As she boarded the bus from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, Kathy Quintana fought the urge to turn around and go home.
The 21-year-old Corona del Mar resident had never been to Mexico before. Now she was not only in a strange country on her own; she faced the prospect of living with a Mexican family she had never met--for a month.
As the bus rolled out of the uneven dirt parking lot behind the bus station, Quintana thought, "What am I doing here?"
The answer came back almost automatically--"Learning Spanish."
Quintana, who recently returned from her four-week stay in Cuernavaca, had arranged to live with a Mexican family as part of an intensive program of Spanish-language instruction. She is one of thousands of people who lived with a family in Mexico this year while studying Spanish at private schools.
The experience requires a high degree of motivation and a willingness to adjust to cultural and family differences--adjustments that are not always easy for Americans. Yet the popularity of such schools has increased dramatically. There are now at least 20 language schools scattered throughout Mexico, nearly all of them less than 10 years old. Enrollment at the Center for Bilingual Multicultural Studies in Cuernavaca jumped from 423 in 1980 to 1,328 last year. At the Academia Hispano Americana in San Miguel de Allende, enrollment increased from 627 to 993 during the same period. Other schools also report steady increases.
Students from Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia have become commonplace, but directors of several of the largest schools say more than half of their students come from the United States, most of them from Southern California.
"The density of Spanish-speaking people is higher in Southern California" than in most other areas of the United States, said Zenon Toledo, director of a language school called Cuauhnahuac in Cuernavaca. "Many of our students are doctors, nurses, lawyers and psychologists who work (or want to work) with Latinos."
Written Several Articles
Leo Ortiz-Minique, a Spanish-language instructor at Clark University in Massachusetts who has written several articles about Mexican language schools, noted that the political and social strife in Central American countries such as Nicaragua has also fostered an interest in Spanish for many Americans, particularly college students.
Many students attend language schools in Mexico simply because the institutions offer the fastest route to communicating with other Spanish speakers. Minique said that someone enrolled in an intensive program of five to six hours of Spanish a day, five days a week "can get the equivalent of a semester of college Spanish in three to four weeks." Coupled with the experience of living with a Mexican family, the schools provide "a total immersion that cannot be duplicated in U.S. universities," he added.
Those enrolled at Quintana's school included not only college students but journalists, teachers, diplomats, social workers and businessmen who hoped to increase or improve their dealings with Mexican companies. But Quintana had a special reason for attending.
Although she grew up in a Mexican-American family in Corona, she never learned enough Spanish to participate in family discussions during holiday and birthday celebrations. "I knew exactly what was being said, but I was always afraid my family was going to laugh at me if I talked because I didn't know grammar very well. It was very frustrating," Quintana explained.
"I figured I should know how to speak Spanish because that's what my origins are. But I couldn't."
Recommended by a Friend
Like most students, Quintana chose a school that was recommended by a friend. It was in Cuernavaca. Although there are language schools in small towns such as Rosarito Beach and San Miguel de Allende, industrial centers such as Puebla and Mexico City, and resort cities such as Merida and Mazatlan, Cuernavaca--with no less than a dozen schools--has become Mexico's unofficial headquarters for language students.
"In Cuernavaca there are more language institutions per square mile than any other city in the Spanish-speaking world," Ortiz-Minique said.
Nearly all of them offer a program of three to five hours of grammar and conversation classes a day. And nearly all offer additional minicourses on Mexican or Latin American culture and history.
Costs are also remarkably similar. Tuition at the schools runs $400 to $500 a month, and room and board with a family $10 to $15 a night (including all meals), depending on whether a student wants his own room or is willing to share with another student.