Spanish Immersion

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2001

Idon't know when it first occurred to me to take my 7-year-old daughter, Sydney, to Guatemala for a month. It might have been after the holidays, when she informed me that her friend Brittany had "a radio and a CD player and a VCR and a TV and a telephone in her room, and she's only 6. When can I get my own telephone, Mommy?"

Maybe it was the cumulative effect of a year spent listening to Sydney and her fellow first-graders measure their worth in Powerpuff Girls and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and all things Barbie. Or perhaps it was after taking a good look at the soft, overindulged children of my middle-class friends and thinking, "We can give our kids everything they want, but look how much it's cost us. Look at these fragile children, with their underdeveloped sense of self-reliance and overdeveloped sense of entitlement."

I had been to Antigua, Guatemala's colonial capital, for a three-week Spanish immersion program in 1999. It was the first time I had spent a significant amount of time abroad, and the trip seared my mind with harsh, beautiful contrasts -- scenes of panoramic beauty and grinding squalor.

A trip to a well-traveled locale in Central America would be a great way to teach Sydney Spanish and expand her frame of reference gently, I thought. A way, I hoped, to dematerialize my material girl.

Touching Down

It was an early June evening when we touched down in Guatemala City, and city lights colored the night sky. Sydney looked out the airplane window and exclaimed loudly, "Look at all the buildings, Mommy!" Then she looked at me accusingly: "You said there weren't any buildings in Guatemala."

I refused to make eye contact with any of the other passengers. I had not said that, but in trying to prepare her, I had maybe overemphasized the whole developing-country thing. Tact was to be a frequent casualty of our trip.

The head of the English Department at the bilingual school Sydney would be attending had taken care of the logistics. We were to stay with a family in Antigua, the destination of nearly 70 percent of all Guatemalan visitors. It is an evocatively beautiful, ancient city -- a place where Spanish colonial architecture and cobblestone streets exist against a backdrop of great, looming volcanoes. In a country scarred by 36 years of civil war -- it ended in 1996 -- Antigua has held fiercely to its Old World soul while catering to a robust tourist industry. It is an industry fueled by myriad inexpensive language schools and the chance to interact with the indigenous descendants of the Mayans, who have maintained their language, dress and many of their ancient rituals.

Syd had not been looking forward to the trip, complaining loudly and often that she was going to be forced to live without TV and English. Our first night, she was tired and close to meltdown about the "clubhouse on the roof," a small, spare one-room roof addition that was going to be our living quarters. But early the next morning, she rushed out to play with the roosters, which had began crowing, impossibly, at 3 in the morning.

"Mommy, I fed the chickens," she exclaimed. "I love it here!" She hated-loved just about every day we spent in Guatemala.

For $65 a week, we were given room and board and three meals every day except Sunday. The house was a short four- or five-block walk from the main gathering place, Parque Central, and its nearby banks, restaurants and shops. Fairly large and typically colonial, the abode featured an uncovered indoor patio area and eight rooms of varying sizes with the front room used as a small tienda -- a store selling toiletries, snacks and liquor. The spare room was reserved for foreign visitors.

I spoke limited Spanish, and Señora Lorena, her husband, two children and the more than half a dozen extended family members who lived with them spoke no English. Indeed, nothing focuses the mind like having to negotiate food and bathroom issues. I adapted quickly.

The first weekend, I settled into our "clubhouse" while Sydney was downstairs with the family making friends. I came down in time to find her explaining to the señora's sister, in rapid-fire English punctuated with neck rolls and dramatic gestures, how she had left all her friends at school back in Upper Marlboro.

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