When I was sixteen, my family was fortunate to get away to Mexico for spring break. We left behind the freezing temperatures of Minnesota and were met with warm sunshine of Mexico’s Pacific coast. In a precursor of Air B & B, my dad made a favorable agreement with a friend of a friend to rent a time share in Las Hadas, a very nice resort. (see vintage postcard above). This was our first ever spring break out of the country in a hot climate; our maiden voyage outside the US as a family.
My sister and I enjoyed the sun at the resort with a group of teens. The gang of us went wading in the ocean off the volcanic black sand beaches or darted around a pool. We reveled in the larger swimming pool with an island swim-up bar where we charged soft drinks or virgin strawberry daiquiris to our room. We chatted, flirted and sunned ourselves. She and I chased geckos down the labyrinthine exterior stucco corridors of the resort buildings. No homework, no school bus to catch, no mean girls from school. The week was completely relaxing.
Mom was able to take a break and read several Agatha Christie mysteries, although she did make us breakfast and lunch. In the evenings our family would go out to dinner. Often the four of us would catch a taxi from the Las Hadas office into Manzanillo. As the trip to the restaurant began, my dad would say ¿Cuanto cuesta a…?” and the restaurant’s name. The taxista would name a price for the journey. Dad would ask me to interpret it and provide the numbers to bargain with the driver. I suppose they could have communicated numbers by hand signals, if we had thought of it.
What happened was more of an amusing game. The driver might say 1400 pesos. I’d tell Dad. He’d ask the word for one-thousand. I’d tell him, “mil.” He’d say mil to the driver. The driver would say 1300. I’d interpret. Then, Dad asked for “1100.” I’d say, “That’s mil cien.” Dad would start to relay it, and the taxista would turn to say to me in Spanish, “I know! I heard! How about 1200?” Dad would say to me, “What was that?” I’d explain, and he’d agree to the price. 1200 it is!
When we got to the restaurant, we’d open our menus and my food vocabulary quiz began. Very few menus were translated into English in those days. Since my parents and sister knew French, pollo for chicken was easy like the French poulet. They quickly learned puerco for pork and pescado for fish. For extra vocabulary, my mom might call out a word like, “langosta” and I’d translate, “lobster,” or Dad would ask, “Cangrejo?” and I’d say, “Crab.” Many more words I didn’t know, like parilla for grill, ostiones for oysters, calamares for squid. I’d ask the server questions and my family and I would make educated guesses. The food was delicious whichever dishes ended up coming to the table.
Using my Spanish for communication was a lot of fun; much more meaningful than memorizing vocabulary and grammar had been! Three and a half years of classes prepared me to utilize the language that week. Most agreeable final exam ever, a linguistic effort with the encouraging result of a good dinner or an inexpensive taxi ride. What if Spanish classes were this practical? Would more people know a second language?
One evening we were waiting for a table at a restaurant bar. A man in his twenties next to us on the bench began to talk with us. This young señor mexicano asked our nationality and how long we would be in Manzanillo. When he realized I could answer his questions in castellano, he chatted with me about everything and nothing. El señor was complimentary about my español, which made me blush. I still needed to think really hard to speak Spanish at that point in my language journey. Next he offered to buy me a drink. I giggled and told him I was only 16. He insisted, to show hospitality. My dad allowed him to buy me a Coke. I was glad it was an evening I was completely chaperoned because the señor’s intensity was more than I could handle at that age.
Memorably, my knowledge of Spanish felt important that holiday. El español was a real world language, the same feeling I had two years before in Mexico City. This was not only a school subject; it is how millions of people convey their thoughts and feelings every day. Also, as Cuningham family interpreter, I felt more grown up. I helped them communicate and fulfill their needs. After this role, I returned to Minnesota speaking Spanish a bit more confidently, with a stronger belief in myself. I was a little more Rebecca, and a lot more Fake Flamenco; keep trying until you get the food and life you want on the table. ; )
What experiences as a teen helped you feel more confident? Or taught you more about your skills and how to use them? Which events made you realize who you are?
Gracias for reading! Olé! -Rebecca
Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic en Interpretando Manzanillo, México.