Xela: A New School, A New Home, and A New Accent

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

This week, I settled into my new temporary home here in southwest Guatemala, Quetzaltenango (literally the “the place of the quetzal bird” but better known by its Mayan name of “Xela”). My plan is to remain here for at least two weeks studying some more Spanish, checking out Guatemalan city life (Xela is the second-largest city in Guatemala), and hiking the several volcanoes that surround this highland city, situated at 2,330 meters (7,640 feet).

On Monday, I enrolled in the local Spanish school Proyecto Linguistico Quetzaltenengo (“PLQ”) — a school run by a number of local human rights’ activists and former left-wing guerrillas that, in addition to teaching students Spanish, educate students on the politics, history, and economics of Guatemala. Given this mission, it was not too surprising to find a more serious breed of student here than in San Pedro. Of the students I have chatted with, it is common to hear people talking about their length of time studying Spanish on the order of months rather than weeks. Also, whereas most students in San Pedro School were learning Spanish primarily to jumpstart their travels throughout Latin America, students here generally seem to have some more concrete practical application in mind with their Spanish, such as social work on the U.S.-Mexico border, the fulfillment of a graduate school requirement, or public health work in Latin America. Therefore, on my first day of orientation, when I told the group of new students my reason for studying Spanish was to “not sound like a complete gringo when traveling through Latin America,” a slight tug of self-consciousness urged me to add, “and possibly volunteer with Hispanic-speaking communities back in the US.” Although this is not a complete lie (this has been a potential use for my Spanish that has been in the back of my mind), this has hardly been an outspoken desire of mine until this group of socially-conscious lefties motivated me to speak to the more selfless side of motivations. Also of note is the fact over half the students in the school are Americans. After seeing only a half dozen Americans in my first six weeks in Guatemala, this was actually a bit of a shock. It definitely feels nice to be around some more of my fellow countrymen, but, at the same time, I miss the variety of perspectives that a more international group provides.

One feature of PLQ that I appreciate is the fact that teachers rotate every week, a pretty good idea as the number of conversation topics one can cover in broken Spanish with a single human are admittedly limited. My teacher this week was Heber, a 36-year-old Quetzaltecan who spent the first twelve years of his life on a farm in the highlands, which provided the backdrop for a number of the stories he told me throughout the week. These stories usually involved some near-death experience related to climbing trees, dueling with child-weaponized tree branches, or racing on top of goats. This week, Heber was on a mission: shake the gringo out of Ricardo’s Spanish accent. Every few words I spoke, Heber would with interrupt with a playful smile and the words, “No…repite, por favor.” I would then “repite,” trying extra hard to roll my r’s, not pronounce my “h’s”, and lean into my tilde’s with a Don Quixotian flourish. I was rewarded by this effort when the father of my host family announced after my response to one of his questions this morning, “¡Tú Español es mejor después de tus clases esta semana!”

This brings me to my new host family in Quetzaltenango, the Riveras. Lorena and Edwin head the household, which also consists of a daughter in her mid-twenties, a son in his early 20’s, and a grandson of four (embarrassingly enough, I have yet been able to understand how to say their names — I am hoping I can get by for the next week or so without this fact slipping!). The Riveras are not quite as religious as my host family in San Pedro which was in the habit of attending church four times a week. When I asked Lorena and Edwin if they go with their family to church every week, Edwin vigorously responded “Si, si, si!” while Lorena’s mouth dropped open and her head began shaking in playful agitation at this blatant lie. After some more explanation, I discovered that Edwin is Catholic and Lorena is a Protestant, leading me to chalk up Edwin’s response to the universal phenomenon of Catholic guilt. Throughout my stilted Spanish conversations over meals with the Riveras, I have also learned that Edwin worked in Los Angeles for several years as a car mechanic (also his current profession in Xela), which has armed him with several phrases in English. His favorite phrase is, “No pay-en, no gay-en!” which he has never failed to recite to me over breakfast after the morning weightlifting routine in his bedroom. At one point, a weightlifting discussion with Edwin led to a discussion about which foods have protein — something my humble level of Spanish could handle as I quickly rattled off “huevos (eggs), frijoles (beans), and bistec (steak).” After my list, Edwin, grinning from ear-to-ear, responded in English, “Thang gew, my teachurr.” When I initially did not respond, Edwin followed up with some more English, “It’s a yoke, mang!” Since this conversation, Edwin has referred to me (in English) as “my teachurr” and has continued to hit me with “yokes.”

One of my primary motivations for studying in Xela, beyond a desire to explore how far left the socialist winds may blow me, is the fact that there a number of volcanoes to explore nearby. I conquered the first of these — Santa Maria — on Saturday with a group of four other students. Santa Maria peaks out at 3,770 meters (12,375 ft) and was the site one of the largest eruptions in the 20th century in 1902. The climb itself is pretty tough (3,000+ feet) and took us nearly five hours as two of my compañeros struggled with the altitude, slowing the pace to a crawl as we approached the top (quite literally in some points, as the pitch kicked up aggressively enough to require a scramble). Throughout the climb, we were treated to brilliant views of Xela and the plateau below but were disappointed to have a blanket of clouds obscuring the view once we reached the top — on a clear day, apparently you can see eruptions of the neighboring volcano known as Santiaguito. On the peak we also had company in the form of charismatic Christians scattered across the peak. The yelps and wails coming from this group provided an odd bit of background noise as we munched on the lunch that would fuel our descent. After this several hour descent, we returned to Xela in a chicken bus, bouncing our way back to civilization and hot meals with our host families.

Next week, I will be back to my studies with a new teacher and, hopefully, a crisper Spanish accent. Over the weekend, I’ll be looking to tackle another volcano —Tajumulco — the highest point in Central America. Until next time!

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