Bilingual is Better
Amy Conroy immersion travel San Miguel de Allende Mexico

{Photos courtesy of Amy Conroy}

Editor’s note: This is Part 7 in a continuing series by Amy Conroy. To read the other parts, go here

“Finally, it’s over!”, said by the same homebody 5-year-old who requests leave of Disneyland after a few hours. Oh sweetheart, it’s only just begun!

True, it was relieving to come home after living in Mexico for four months. There is nothing like coming home, and the water here is so clean and plentiful! BUT, we are going back. I am determined to capitalize on this period of our life, when we are not too committed to sports’ teams, my children’s minds are malleable, and making friends happens over shared bubbles in the park. I know it is impossible to keep it this simple for long.

But coming home was funny, and the first 24 hours paint the picture well: after 6 hours of travel with 3 young children and a puppy, we arrived to our LA home around 2 a.m. Wired with excitement, each member of our family fully embraced their quirky idiosyncratic nesting practices: Jack took inventory of every toy that needed new batteries and kept a tally, Cecilia changed outfits ad infinitum from the repertoire hanging in the closet, and Calvin dumped out the entire collection of toys onto the living room floor. Cecilia was and still is at odds with what to do with her used toilet paper, carrying it in hand after her visit to the bathroom, panties around the ankles. And my appointment that took me to Beverly Hills by 10 am the following day was surreal if, for no other reason, than the valet had to ask me several times if this was my car when he drove up, because I just didn’t recognize it!!

Aside from those little silly glitches, it’s been incredibly rewarding to watch the kids adjust back to home life. It is difficult to pin-point the differences, but easy to recognize them. I have a Kindergartener who’s music class was attempting to rhyme each student’s name. Nobody could rhyme the name “Laila”, said with a long i. After a moment, Calvin suggested “baila”, explaining to his classmates that it meant “dance in Spanish”. In fact, at orientation, we spoke Spanish with several fellow students and their parents, and I felt my world open. This is our third year at the school, but I am meeting a whole new community. I ask Calvin if he speaks Spanish with the kids at school, and he shakes his head with a sheepish grin. But when I arrive to school, I am greeted by a lovely Spanish speaking little girl, who knows that our worlds are not split or separated. She is perfectly bilingual, but we prefer to speak in Spanish.  Bilingual potluck dinners are on the agenda…

Jack was very nervous that he would have forgotten his classmates, or his way around the school, all for no reason. He slipped right back into the fabric of second grade as any other child returned from summer vacation.  Though he is a thoughtful boy, generally more shy than aggressive, he is a zealot on the soccer field. Take no prisoners, animal, this guy hustles! Would he be this way regardless, or is it due to his time spent as the youngest player scrounging for the ball with A.C. Milan in the land that grooms their soccer players young? He is also sharing a bit more of his goofy sweetness with others which I’d have to attribute to an increasing self-confidence … probably normal developmental growth, but I’d like to think it is also due to pride in accomplishments overall.

We speak Spanish at home sometimes, but it is a complicated and delicate balance sought in the comfort of our own home without outsiders around. Ironically, it is often in their goofiest moments – in the bath, the car, playing with the puppy – but when their guards are completely let down, that the kids speak Spanish unsolicited. Joking with one another, they are playful with the language and use it to create double entendres that often make us all laugh. However initially back home, Jack begged me to NEVER speak Spanish in public while home in the U.S. – Mexico was OK, but not here. I obviously didn’t agree to this, but I am sensitive to his discomfort from the attention that it brings to a blond haired, blue eyed boy. He will answer me, but he is reluctant to be a trained monkey and demonstrate his skills. Cecilia, on the other hand, la muñeca princesa, eats up the attention, of course – happily performing ‘Las Mañanitas’ to any request! Interestingly, I can also use Spanish to get their attention while in a store or otherwise, as in “Mira, Cecilia!  Escuchame, no puedes ir….” It’s as if they suddenly hear my words differently when I switch to the other language.

Our pediatrician is one of the few adults who have successfully solicited Jack for information about his life in Mexico… Jack capitalized on this opportunity to convince me that he should have a birthday party here in the U.S., and then have another when we return to San Miguel! What else could I say but ‘claro’?! Anything, anything to get them to embrace the idea of our return and dual life!

So I find that it’s all about language. How we think of our experiences is shaped by how we talk about them – present, past, and future. I am reminded of the many articles I’ve read about ‘prestige languages’ and am very careful and cautious when creating our narrative. It is an ongoing process that we are constantly renegotiating in our minds and with one another. The reality of this process and our dual lives can be uncomfortable. The kids are beginning to see that it can also be recognized and appreciated, too, and I hope that they see the inherent value in time.

But it’s hard. There are still many people that fear the violence so much that they would NEVER consider a trip to Mexico, and my children are perceptive of those opinions as well. We have decided to live differently, because I’d like for my children to think differently. When we are away and circumstances are different, I have excellent opportunities to talk about those ideas – water scarcity, needs versus wants, traditions, expectations, and opportunities. When so many things are new in our environment, our perspective is open to observing even a common sight very differently than we would have at home – so that something as mundane as a grocery store outing becomes a huge exploration into culture.

Reflection is a very personal process, however, that is not easily monitored or quantified.  =Yesterday my boys were laughing hysterically dressed in bathtime bubbles convincing me that, “Ya hablamos español!”. They have accepted that we will return to MX, and I am more convinced than ever. It is not just because of the concrete reasons (like language acquisition, or accessibility to fabulous art classes), but because of the difference in ‘thinking’. I find myself in situations in Los Angeles where others tell me, “yeah, but that’s the way it is…” or “it’s the same everywhere” and I am taken back to some former sports coach telling me to just “deal with it” at age 15. And that is not the case. Life has options. And if you don’t like something, it’s important to find an alternative solution.

San Miguel seems to be composed of many people who do not find themselves constrained by expectations, or limited by their options or traditional roles. There are fewer rules! True, it is an expensive and affluent Mexican town (that can afford to offer privileges of the elite to the masses and yes, is uncomfortably colonial at times), but I argue about something more intangible than commodities – a way of thinking that embraces ingenuity and defies expectations. It is a place where 75-year-olds cruise around on motor-scooters, age nor background defines ‘dress’ or ‘behavior’, people reinvent themselves as sculptors, and the goal is to live well.

I hiccup sometimes when I am there and ponder our ‘productivity’, immediately sliding back into that Puritanical work ethic of the common American, but I really want my children to seek their sense of success, satisfaction, and happiness from within.  That can be difficult to achieve when you’re so busy checking boxes, taking tests… the awful old adage of ‘keeping up with the Jones’, which allows no time for reflection or personal exploration.

There are many ways to do this, I am clear. This is our path – for now. It certainly stands to change as my children mature, but the power to be flexible and adaptable,  to live untraditionally or uncommonly by other’s standards, is a power for choice that will remain in our DNA.

My husband loves to say that you need to “prepare to be lucky” in life, and that is how I see our whole Mexico experience – how lucky we are.

Recent Posts