Summer Trip of a Lifetime
Next week, I fly to Mexico City to see people I haven’t seen in 25 years. I’m bringing my husband, my kids, and a surprise.
I’ll tell you about the surprise soon. Now I invite you on my journey with the important backstory, and a hint.
Twenty-five years ago I went to Mexico alone against the advice of my family.
“You should go somewhere with more culture,” one family elder advised. “Like Spain.”
More culture? Seriously? Did he know anything about Mexico? Advice like that made me even more determined to go. Having grown up white in California, I was fed up with deficit thinking about the Spanish language, Mexico, and Mexicans. It was often unspoken. It was wrong. I wanted to learn about the richness of Spanish and Mexican culture from the source.
Family and friends also advised me not to go because I was a woman. I was 21. They were afraid for me traveling alone. To be honest, so was I.
I refused to give into my fear, however. I didn’t want to accept that I was limited by my gender. So, stubbornly, I spent the first month of my summer working to buy a ticket that sent me to Mexico for the next two months. I read books written by women who had traveled alone and studied up on the best tips for playing it safe.
“I struggle with my doubts and fears.” I wrote in my journal two days before my flight. “Is this really what I want?” I asked myself, fearing the answer I knew was true: “Yes.” I was hungry to experience life beyond the comfort of my assumptions, my language, and my culture. It terrified me to do so, but I didn’t want to dismiss my dream due to fear.
The First Night
The day I arrived, I went straight to Cuernavaca, a popular town for language study. I found a sunny hotel recommended by the guidebook. I wore a fake wedding ring. I dressed modestly in a long, frumpy dress. I retired early in my hotel rather than going out.
When five men started drinking in the courtyard outside my room, fortunately, I understood enough Spanish to comprehend their words.
For hours that night, the men talked about breaking into my hotel room, and then tried to do so. All that separated us was a beveled glass door with a flimsy latch, and the dresser I shoved against the door. Through the bathroom window, I saw one of the men was the hotel security guard. He had a gun and the key to my room. These were the days before cell phones, and my hotel room had no phone. It was the most terrifying night of my life. I am forever grateful I escaped untouched, thanks to a combination of my many actions to attempt to save myself, and dumb luck.
Pacing with fight-or-flight adrenaline, I awaited the first light of dawn to escape. I stepped over a man sleeping outside my door and tiptoed out through the gated hotel entry to the cobblestone street. Alert, alive, grateful, and trembling, I walked streets of shops shut tight with corrugated metal doors.
Where do I go now? I remember the gut-wrenching sense of my vulnerability, and sheer terror at the thought of staying alone in another hotel. I remember wanting to go home, and knowing that if I did I’d prove my family right. I’d prove my fears right. I’d return to the safety of what I knew and an increased fear of a country I’d hoped to understand.
I didn’t want to let those five men ruin my impression of an entire nation. I had come to Mexico to overcome my fear of the unknown, and if I left now my fear would only grow.
I took the next bus to Mexico City, hoping to figure out a plan before nightfall. If I didn’t, I’d go to the airport. Watching streets blur past the window, I remembered a phone number I’d scribbled on the back of my journal.
Rodrigo was a friend of my brother’s. They were exchange students together in Norway. We had met briefly and enjoyed talking in Spanish, a language we both knew much better than Norwegian. He told me, “If you ever go to Mexico City, call my family.”
When the bus arrived in Mexico City, I found a payphone. I stared at Rodrigo’s number. I fumbled with the peso coins in my hand. Dare I call? What would I say?
“Bueno?” a female voice answered on the second ring.
“Esta Rodrigo en casa?” I asked. Is Rodrigo there?
No, he was in Norway. In my rough Spanish, I attempted to tell my story and ask for help. I felt so awkward, imposing myself with a request.
The kind woman on the phone, probably Juana or Claudia, invited me to their home. It was a two-bedroom apartment in Mexico City filled with the love of Rodrigo’s parents Humberto and Juana, sister Claudia, and three brothers Humberto, Alonzo, and Juan Carlos.
“I hope you don’t mind that we are going dancing tonight.” Claudia told me. She and two of her brothers were in their early twenties, like me.
Mind? I love to dance.
What started as a favor for one night evolved into a summer together. The Ballesteros Cruz family brought me into their family as if I were kin. Each night, I slept on a padded bench in the dining room that made a comfortable bed. Each morning, I packed the bedding under the seat and helped with the cooking and shopping and anything I could do to make it easy to have a seventh person in the home.
My Spanish in those days was limited to the present tense and often involved a dictionary in my hand. We all spoke in Spanish with one exception: Claudia wanted to practice English, so when we traveled around the city on buses together she always spoke to me in English. I replied in Spanish. We laughed together at puzzled looks on people’s faces when they saw us together each speaking the language of the others’ home.
We lived in a neighborhood of high-rise apartments and spent most of the summer sharing the ebb and flow of daily life: shopping at the supermercado as romantic ballads of Maná played in the background; visiting the open-air market for fresh produce; hanging clothes to dry in the sunny stairwell of the apartment building. I remember many family almuerzos with consume de pollo, and late evening cenas of quesadillas con queso y jamon.
We enjoyed trips and celebrations with extended family. I didn’t always understand the nuances of conversations or events, but I knew I was welcome. I felt so at home with the familia Ballesteros Cruz, I was in tears when the day came for me to return home. We all went to the airport together. Abrazos y lagrimas. Hugs and tears. Goodbye.
I realize now how profoundly that summer impacted my life, and my life’s work. I didn’t know at the time I’d become an educator or specialize in helping schools be more powerful for all kids from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
I wonder sometimes how much of my core passion for my work comes from the sense of belonging I experienced with the Ballesteros Cruz family in Mexico that summer. It awes me to think of the ripple effect of one family’s kindness in helping one foreigner feel at home.
I can’t wait to thank Juana and Humberto with a special surprise. For a hint, turn to page xvi of my new book. (Shhhh. It’s a secret.)
Stay tuned for the next part of this story, when we reunite this June for the first time in 25 years.
Follow me on Twitter @TonyaWardSinger for updates during the trip. I’ll post the next part of my story here when I return.
Top Photo Credit: Zocolo by Antony Stanley (CC BY-SA 2.0)