Selling Spanish Immersion: An American In Guatemala

By By Adam Isaacs
March 20, 2012

Photo courtesy Adam Isaacs
Adam Isaacs and his Spanish immersion teacher, Maria.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An Arizona resident recalls his time as a Spanish immersion student in Guatemala.

Guatemala is often overlooked, but for those who have been it is unforgettable. I went in January 2007 and stayed with a family in Quetzaltenango for a month while taking Spanish immersion classes at a nearby school. I was in my first year of the MBA program at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz., and part of the graduation requirement was to be proficient in a second language.

My Spanish skills were decent, but I needed to improve. Rather than spend a semester and thousands of dollars on a Spanish class at Thunderbird, I opted to study in Guatemala for less than half the price.

The family that hosted me included a single mother, Aída, and her 15-year-old son, Cesár. Hosting Spanish students was their only source of income. They provided me with a private bedroom, three meals a day and a first-hand look at the daily life of a hard working, middle-class Guatemalan family.

It was winter in the highlands, so mornings began with a shower so cold I could see my breath. Aída made sure I was never late for class and she usually had sweet plantains sizzling in oil and black beans bubbling in a pot by the time I was out of the shower. Cesár and Aída did not speak any English, so our meals together, with my diccionario by my plate, were some of the best Spanish practice I had.

Photo courtesy Adam Isaacs
Rural Mayan children waiting for bus to go back to their town from Quetzaltenango.

I walked about 15 minutes to school each day. I marveled at the Mayan women in colorful dresses hurrying past me with buckets of maíz balanced effortlessly on their heads. I spotted workers at small shops stocking their shelves with fresh goods, saying buenos días (and eventually simply buenos, like the locals) to young, uniformed students on their way to school. The mornings made Guatelaman life appear so peaceful, like there had never been a civil war.

The devastation of the 36-year war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives of mostly rural Mayans, forever changed several generations of Guatemalans. The war officially ended in 1996, although some would argue that it continues to this day.

The Spanish school I attended emerged during the war, founded by a collective of teachers, many of whom were former anti-government activists and guerrilla soldiers.

Photo courtesy Adam Isaacs
A few of the teachers playing foosball during a break from Spanish instruction.

One of my teachers, María, was a radio broadcaster for the guerrilla forces during the war, offering critical communication support to troops all over the country. She and her colleagues wanted to continue their fight for equality and social justice by teaching Spanish to linguistic tourists from all over the world and educating them about the social and political realities in Guatemala.

All teachers at the school are college educated and certified to teach Spanish as a second language. They are paid relatively well for Guatemalans and paid equally, whether they are men or women. Students and teachers work hard, one-on-one, for five hours a day. Coffee breaks are filled with more Spanish conversation, a quick foosball game, or ping pong over a net made of cracked bricks.

Every night after dinner and finishing my homework, my tired mind craved English. I would open up a book called Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. Like most Americans, I didn’t know much about Guatemala prior to my stay there, or about the United States’ involvement in its violent past. Now that I have read this book, and now that I have experienced life in a Guatemalan home, I know Guatemala is a special country that deserves peace. I want to do more, and I can’t wait to go back.

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Adam Isaacs attended the Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Español in Guatemala.