy to lug through the streets of Oaxaca. El Profesor was kind about not assigning homework. Knowing my learning style, I knew I needed a follow-up each evening, but there was too much happening in the city to stay home and study. The other six students in my class ranged in age form twenty’s to seventy’s and were from the United States, with the exception of a couple from Zimbabwe who were relocating to Mexico. All of the other students had been at the Institute for about a month, and jumping into this fast-paced formal grammar class was taxing my sixty-three-year-old brain. I was pleasantly surprised at first that I could understand almost all that our teacher was saying and was comfortable contributing answers when necessary. The pace seemed to pick up after the first week, and I got lost when the present and past subjunctive were presented the same day. No time was spent on vocabulary, but this turned out to be my strong point, along with the fact that I had some experience with the politics and the way-things-are-done from living in Mexico for five years. Following grammar class, we moved out-doors for a more casual hour of conversation. The teacher chose a topic, such as politics, hobbies, or travel, and we simply chatted about our personal experiences with the subject. The school provided a snack bar with sandwiches, including hamburgers, pastries, chips, candy and drinks. We were welcome to bring these to our sessions, thus creating a casual, homelike atmosphere.


Students who were living with a family went “home” for lunch and siesta, and the others, like me, were free to eat on our own and spend a bit of time exploring the city before we had to return to the Institute for afternoon classes. The numerous museums of the City are worth visiting for their architecture alone. The Casa de la Cuidad, Contemporary Art Museum, Graphic Arts Institute, and the Museum of Textiles are a few that have revolving exhibits that are spectacularly displayed to show off the old and new architecture of each building. We found we needed to visit the Santo Domingo Cultural Center that charts the course of human development in the Valley of Oaxaca a number of times. The Botanical Gardens, located in the back section of the Cultural Center, is still a work in progress after ten years (I attended the Saturday, English-speaking tour twice!). The Church of Santo Domingo, next door, took a century to build and even in a city or country of impressive churches this is one of the most ornate. Every square inch of the interior walls and ceilings is covered with gold leaf, polychrome reliefs and plaster statues, and casts a golden glow in the afternoon.





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Normally the afternoon at the Institute is lively with the many “talleres” or workshops that take place around the campus. Each student signs up for week-long sessions in salsa dancing, cooking, ceramics, weaving, or Mexican cinema. I chose ceramics for the first week and was delighted to study under an elderly zapotec woman, Bertha, who guided us to explore the green and black local clay. We casually spoke Spanish to her and the other students as we engaged in hand-building with the clay. At the end of the week, we helped prepare the wood-fire and place our pieces in a metal bar-b-que-like grill for a couple of hours to fire our creations.

The second week, I signed up for the very popular Oaxacan cooking class. I was delighted to see that we would be using all the green-clay pottery to cook in and even went to the public market as a group to buy the needed supplies to make hot chocolate, mamitas, black beans, salsa, and tamales. We quickly learned not to eat a big lunch each day, as we had the opportunity to sample all we cooked in class. Our first Monday, there were no afternoon classes as most of the students would be attending one of the evening Guelaguetza performances. Aline and I could not imagine attending the performance with 90,000 others at the amphitheater above the City, so we opted to go to one of the smaller pueblos, hosting a mini-Guelaguetza of their own, with a group of students from school. One of our new friends had attended it last year and was going again, so we felt we had made a good choice. We met at school later that afternoon and drove about forty-five minutes into the mountains to a pueblo near Monte Alban ruins. We were the only gringos (whites) attending the event, and we had no trouble finding a seat among the friendly locals and immersing ourselves in the festivities.





Our first Monday, there were no afternoon classes as most of the students would be attending one of the evening Guelaguetza performances. Aline and I could not imagine attending the performance with 90,000 others at the amphitheater above the City, so we opted to go to one of the smaller pueblos, hosting a mini-Guelaguetza of their own, with a group of students from school. One of our new friends had attended it last year and was going again, so we felt we had made a good choice. We met at school later that afternoon and drove about forty-five minutes into the mountains to a pueblo near Monte Alban ruins. We were the only gringos (whites) attending the event, and we had no trouble finding a seat among the friendly locals and immersing ourselves in the festivities.




At the end of two weeks, my husband, Lou, drove from our house at La Selva Mariposa near Tulum to the Pacific coast and then back to pick me up in the City of Oaxaca. Our drive to Tulum is another story to be told (next month).

I returned home with a head full of Spanish, and am still wondering just what the “secreto del espanol” really is. I spent the next few weeks dreaming and processing all I had learned. Unfortunately, I left for the United States for a two-month visit abroard before I was able to devote the time I needed to finish this task. We will see what happens, but I know that I must make a bigger effort to use Spanish when it often seems so much easier to just say it in English.

Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, own and operate the boutique hotel: La Selva Mariposa www.laselvamariposa.com, located in Macario Gomez at about km 20 just off on the Tulum-Coba Carretera. If you want to read about their adventure moving to Mexico, go to www.amazon.com and order Embarking on the Mariposa Trail and her new children’s book, Molly the Gecko Hunter.