Learning Spanish in Mexico

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KATY CLARK: The violence in Mexico is a major concern for Americans considering a trip to the country. Secretary Clinton's own State Department has a travel alert currently in effect for Mexico. It warns US citizens to be extra careful and use common sense precautions. That's kept some Americans from venturing south, but many are still going to Mexico � on business, on vacation, or to learn Spanish. Since the 1960's, the Mexican city of Cuernavaca has been attracting Spanish language students. I recently went to Cuernavaca, which is just south of Mexico City. It's the kind of place Americans love to visit. It's charming, colonial, and most importantly, a world away from Mexico's violent border towns. Harriet Guerrero's lived in the city for nearly 40 years. She told me Cuernavaca easily lives up to its nickname, �The City of Eternal Spring�.

GUERRERO: This is the Las Palmas area just south of downtown � about a mile south of downtown. Look at the pretty boganvelia. The pink and white and orange. That's typical to this part.

CLARK: Guerrero and her husband run the �Cemanahuac Educational Community� in Cuernavaca. Theirs is one of more than a dozen language schools here catering to foreign visitors interested in learning Spanish. By the time they founded Cemanahuac in 1974, Cuernavaca was already a magnet for Spanish language learning. Guerrero says that's thanks to a Catholic priest named Ivan Illich.

GUERRERO: In 1961, he set up a center here to train priests who were going to work in Latin America to make them aware of what was happening in the church in Latin America.

CLARK: Illich recruited Spanish language teachers from top American universities, and many of them stayed in Cuernavaca � later breaking off to form their own schools. Illich died in 2002. By then, about 10,000 foreigners a year were coming to Cuernavaca to study Spanish. That's still the case today, and they contribute $20 million dollars a year to the city's economy. Around a thousand foreigners enroll annually at the Cemanahuac Educational Community. The class sizes are small, often only a few pupils at a time. That's part of Cemanahuac's appeal. While in Cuernavaca, students live with local families and go on field trips to explore Mexican culture. Paul Harle took a semester off from the University of Texas at San Antonio to study at Cemanahuac. He says his uncle recommended it.

HARLE: He came down here in the �70s. He said, �Yeah, this Cuernavaca's a great place. You should check it out.� And it's definitely shattered all my preconceptions of Mexico, which is like kind of a big expanse, kind of like desert, kind of a void. But that's not it at all that it comes down to, it's great. It's a lively culture. Very nice people. You couldn't ask for anything more.

CLARK: Harle's unusual in that he's spending 10 weeks at Cemanahuac. Harriet Guerrero says she's had to tailor her program in recent years to meet the increasingly demanding lives of her students.

GUERRERO: We like to recommend 4 weeks as a minimum. One week is nothing. We get lots of businessmen that could only get away for one week and they'll come and work hard on their language and then go back, or come and go throughout the year. We will have a few university groups that will come for a 3-week or a 12-week session. But I guess the norm is coming down to 2-3 weeks.

CLARK: Guerrero says the type of students she sees these days is also different. It's no longer just college kids looking to improve their Spanish, but also Americans whose jobs are changing as a result of increased Mexican migration to the US.

GUERRERO: There's a college that will bring a group of community leaders � they may be in city government, they may be librarians or policemen. They'll have their language and also special visits set up so they can understand more what's happening in their community as well with the new Mexican people in their towns.

CLARK: Guerrero says students coming to Cuernavaca nowadays seem a little less adventurous than they were in the �70s and �80s. Back then, people didn't need as much structure and security. In some ways, Christopher Davile is a throwback to those times. Davile lives in Minnesota, but grew up in Texas in a Mexican immigrant family.

DAVILE: I grew up hearing Spanish but not really talking Spanish.

CLARK: Since coming to Cuernavaca, Davile's been singing in a local choir and volunteering at an after-school program for kids. He says someday he'd like to teach Math to Spanish-speaking students back in the states. For now, though, Davile's getting a kick out of looking like a local.

DAVILE: When I'm with my friends here that are mostly, you know, white Americans, I'm always looked at as the shady Mexican guy who's just trying to hit on all the girls or whatever. So people are always telling me, �Go away. Go away. Go away.� And I'm like, �I'm American. I'm their friends.�

CLARK: Lots of shady Mexican guys are trying to hit on the American girls?

DAVILE: Yeah, there are, actually. It's very common.

CLARK: But mainly what goes on is that thousands of Americans enjoy a peaceful vacation and learn the language of their southern neighbors. I took some pictures of the language school I visited in Cuernavaca. You can find those at theworld.org