Yesterday was a victory for me. The other interns and I joined the group visiting from the States for a trip into Mexico City. Our group leader had planned for us to visit the Castle of Chapultepec. Quick background on the castle: During the Mexican-American War, this castle was used as a military academy for young men. At one point during the war, US troops attacked the castle. 6 young Mexican cadets (between the ages of 13 and 19) refused to let the enemy take their flag. These young men wrapped themselves in the flag and threw themselves from the castle. Today there is a monument in their memory outside the castle. It’s a tragic story of patriotism, and the castle is an important piece of Mexican history.
Now the Castle of Chapultepec is a National History Museum, which is part of the reason the group went here to tour. We were wandering through the rooms, admiring the various exhibits, when we stumbled upon a room full of portraits. A few of the girls were looking at a cross-eyed one when a security guard approached them. Rather than reminding them to turn off their camera flash or anything like that, he proceeded to teach them the Spanish word for “cross-eyed.” Overhearing them, I joined in and asked him to explain it to me. After repeating the word back to him and thanking him, I explained to the girls what he had been saying. He returned to the entrance of the room.
A few moments later, the group leader called me over. The guard was trying to tell me something. Apparently, the group leader (who knows more Spanish than I do) couldn’t make out what the guard was saying, so the guard singled me out as someone who “speaks Spanish well.” Much to my surprise, he began conversing with me at full speed. I asked him to slow down and with some miming and gesturing to figure out the word I didn’t understand (it was “carriage”), I figured out what he was saying. Not only did he recommend we go see the carriage down below, but he also explained that the portraits were of rulers of New Spain from the time of Cortez’s conquest until the Independence. Then he asked me where I was from and where I had learned Spanish. He inquired as to whether I knew Mexico’s history, and I told him I knew a little. He encouraged me to learn more and to teach those around me (by this point, the entire group had gathered) what I knew.
After all that, we wandered around the room for a few more minutes. As we filtered out of the room, the guard stopped me, shook my hand, and told me to take care and to continue learning Spanish.
This has probably been one of my favorite experiences so far in Mexico. It was totally unique. Most of my days are spent talking to kids, Americans, or adults who know some English. I speak a lot of Spanish, but I also do a lot of miming and inserting English words. When I talked to the guard, I was unable to rely on some of the crutches I’ve been using. Suddenly, it was all-or-nothing Spanish. I stumbled through and was grateful for that conversation. It showed me that I am getting better at Spanish and that I am capable of intelligent conversation. I also learned how wonderful and random such cultural moments can be–when someone pauses to teach another what’s going on around them. He taught me a lot, and the group learned via translation. We could better appreciate the castle we were in and the culture we’re visiting because one man took the time to stop and show us a bit of history.
¡Dios les bendiga!