My friend Larry, a long-time expat resident of San Miguel, has a theory about personal safety. According to Larry, if you see a tough-looking adult male on the street walking toward you and you’re not sure if he’s dangerous, relax. All you need do is smile and say, “Buenos días.” Larry is convinced that the man would smile back and warmly reply, “Buenos días” and go on his way. That’s because, according to Larry’s theory, there isn’t a man in the entire country that would accost you after such a greeting. The people in this gracious country are raised to be polite, to return a courtesy with a courtesy.
Which pleases me because I’m still unable to master Spanish, other than deliver clipped greetings, pose simple questions, and tell people my name—all in present tense, like a three-year-old. This is a sad and unfortunate admission. I was taught Spanish by Latin American nuns in the lower grades and have the report card to prove it. I took one year of high school Spanish. And I spent nine months while serving in the military on the island of Puerto Rico. Still … “Yo no hablo mucho español.”
It’s not as if I didn’t try to learn Spanish. I did. I came. I studied. But I didn’t conquer. English is the common language of the modern world, which is a huge comfort for me, since I was fortunate to have been born in America and, after six decades of trying, it is obvious that English remains the only language I will ever fully know. It’s a good thing I wasn’t born in Denmark, because I’d never be able to speak Danish.
I attended a book reading by an author who wrote of his long-time experiences living in Mexico, especially his years in San Miguel. During the question and answer period that followed, one woman said she thought the biggest problem in San Miguel today was English-speaking expats who don’t take the time to study and become fluent in Spanish.
Mexico is a gorgeous country, full of wonderful people, enormous resources, and great promise. But I believe it has bigger problems than Americans not conversing with their neighbors in Spanish. There’s the poverty rate, the huge gap between the haves and have nots, the lack of economic opportunity, insufficient education, systemic graft and corruption, and, of course, the very serious matter of drug cartels and violence. One’s inability to exchange pleasantries in Spanish pales by comparison.
San Miguel de Allende, like it or not, for good or bad, is a sophisticated international destination, where it helps to know Spanish but it is hardly the main requirement for residency. Would my life here be enhanced if I were proficient in the local jargon? Yes, no question about it. Is my experience of living here diminished by mostly speaking English and only occasionally taking a stab at Spanish? Perhaps.
Instead of taking a class in conversational Spanish, I suppose if I really wanted to break down the language barrier, I would volunteer to teach English. Because this is a bilingual town, a Mexican who speaks both Spanish and English has a better chance of finding a job, especially in the service industry. On the other hand, when the aging American who studies Spanish dies, his Spanish dies with him, along with his AARP card.
All this is moot, of course, because I’m afraid the only way I will become fluent in Spanish at this point in my life is if I’m found guilty of a crime and sent to a Mexican prison. Necessity, after all, is the mother of language acquisition. In fact, I’m already planning to memorize a few key prison survival phrases in Spanish, just in case my next career stop is a turn in the slammer:
En los últimos tiempo, no quiero ducha con usted. (For the last time, I do not want to shower with you.)
Por favor, salga lo que ondean en mi cara. (Please quit waving that thing in my face.)
And my personal favorite:
Estoy demasiado viejo para ser tu perra. Voy a tener que ser tu madre. (I’m too old to be your bitch. I’ll have to be your mother.)