Monday, May 14, 2012

Why We Spend Our Summers in Mexico

Ever since I met my husband, when he was an exchange student from Mexico at my U.S. university, he has been bragging about an amazing summer camp he went to as a child in Mexico D.F.: "There were sports and games, we would swim and have gymnastics every day, they taught us about leadership and did team-building activities." He always said that one day, he would send his kids there.

Fast-forward 13 years, when we had three kids ages 5, 5, and 2. Toño began to buzz about his beloved curso de verano. The more we looked at the possibility from different angles, the more we both knew that we wanted to go to Mexico for the summer and give our kids this opportunity: practicing their spoken Spanish with kids from Mexico, living with their abuelitos and spending time with relatives we only see once or twice a year, and being immersed in the cultura for six weeks.

The first year, we decided we would drive from Texas to Mexico City: our kids were used to long road trips from our drives home to Chicago, which was also 20+ hours away! Toño would stay a few days, but then fly home to work until our last week, when he would return. We would stay with my suegros, who still lived five minutes away from the camp. What an incredible way to reconnect with family, and form a stronger bond with our loved ones!

Having our minivan would mean that I - la gringuita - would have to learn to drive in Mexico City, where the rumors of the chaotic roads and drivers are mostly true. Toño patiently showed me how to zip around, while promising that by the time he returned in a month, I would be a natural. Gripping the steering wheel while simultaneously praying and swearing, I tried to nod in agreement.

The first week was the most difficult. We try to speak Spanish (or at least Spanglish) at home with the kids, but getting them to answer back in español has been harder and harder since they've entered school. Being the only Americans in the camp - and my son being the only Chinese camper - drew some attention. Curious kids called him chinito (prompting a conversation about Spanish apodos), asked why he didn't look like his mami (he is adopted), and lots of kids - and teachers - would practice their English with my daughter.

By the second and third week, our kids had made amiguitos! They would run out of camp with huge smiles, singing new songs (in Spanish!) and chattering about whom they'd sat with at lunch and what new games they'd played. On the weekends we visited churches, eco-parks, the pyramids, and nearby pueblitos. I encouraged the kids to sample as many dishes as possible - even fried chapulines (crickets)! Our kids marveled at the colorful markets, relishing the attention of the vendors. "¿Adónde vamos hoy mami?" Every new experience opened their eyes and broadened their horizons.

As I began to learn more recipes from my suegra, the kids willingly broadened their palette: nopalitos, batidos de mamey, huaraches, mole, enchiladas suizas... After la comida, my father-in-law would roll warm corn tortillas, spread with crema to pass out among the kids. "Otra tortillita 'ito!!!" they would chant endlessly to their abuel-"ito." Watching - and listening to - this interaction melted my heart, and I knew then that we would return for future summer camps.

My husband came back for the final clausura of camp, and was amazed and proud at our transformations. I was now an assertive (but safe!) chofer, and our kids had drastically improved not only their verbal español, but their self-confidence. They had overcome challenges at the beginning, and now they were pure joy. They were comfortable, both linguistically and culturally. They were able to "fit in" and make friends. But most importantly, they were falling in love with Toño's culture, cuisine, and homeland. Living in the US, we didn't know how we would be able to cultivate this appreciation; after our summer in Mexico, there are no more doubts.

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