What I learned in Spanish class | TahoeDailyTribune.com

What I learned in Spanish class

David Jinkens

I was born in San Francisco and moved to Fremont when I was 12. In both places the schools were good, but I did not have a lot of contact with Latino children. In San Francisco, most of my friends and school mates were of Italian descent, and I thought for a long time that I was Italian, too. (This is a good thing!) I had little understanding of Latino culture and gained most of my information from movies and stereotypes common at that time.

I took Spanish in high school and had an opportunity at age 15 to live in Mexico. The Spanish language program was managed in Mexico by a wonderful lady named Lini DeVries. The Spanish immersion course allowed a few students to travel at their own expense from California and live with a Mexican family in either Cuernavaca or Jalapa. I chose Cuernavaca. It is a wonderful city about 80 miles southwest of Mexico City.

Having already taken two years of high school Spanish, I thought this training would prepare me for my visit. It did not, though without it, I would have been lost. The Spanish I learned in high school was good, but there is so much more to learn than formal Spanish. I traveled with three other students via train and bus from my home town to Cuernavaca. The train ride was an experience I will never forget.

My Mexican host parents (Lavine-Flores) were fine people, even though their family had suffered a tragedy only a few weeks before my arrival. My Mexican brother, Manolo, treated me well. He and his visiting friend from Cuba used to show my roommate and me around town. During the day, I went to school with other American children. We studied Spanish, Mexican history and culture. We had field trips to historic sites in Cuernavaca, Mexico City and Taxco.

What astounded me for the full three months I was in Mexico was how friendly and courteous Mexican people of all ages were to a handful of young American “gringos.” (Ask me sometime where the word “gringo” comes from.) I also got a taste of the rich history of Mexico, its native past, the blending of cultures, races, and religions into a nation, and its struggles from colonial times to the present. I discovered that Mexicans, just like Americans, were hard-working, honest people who came from all walks of life.

My experience living in Mexico generated a great interest in Mexican, Latin American and South American countries and Spain and their people. I continued my language training through college, and at one time, wanted to go into the Foreign Service. My Spanish language training in Cuernavaca and later in college has been a rich addition to me my entire life.

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I find in my dealings with Latino people today, when I attempt speaking Spanish, that they forgive me for my language mistakes or for not remembering certain words or phrases. Studying the Spanish language in Cuernavaca gave me an introduction into their great literature base, history, culture and poetry. Ironically, by learning Spanish I learned a lot about our English language. By studying Spanish I gained a connection with a vast wonderful resource of people, and this experience has made me a better man.

We all should celebrate the richness of our community and the contribution made by Latino people every day in our lives here in town and in our state and nation. We are a better place and a better American people because of our diversity, and it is this diversity that in so many ways ensures our prosperity and future as a community. Studying a language other than English (study it, too), whether Spanish, German, Russian, or Chinese, etc., will help make your lives richer as it has mine.

But, you do not have to go to Cuernavaca to better appreciate our Latino culture or learn Spanish. Coming up at the Lake Tahoe Community College is the outstanding Intensive Spanish Summer Institute from Aug. 9-14, for novices to speakers of Spanish who want a tune-up. Registration begins on May 18. Thanks Dean Diane Rosner for the great conversation we had about this program!

Learning about others does us so much good in our lives. I gained so much from it. You will too.

” David Jinkens is South Lake Tahoe city manager.