UNDER THE VOLCANO: CUERNAVACA AND THE STUDY OF SPANISH AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
By Alvaro Ramírez
Saint Mary’s College of California
Since pre-Columbian times, Cuernavaca has enjoyed fame in Mexico as an attractive place with a generous climate and natural beauty, a place where Hernán Cortés established one of his palaces and later, during the Second Empire, the Hapsburg Maximilian spent many a day enjoying the magnificent and natural splendors which the valley of Cuauhnáhuac has always offered its inhabitants and visitors. But despite these two famous cases of Europeans becoming part of Cuernavaca folklore, especially Maximilian who left us a version of the Pocahontas myth through his love for the legendary India Bonita, foreigners in general will be unaware of this beautiful region of Mexico until the middle of the twentieth century when an emblematic novel of great literary value finally puts Cuernavaca on the map: I am referring to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, published in 1947; a novel which John Houston would later turn into an excellent film in 1984. The impact that this novel had in publicity terms for Cuernavaca is enormous. This may sound strange for, as we all know, the state of Morelos gave birth to Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary caudillo who, despite his early death, would mark the economic, political, and social life of the country for most of the twentieth century. Still this region of Mexico that witnessed the Zapatista revolution will remain relatively unknown even though its most celebrated and famous son is embedded in the consciousness of many foreigners, for even today, say, in the United States, in towns and cities with large Latinos populations, Zapata’s name and image is everywhere: in murals, posters, calendars, names of business, etc.; none the less, if you ask Latinos or other Americans where the revolutionary hero is from they will simply answer, Mexico. Unfortunately, very few can identify Emiliano Zapata with the land of Morelos.
However, with the publication of Under the Volcano, Cuernavaca is exported for the first time to faraway lands, as a literary text. This is not unusual in any sense. As we all know, for many centuries, foreigners, especially Europeans and Americans, had their first contact with Latin America through the writings of many of its “visitors”; for example, Cristobal Colón’s diaries, Cortés’ letters to Carlos V, Cabeza de Vaca’s remarkable narrative of his wandering in the American wilderness that could easily be the prototype for the modern television show, “Survivor Man”; there are also Humboldt’s travel texts, and Bruno Traven’s short stories and novels, among many others who created and published their own versions of what José Martí called, “Nuestra América.”
Malcolm Lowry’s belongs in this category of writers; in his case, a foreign writer who fictionalizes his experiences of Mexico. One has only to read the opening pages of Under the Volcano, where Lowry paints a vibrant life revolving around the famous Casino de la Selva and its surroundings or take in the exotic vistas he describes masterfully of the twin volcanoes, the Popocatépetl and Ixtacíhuatl, to see how the novel fired up the imagination of its readers in Europe and the United Sates, and inspired them, like modern Don Quijotes, to make the journey to this land of enchantment in Mexico and experience for themselves the city of Cuernavaca and the towns described so vividly in the novel.
Lowry’s novel is timely, for it puts Cuernavaca on the literary and geographical map of Mexico at a moment when the country is becoming the destination of an incipient tourist industry abetted by the construction of the the Panamerican Highway and air travel. But it is not only tourists that the city of Eternal Spring will attract. By the 1960’s as Dr. Jim Horn explains, what had started as schools to teach priests and nuns, turned to teaching Spanish for foreign university students who began to arrive in large numbers, turning Cuernavaca into an academic Mecca for foreign students, second only to Salamanca, Spain. Then during the 1980s and 1990s the city will experience what I call the Golden Age of study abroad, not only because I began my long relation with this beautiful city during those years, but also because during this period over twenty language schools offered Spanish courses for foreigners. The success of these schools became almost legendary; and as year after year thousands of students arrived, Cuernavaca reaped enormous profits in economic terms: one of the staples in the city during those days was the “casa de cambio” where foreign money from many countries turned into pesos to be spent in myriad activities, especially those focused on tourism, creating and economic windfall for the metropolitan area of Cuernavaca and the state of Morelos. However, the city not only gained economically from the presence of thousands of foreigners who came to study Spanish, it also benefitted culturally, for many spaces throughout Cuernavaca, be it academic, public or private became places where cultures from around the world intermingled with the local cultures. One could stroll in the city center, known as El Zócalo, at any time of the day or early night and meet students from the US, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries. All through the decades of the eighties and nineties, the presence of these foreign students promoted a cultural milieu that today is commonly known as postmodern, that is, Cuernavaca was an urban area with a provincial flavor mixed with the Tlahuica indigenous cultures, but at the same time it was in many ways definitely cosmopolitan. After a fruitful stay, foreign students would return to their countries of origin as de facto cultural and educational ambassadors who encouraged other of their compatriots to enroll in a study abroad program in Cuernavaca, in the process creating a chain migration of students to the benefit of the language schools. But students who came seeking a linguistic and cultural immersion also left, along with their money, their cultural footprint in Morelos. For instance, today it is not unusual to meet children who are the offspring of marriages between Mexicans and former study abroad students; many came to study and stayed to teach English or opened a business in the city.
The period of the last twenty years has seen the apogee and zenith of study abroad in Mexico. In the years following the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, the Golden years of the teaching of Spanish in Cuernavaca would reach its culmination. The opening of the Mexican economy sent thousands of people from the business sectors of Canada and the USA scurrying to Mexico to learn Spanish. Moreover, the devaluation of the Mexican peso at the end of 1994 also created an economic environment that helped to foment study abroad since the relative cheap cost of living in Mexico made the country very attractive to students of all ages. As a result, language schools throughout the country would burst at the seams for the next fourteen years.
Although one could point to many causes that brought about the downfall of the boom years, there are two events that were largely detrimental to the business of study abroad: the 2008 world economy recession and the H1N1 Swine Flu episode that hit the country in 2009. These two events were a one-two knockout punch that sent the Cuernavaca’s language schools reeling. Within a couple of years, the number students dwindled to a trickle and many schools closed down for lack of adequate enrollments. But thanks to the efforts of governor Graco Ramírez and his administration which has implemented policies to give Cuernavaca a positive image and make the state of Morelos and its capital city attractive to foreign students and tourists once more; and also thanks to the relentless work of the schools of higher learning that continue to offer study abroad programs, who work tirelessly to recruit students through many venues such as the NAFSA annual convention, there a signs that we have hit rock bottom and the number of foreign students in our language schools are beginning to rise again.
We must not forget, however, that there are also other forces at work that have created changes during the last twenty years, which we must take into account in order to make sure that we in the business of study abroad will keep up with the times. While we were enjoying the lucrative Golden Years, especially since 1994, we failed to notice that much of the world was transitioning in the words of Nestor García Canclini, from internationalism to globalization. Many of the paradigms under which the world functioned changed dramatically during this period of time, and study abroad was no different in this regard. In a nutshell, we can say that internationalism is a time when people, language and cultures were kept within specific political borders; that is, the nation-states. The inhabitants of these nation-states were for the most part monolingual and mono-cultural. They tended to consume only national products, with select few able to buy products from foreign countries. Globalization, on the other hand, is a period where the nation-states are no longer able to confine people within political borders, in the process, language and cultures become de-territorialized. Products have multinational origins as do many people who also become multilingual and multicultural. I am grossly oversimplifying, of course, but keeping this in mind let us look at how the paradigm of study abroad has been affected by this change.
During the internationalization period, study abroad followed the classical model that we are familiar with in the United States, although it may be different in other countries. In this model a student usually went abroad during his/her junior year. These students chose countries whose language and culture were very different from their own. They were for the most part, foreign language majors and minors and their goal was to immerse themselves linguistically and culturally for one or two semesters abroad. Afterward, they returned to their sending institutions with at least a functioning knowledge of the target language and a decent level of cultural competency of the country they had visited. After graduation, many would apply the knowledge of their foreign language and culture in their careers, some were hired as teachers, social workers or found work in national companies that had business ties with foreign companies; still, others just felt gratified to know another language and to be able to navigate in a foreign culture.
This classic model of study abroad has been transformed by globalization. In Cuernavaca there are still many classic programs offered in the traditional way, but given the changes brought about by the implementation of NAFTA, which has inundated Mexico with American goods and cultural products, it is becoming a bit more difficult to give foreign students a linguistic and cultural immersion experience as in the days of internationalization. Another important aspect that is affecting study abroad programs is the fact that English has become the lingua franca of the globalized world, especially in the fields of business, technology and communications. Therefore, it behooves students everywhere outside the English speaking world to attain an acceptable level of the English language and Mexico is no exception. Moreover, the sending universities from countries who are experiencing globalized conditions are revising their curriculum making it mandatory for their students to take courses dealing with modalities of multiculturalism, introducing students to ways of thought and being in the world quite distinct from their own without having to leave their campus. Please do not be alarmed. This is not to say that globalization is sounding the death knell of study abroad. Quite the contrary: I believe globalization is opening up new possibilities for Mexican schools that cater to foreign students.
We still welcome those students who are searching for an immersion in the languages and cultures of Mexico in a much more meaningful way than the superficial approach of many multicultural courses offered in the USA. For although Cuernavaca is a radically different city from the heyday of study abroad, now a modern metropolis of roughly half a million people, the local cultures are still alive and kicking strongly, throughout the city and its surrounding towns. Here you find a “convivencia” of different cultures: the traditional and the modern live side by side and get along quite well. This is reflected in the everyday lives the inhabitants, in their daily routines, food, entertainment, the living spaces and the architecture of the city. Yes, if your cup of tea is still the traditional cultural and linguistic immersion, Cuernavaca is the place for you.
But we must be ready to receive the new students emerging from the globalized world. These students are those who may not be interested in the linguistic aspect due to various reasons. We have experienced this trend at my home institution, Saint Mary’s College of California. In the last ten years, the number of traditional students; that is, majors and minors from the Department of Modern Languages, in study abroad programs has declined. At the same time, our program in Rome, Italy has experienced a dramatic increase in its enrollment. This program was set up by the university, along with another program in Barcelona, specifically to cater to a different clientele: the globalized student who is not quite as interested in learning a foreign language. These programs are open to students from all academic areas, but many are business majors who are highly interested in learning how business is done in Spain or Italy. Students have the choice to take their coursework in English or Spanish. For example, business students who spend a semester in our Barcelona program, enroll mainly in courses taught in English, these are courses which have their equivalents in our institution. The main goal of this type of program abroad is not the linguistic experience; instead it is the cultural component which is highlighted. We are not referring to the folkloric and national cultures; rather students in these programs seek to immerse themselves in the business culture of the host country; therefore, many look for programs that include internships in a variety of local business enterprises which allow them to get a hands-on-experience while in country.
It is clear, then, that globalization is not detrimental to study abroad. It is all about adapting to the new order of things, to reinvent our programs to meet the needs of today’s globalized universities which require us, above all, not only to reinvent but to diversify the course offerings of our study abroad programs. Language is not out, but it’s not where the action is. Now the action has shifted to the field of culture. So, the question we should ask ourselves is, how do we find our niche in this new order of things, in this new study abroad paradigm? How do we repackage our product to make it more attractive and enticing to the globalized generation of students from around the world? In a word, how do we sell the Mexican cultural immersion experience in, say, business, medicine, communications, and education, to mention only four fields of study and work that have been impacted profoundly by globalization?
For the past forty years, Cuernavaca has been the Queen of Study Abroad in Latin America. Its language schools have a well-deserved fame in many countries around the world; this distinction is due to its excellent immersion programs offered in the traditional linguistic and cultural structure. If the city wants to retain the scepter and remain atop of this field, its schools to will be required to compete in the global context alluded to earlier, and in order to do so, some changes are necessary.
First, let me say that although culture has taken center stage, we must dispel any notion that language study will disappear. The traditional language student will continue to arrive in the foreseeable future and Cuernavaca has all the necessary resources to serve these students well.
Second, the educational institutions that cater to foreign students need to move beyond the traditional model of study abroad by offering a variety of courses in business, communications, education and medicine, making sure that the content is similar to that of courses foreign students need to complete for their specific majors. The receiving schools should avail themselves of properly qualified instructors, which means with advanced degrees, who can impart these courses in English. Ideally, these courses should be opened not only to foreign students but to nationals as well, since in the fields previously mentioned knowledge of English is becoming a requirement. Moreover, many of the Mexican students who may choose to enroll in these courses are already bilingual in Spanish and English. The contact with foreign students will allow them to set up networks that can be beneficial to their future careers.
Third, to complement the courses taught in English, it will be necessary to offer internships in the fields cited above. It is important to note that these internships must provide a meaningful, learning experience for foreign students. For these course will enrich the students with first-hand knowledge that courses in their home institutions cannot provide.
Fourth, institutions of higher learning in Cuernavaca need to sign agreements to implement student and faculty exchange programs with universities and colleges who send the largest number of students to study abroad. They should also look into the possibility of signing agreements to grant joint degrees with foreign institutions, or to offer certificate programs in the fields of education and medicine, which are highly sought by many in the US.
Lastly, the state government needs to allocate resources to advertise aggressively these programs using every media outlet. It is an investment that will reap great economic rewards for the state of Morelos.
During his last visit to Mexico, Barrack Obama announced his commitment to support and promote the 100,000 Program whose goal is to send each year one hundred thousand American students to study in Latin America, while the same amount of Latin American students will enroll in US universities. President Obama’s proposal makes sense in view of the fact that the United States has become intricately interconnected economically, politically, and culturally with many Latin American countries, which is a result of the process of globalization. Again, we should view this as an excellent opportunity to revive the business of study abroad in Cuernavaca. We all welcome and enthusiastically endorse the 100,000 Program, but in order to cash in on this opportunity we must think beyond the old models: we need to adapt, innovate, reinvent and diversify our course offerings at our language schools, so that we can widen our clientele. The traditional student will eventually return to Morelos, but it is the globalized generation that we must go after. Our beautiful city of Eternal Spring is big enough to accommodate both and, if we work together and put our best effort forward in these matters, Cuernavaca will surely continue to reign as the Queen of Study Abroad in Latin America.