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May 31, 2019 / annakpf11

Spanish Spoken Here

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

―20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein


Mexico is bigger than I thought. I have signed up for a week of Spanish language and culture immersion without realizing that it will take place in the southernmost state of Chiapas, and that a three-stage journey (a longish flight to Mexico City, then another to the tongue-twisting town of Tuxtla Guitierrez, followed by an hour’s drive into the highlands) will be required to get from my home near San Francisco to my destination of San Cristobal de las Casas.


During what turns out to be a two-day journey, I learn from first-hand experience how to say “my flight is delayed” (mi vuelo está demorado) and “my flight is canceled” (mi vuelo es cancelado).


I don’t mind the delays—all part of the aventura—and eventually I arrive and meet up with the other students (whose flights were also demorado). And so a week of discovery begins.


Our AirBnB house is rustic but artfully furnished and relatively spacious. The wifi connection is rubbish, but my bedroom window looks out onto a view of garden and mountains, and flowering jasmine perfumes the air.

The first evening, the valley echoes with the sounds of mariachi music, barking dogs, and exploding firecrackers. Things finally quiet down around 10 PM, but at 6:30 AM the next morning the neighbors start shooting off bottle rockets. Is today a holiday, I wonder, or is every day a fiesta?


One of the oldest colonial towns in Mexico, San Cristobal was founded by a Spanish conquistador in 1528, but known long before to local Tzotzil and Tzeltal tribes as “the place in the clouds.”

Home to a high proportion of indigenous peoples descended from ancient Mayans, everyday life is rooted in ancestral traditions of craft and folk art.


Our teachers, Margarita and Pablo, fill our time with Spanish lessons and sightseeing excursions in San Cristobal and the surrounding countryside.

One of the most interesting places we visit is a workshop and publishing collective called Taller Leñateros, where Mayan artists transform recycled paper and local plants into books, posters, prints, notebooks, and cards. The handmade paper products are embedded with flowers, colored with natural dyes, and printed with images inspired by traditional folk art.

Our van driver, Juan, a jolly young man from Tuxtla Gutierrez, ferries us to some of the farthest corners of the state of Chiapas. At first, his rapid-fire, heavily accented Spanish is incomprehensible (at least to me), but by the end of the week I manage to unscramble a tiny fraction of meaning.

One memorable day, he brings us to the remote, indigenous village of Chamula, and we tiptoe behind him into the San Juan Bautista temple. No photographs are allowed inside, and the scene is other-worldly.

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We huddle together, and when our eyes to adjust to the dim light we find ourselves in a vast interior devoid of furniture, lit only by chinks of daylight filtered through high, narrow windows and thousands of flickering candles. A smokey haze fills the cavernous space, and pine boughs cover the stone floor. Groups of congregants sit or kneel on the ground, surrounded by burning candles. A chicken, soon to be sacrificed, flaps its wings against the bars of its willow cage. Most of the women are dressed in traditional fuzzy skirts of black sheepskin, giving then a raven-like appearance. They bow their heads and chant prayers to Mayan deities and the Christian god alike.


Another day, we visit a weaving studio in the hilltop village of Zinacantán. Here, women use their bodies as human looms, kneeling on the floor and wearing thick leather belts to tension the threads. Their Mayan-inspired textiles represent countless hours of work, all handmade—hecho a mano—with skill and pride.

Every day brings new experiences (and new vocabulary). We paddle a raft to the middle of a volcanic lake; spot alligators and spider monkeys from a speedboat in the Cañón de Sumidero; and sample molé and mezcal in local restaurants.

Traveling with a group can feel like herding cats (in fact, since everyone tends to talk at once, it’s more like herding bluejays), and the mental effort of trying to speak and understand as much Spanish as possible at all times—even amongst ourselves—sometimes makes me feel as if my head might explode. But in a good way.

Why bother to learn Spanish? For one thing, 40% of California’s population is hispanic, so it seems useful—not to mention neighborly—to have a least a working knowledge of a language that forms part of the culture where I live. If that weren’t reason enough, plenty of research attests that learning a foreign language heightens creativity and improves analytical and problem solving skills. It’s fun, too. Every time I manage to get my meaning across in Spanish—often by cobbling together a work-around phrase—I feel the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, or hitting a good tennis shot. So why not?

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Leave a Comment
  1. / Jun 1 2019 7:23 pm

    What a wonderful adventure!


  2. Kissing the Muse / Jun 2 2019 3:52 pm

    Beautiful photos and fantastic stories! Inspired by your adventures!

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