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Beyond the School Walls

Spanish Language and Culture Lessons in Oaxaca, Mexico

Weaving as a student in Mexico.
A student at Academia Vinigúlaza takes an intensive course in spinning wool from a local artisan.

After just one week of classes, my Spanish was far from perfect. But it was good enough to figure out what “tacos de cabeza” might be. In case there was any doubt, the market vendor was pleased to help.

“First we take a horse’s head, place it in water and boil it for several hours,” she explained with enthusiasm. “Then, we add spices and put the meat in tortillas.” Judging from the smiles of the locals perched on plastic stools munching on the dripping tacos it was a popular mid-day snack.

I was exploring the market at Villa de Etla, a small village located nine miles northwest of the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. My experience was part of an extracurricular activity offered by Academia Vinigúlaza, the language school I’d chosen for my 2-week stay. While only the truly adventurous of our group of four was tempted to sample the more exotic of the market’s offerings such as tacos de ojos (eyeballs) or agua de calabaza (pumpkin punch), we all agreed that exploring the market was a good way to add to our vocabulary. We also discovered that excursions offered additional benefits.

“Excursions are an important part of the educational program at Vinigúlaza,” explained Catherine Kumar, the school’s director. “You can learn a language anywhere but excursions are a way to gain insights into a country’s culture.”

Later that day, under the guidance of Enrique Santos Cruz, the school’s activity coordinator and local resident, we explored a 17th century Dominican church and then hiked through the countryside to a holy site popular among those seeking miracles. According to local legend, an image of Jesus Christ’s footprint had appeared among a pile of rocks. Nearby, stood the church featured in scenes from the movie Nacho Libre. It was a day filled with experiences well off the usual tourist track.

While many language schools offer out-of-town excursions, it’s important for prospective students to investigate the details prior to registration. It’s worthwhile to ask what types of activities are offered, the cost, the method of transportation used, and whether there are restrictions. For example, activities may be cancelled if a minimum number of participants is not reached. Schools with independent transportation offer additional advantages in that they can support communities beyond the reach of public transit.

“Academia Vinigúlaza invested in a 7- passenger van so we could accommodate small groups and extend our travelling range,” explained Cruz. This meant we were able to visit the Lazo Mendoza family in the village of Teotitlan del Valle. Although this Zapotec weaving center is a popular destination for large tour operators, the Mendoza family’s home-based weaving center was located up a steep hill outside the village center and inaccessible to most visitors. Students who purchased weavings on our visit were assured they were supporting a local artisan without any middleman or commission.

In addition to offering such unexpected access to a culture, exploring a destination with your school means you never know when your lessons begin or end. You can consider your free time as time well spent.


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