The rich legacy of Cuernavaca’s Spanish-Language schools, by Dr. James Horn


In 1973, I escorted my first group of NY college students for a semester of Spanish study in Cuernavaca. That was 41 years ago. It was an awesome experience for me, and I was fortunate that my university, the SUNY College at Brockport NY, encouraged me to return with other student groups for 25 semesters. During college breaks and after my retirement in 1998, I coordinated 80 Road Scholar/Elderhostel groups for two-week study programs here. I led educational-study tours to six other destinations in Mexico, and 20 destinations altogether in eight countries, totaling nearly 150 groups of studious travelers.      


Accompanying and teaching young student and mature-adult groups was a learning experience for me as well. Teachers always learn from their students. I would like to share with you some of the lessons I learned from these experiences at the Spanish-language schools. There are far too many lessons to relate them all here, but let me dwell on just four that seem the most consequential.

ONE: Study abroad and foreign travel can overcome prejudice, misperceptions, and ethnocentrism, the tendency to view foreign cultures through the perspective of your imagined cultural superiority.  Students and travelers discover there are divergent ways of perceiving issues. They discover that commonly held stereotypes don’t hold up under close observation.  For example, they discover that the lazy Mexican sitting in the shade under a huge sombrero doesn’t exist. That Mexicans work far more hours, much harder, and less well-paid than their North American counterparts. They learn how family-oriented Mexicans are; they are surprised that the whole family sits down to eat lunch together, not separately off TV trays. Those fortunate enough to be included in family social gatherings are surprised how close relations are with cousins and in-laws in huge extended families. They come to see Mexicans in positive ways that engender respect and admiration. And they return to their homes to share their  understanding with their families and friends, helping to dispel misperceptions and stereotypes. They constitute a group of simpático neighbors who have discovered that Mexican hearts are bigger than their sombreros.

TWO: A second and corollary lesson is that the presence of so many foreign students and travelers here in Mexico helps break down prejudices or misperceptions that some Mexicans might have of North Americans.  Stories in the Mexican press and television give the impression that North Americans are racist, arrogant, and materialist, that they don’t like Mexicans, that they regard Mexico as a violent culture dominated by criminals. The obnoxious offensive remarks made by US redneck politicians are widely publicized in Mexico. One can’t blame Mexicans for believing that the offensive remarks are universal north of the border.

One poll taken many years ago asked Mexicans to agree or disagree with the statement “The United States is an enemy country.” Half of Mexican respondents agreed. Countering that perception is the fact  that more than 50 percent of Mexicans have a close relative living in the United States. And I would guess that a huge majority of university students in Cuernavaca are pleased to say they have an American friend.

Hundreds of Mexican families in Cuernavaca and thousands in other parts of the Republic have welcomed foreign students into their families with open arms. And they discover that foreign students are respectful, not racists, open-minded, anxious to learn and adapt to their new culture. They are not all spoiled rich kids whose parents own lavish townhouses in Manhattan or palaces on the Pacific. So the presence of so many North American students here dispels some Mexican misconceptions about them.

And that’s not true just for young people. In my 80 groups of Road Scholar (Elderhostel) the average age was over 70 with many clients in their 80s. The oldest was a 94-year-old sitting judge from California who walked from the hotel three miles to school and back each day. The workers in the hotel and their teachers at school were in awe of these seniors, astonished that people of that age wanted to learn their language and share their culture. They made a remarkable impression on all the Mexicans they came in contact with, and when they departed they exchanged hugs and e-mail addresses.  

And so, North American students, young and old, have earned the respect and admiration of their Mexican hosts.  It is thus a mutual respect that has characterized the experiences that the Spanish-language schools promote. And that mutual respect crosses borders and serves as an antidote to the poisonous rhetoric sometimes mouthed by imprudent politicians.

THREE: A third lesson is that the study-abroad experience has a powerful impact in building student self-esteem, self-reliance, and empowerment.          Most of the students are not sophisticated youngsters from wealthy families in big cities. Many of them come from small towns and rural villages. My students at SUNY Brockport, a village of fewer than ten thousand, were mostly from small cities and many of them had never been outside the US except perhaps for a weekend in Canada.  Suddenly they found themselves in a starkly different culture, having to cope with daily challenges, explaining their needs to their families in awkward Spanish; finding their way across town on confusing bus routes; adapting to new foods and customs. By mid-term these students take vacation trips often far from Cuernavaca, mastering public buses hundreds of miles away to places like Oaxaca and Chiapas and Cancun. They manage transportation schedules and bargain with hotel managers. They get lost, find themselves, and conquer multiple challenges using their new language skills. They return from their breaks refreshed and excited and absolutely empowered. They gush “Guess where I went? Guess what I did?” The semester experience  cultivates self-esteem, self-reliance, and empowerment so much so that when they return to their homes their parents hardly know them. And those of us who have had the joy of working with them get something teachers in classrooms at home seldom enjoy- a letter saying:  “Thank you so much…that was the greatest experience of my life.”   

FOUR:  The study-abroad students and foreign travelers have a significant economic impact on both sides of the border. Here in Cuernavaca, you can imagine the financial benefits during the boom in language study in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Hundreds of students arrived every week in the summer, dozens of universities sent semester groups, at least ten thousand students arrived each year,  contributing to their host families’ incomes, patronizing the bars and pizzerias and souvenir shops. Each of my 80 Road Scholar groups left behind over 100 thousand dollars in Cuernavaca. Needless to say, the crisis that crippled enrollments in the past several years has hurt the economy and that loss needs to be addressed.

But the economic impact is not just in Mexico. Thanks to NAFTA thousands of US and Canadian businesses discovered that they needed personnel who could speak Spanish.  Thousands of business people have come to Cuernavaca and returned home to enrich their employers. We’ve hosted the vice presidents for international sales for Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola, the president of General Electric de Mexico, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer and many others who have returned home to enrich their companies. 

Due to NAFTA and immigration issues, no foreign language is as much in demand in the US as Spanish and high school and college teachers have found themselves in demand. Many of them know how to teach grammar and decline 501 Spanish verbs with the help of a textbook by that name. But many of them can’t carry on a conversation in Spanish. Many of them have discovered that just a few weeks here in Cuernavaca can significantly improve their speaking skills and improve their job performance.  

It’s not just educators who have benefitted from the demand for Spanish speakers in the US and Canada.   And so the schools here offer programs for social workers, for nurses and other health-care professions, for criminal justice and  law enforcement officials.   

Linda Ronstadt found this a good place to improve her pronunciation for her album Canciones de mi Padre that earned her millions.

And so the economic impact of Spanish-language study has enriched both sides of the border. Altogether the benefits in the four areas I have talked about have been immeasurable. To me the greatest consequences of the language school experiences have been in how they have touched the lives of tens of thousands of students and tourists who have been blessed by having been here. The fruits of that experience live on  in the mutual understanding and mutual respect that has been fostered between Mexico and the US and Canada. That mutual respect is the very heart of what promotes warm relations between our nations and our peoples. I would argue that no other institution of any kind on either side of the border has done as much for building bridges between cultures, building mutual respect and multi-culturalism than the Spanish-language schools of Cuernavaca.

And so I argue, that as teachers, school administrators, study-abroad experts, politicians, government officials, and journalists,  it would behoove us to do all we can to cherish this legacy, to see that these schools not only survive, but thrive, and prosper, and continue to shine as inimitable ambassadors of good will.  Long live the Spanish-language schools. Viva las escuelas de español, Viva Cuernavaca, Viva Morelos, Viva Mexico.