Mike Wilson: Spanish lessons can end with a punch

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, March 28, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

In light of the most recent round of border disturbances, Mexico no longer calls to me as it once did, but there was a time when getting there was foremost in my mind…

My first visit to the northern city of Monterrey came in the summer of 1971 after my second year of high school Spanish. Miss Grooms had shown us many slides of Mexico City and its environs in particular, but convincing my parents to cross into Mexico at all since we were already camping in Texas was a major victory.

I was thrilled to try out my Spanish on native speakers at last as there were (amazing when you think about it now) very few in Memphis in those days. I struck out when a butcher indicated that the carcass hanging from the ceiling was “chiva,” not in my textbook vocabulary. I learned later that it was goat, and it became one of my main food groups there later on.

When I graduated from high school at 17, I–unlike all the rest of my 600 classmates–decided to use my graduation gifts to fly to Mexico City for a week instead of going to a Gulf Coast beach to party. The consternation of my parents was considerable, but they had finally relented when faced with evidence that thousands of my contemporaries were visiting Southeast Asia, a much more hostile environment.

I now had increased confidence in my Spanish abilities, which were tested immediately when I arrived by airport taxi at Miss Grooms’s recommended hotel, which had recently burned to the ground. I got the taxi driver to take me to another hotel for the night while I searched my guidebook for affordable rooms. When I called the Hotel Monte Carlo, a former monastery, I led (after a brief mental rehearsal) with, “Good evening, sir. I have a problem.” His genial reply was, “We all have problems…” I knew this would be a fit.

I saw the pyramids, the floating gardens, Chapultepec Park, and the Museum of Anthropology and rode the largest roller coaster in the world, the “Russian Mountain,” which had been installed for the 1968 Olympics. I also went to a bullfight and was instantly hooked. I thought it would be a cheap sightseeing tour to take any old city bus for a full circle; then I learned that many of the bus drivers drove out straight lines to scary parts of the surrounding hills and then parked the bus for the night. Fortunately, I was able to ask how to find transport back to the center.

I had placed first in the National Spanish Exam as a senior, and I learned a year later after my freshman year in college that my award was a full scholarship for the Experiment in International Living. I received this news after coming home from a long day in the aluminum factory, and I instantly retired my shop apron and gloves. My group traveled by bus from the border to Chiapas, the southernmost state bordering Guatemala. There I was placed in the home of a prosperous merchant who owned the only dry goods store by the local open air market in San Cristobal. His mischievous son got me good the first night there: after a supper of tripe (which was a test I passed easily), he asked if I wanted flan or cocotazo for dessert. Since I had already had flan, I — ever curious — requested the latter, which netted me a sharp rap on the top of my head with his knuckle. That is how I have remembered ever since that the suffix -azo can refer to a blow of some sort. The other suffix I remember vividly is -ote, which means that the attached noun is large. Gilberto’s four-year-old grandson Gilito approached one day with a big stick in tow as I lay in bed with dysentery and pronounced, “Te voy a pegar con un palote” (“I am going to whomp you with a big stick”). He then proceeded with the whomping, which a kind housekeeper was able to stop fairly soon. That bout of illness led to a weight loss of 25 pounds when I didn’t need it, and my sartorial splendor suffered somewhat when I had to make a big fold in my jeans before I cinched them up. To compound the insult, the housekeeper was beating them with a rock as she washed them, making them just a bit larger each time…

I was fortunate enough to receive a Rotary International Graduate Fellowship for the academic year 1977-78, my second year of grad school. As it necessarily had to be used in a country with Rotary Clubs, Spain was out, so Mexico City it was. It was my wife Sonia’s senior year at Mount Holyoke, and she enrolled in a program sponsored by Rutgers University. It was a great year, though not without its episodes. I noticed one day when I was sick in bed (recurring theme, I just realized) that the curtains were swaying, so I asked Sonia to look out the window to see what was going on. What was going on was an earthquake, luckily milder than the one that leveled a large section of downtown a few months after we left. We had planned a trip by bus to Acapulco the following weekend but did not go; the bus we were meant to take plunged off a mountain curve, killing all aboard.

In January, her Rutgers group toured about the southern part of the country, including Oaxaca and the Yucatan Peninsula. I had the wily plan of leaving the country briefly in Chetumal, on the border with Belize, to renew our tourist visas, which were about to expire. The plan did not work: one had to be out of the country for at least 24 hours to get a new visa. We could see our bus idling impatiently across the bridge in Mexico. But for the grace of God and a kindly major in the border patrol who agreed to look the other way for $50, we might have had our first daughter in Belize.

My old high school and church buddy Eddie, who could travel free since he worked for Southern Airways, flew down to visit us for a week. I had to serve as his interpreter for approximately a hundred transactions involving silver and turquoise items without price tags for a long list of recipients back home. At each exchange, he would ask, “What is he saying?” On the last day, as we rode home on the metro, a demented-looking character began to stare at us, the two biggest gringos ever spotted outside a tour bus, and make a mean face while grinding at his nose with his fist. Eddie, naturally, asked me, “What is he saying?” I believe today’s generation says, “Read the room.”

I decided long ago that I would not take the kids or return there myself over safety and health considerations, which have only burgeoned in the intervening decades. My time there certainly left me with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the legions of migrants who flood our borders, pick our crops, and build our houses. I think they deserve a chance in life.

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.