Crossing into Mexico was the first time I’ve really been nervous or scared while traveling, for a couple of reasons. The first and lesser is the obvious one: if you turn on the news in the US (and occasionally in Europe), you can’t avoid stories of Mexican drug cartels kidnapping or raping or executing or torturing innocent civilians. That media image is (obviously) viciously exaggerated, but I’ll get to that. The second and bigger reason was that I had to start speaking Spanish every day.
Until a couple weeks ago, I’d only traveled in the US, Canada, Europe, and (pretty Europeanized/touristy) Morocco. The closest things to ‘culture shock’ I’ve experienced were in Bosnia and parts of Morocco, but even then I never felt really uncomfortable or out of place. There are a lot of differences between gallavanting around Europe and plunging alone south of the Rio Grande, but here, true to form, I’ll focus on the linguistic ones.
Bienvenido a Mexico
On a Monday morning my bus left Laredo, Texas in favor of the Mexican half of the border-straddling metropolitan area: Nuevo Laredo. We pulled over at the border control checkpoint and I had to get out to present my passport, confirm that, no, my backpack was not full of guns or drugs, and that I was not planning on killing anyone or stealing anything or blowing anything up, to the best of my current knowledge, at any time in the present or near future.
The two border control agents in the standalone single office building affixed to the parking lot seemed apathetic. I wondered for just a second what would have happened if I had admitted to having a couple AK-47s shoved up my butt. Probably the same nodding response: “okay, ees okay.” This whole exchange was in broken pocho, the Mexican name for what English speakers might call ‘Spanglish’. I tried to start the exchange in Spanish, but between my nerves and not yet being used to the rapidity of normal speech, it was no bueno.
I had to change buses at the Nuevo Laredo bus station. Once I got my new ticket and sat down on a bench, two men in Seguridad Privada uniforms pulled up in an armored car, got out, and placed themselves in front of a random doorway at the bus station that, as far as I could tell, led to nowhere. One of them was holding an enormous shotgun and both wore bulletproof vests and helmets.
When my bus finally left the station (only about 10 minutes late, contrary to prevailing stereotypes), we drove past a Pemex gas station, where a dozen or so military troops stood on top of and in the backs of giant black pickup trucks and on the ground around them, holding machine guns and casting their eyes around from side to side and back.
As soon as the bus left Nuevo Laredo, my tension left me. The rest of the ride south to Monterrey was characterized by a cushy reclining bus seat, some American made-for-TV sci-fi movie dubbed in Spanish, beautiful mountain scenery, and a total lack of narcotrafficking.
Ciudad de las Montañas
My original plan was to spend 4-5 days with my friend Karen and her family in Monterrey, but somehow that gradually turned into almost two weeks. Monterrey me cayó bien.
Mexico’s third largest metropolis is also the main industrial and cultural center of its northern region. Monterrey enjoys the highest incomes and human development levels of the entire country, due in part to Mexico’s most prestigious university, the TEC (Tecnológico de Monterrey), being based there, as well as the big domestic and international corporations that call it home. The level of apparent poverty (bad neighborhoods, street beggars) is really no different than what you see in most big cities north of the border, except that the people aren’t white and they’re begging to you in Spanish.
The regios, as the citizens of Monterrey are eponymously referred to, have more disposable cash than most of their southern neighbors, which I encountered first-hand in giving private English classes for 150 pesos (about $10 USD) per hour. I only had one student, a friend of my friend, but from what I gathered the demand for such classes in Monterrey is pretty high, and people of all ages are willing to pay up to twice as much as what I charged.
The cash and the hunger for English also shows Monterrey’s American orientation. A lot of the big employers in Monterrey — Cemex, Axtel, Coca Cola Latin America, Banorte — are multinationals or call centers, which turn the city’s financial interests north and their linguistic interests global. For the gringo with hispanohablante aspirations, it’s a great transition city, sort of like Texas on the other side of the Río Grande: it’s definitely Mexico, but it’s a very Americanized Mexico. It’s Mexico light.
So yes, it’s established that Monterrey is pretty cool, but the looming question, the one I’ve been asked so many times, still hangs: “But like… is it safe?”
Safety and recent history
Being in unfamiliar territory is always a bit unsettling. Amsterdam to Berlin or Florida to Ontario, maybe not so shocking, but ‘Western World’ to Latin America is a transition that probably gets your attention. When you add to that 1) the fact that most media mentions of Mexico include the words ‘violence’, ‘murder’, or ‘kidnapping’, and 2) you don’t speak the language (very well), it can make you a bit paranoid at times.
At the moment, however, there’s no real reason to be any more scared in Monterrey than you would be in any big city in the US or most of the rest of the world (as is true of most of Mexico’s cities). Withdraw a bunch of money from a conspicuously-placed ATM in a sketchy neighborhood or go stumbling around by yourself late at night, and sure, you’ve become your own flashing neon FOREIGNER WITH MONEY sign. Just like most of the world. But if you don’t go out looking for a Darwin Award, chances are you won’t win one here.
Mexico’s biggest security issue is an ongoing war between rival drug cartels and the government. Cartels are fighting cartels, or splitting off from cartels they formerly belonged to, or joining forces with bigger stronger groups, and the big ones invest a lot of money in keeping Mexico’s police, military, and politicians off their backs. This means that the dangerous parts of Mexico are usually where two cartels have both decided that they have a claim to some territory. Normally this territory is a city on a major highway connecting Mexico to the US. Like Monterrey.
In 2010 Los Zetas — the most vicious and feared drug cartel in Mexico, considered one of the most technologically advanced criminal organizations in the world — split off from the Gulf Cartel, for which they used to be the elite military wing. Before 2010 the Gulf Cartel controlled most of Mexico’s east coast, including Monterrey, but since then the Zetas have been fighting for (and mostly winning) territory.
From 2010 to 2012, Monterrey went from one of Mexico’s safest and most prosperous cities to one of the most dangerous and violent in the world as the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel battled for control of the city, with Mexican state forces making some cameo appearances in the fighting. Civilians were killed in the crossfire, and rape, kidnapping, and attacks on public buildings were everyday concerns.
In 2012 things calmed back down again. The Gulf Cartel began to regain control of Monterrey in its surrounding areas, forcing the Zetas out and ending the violence, at least for now.
Today the entire state of Tamaulipas, east of Monterrey and bordering a long stretch of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, is a disaster zone. From Nuevo Laredo, where I briefly made an appearance while crossing the border, to Ciudad Victoria and Tampico, cartels are clashing and the Mexican military is making obligatory appearances. I’ve met many Mexicans in Monterrey and to the south who are from Tamaulipas but moved to flee the chaos, and so far it’s one of three states (the others being Michoacan and Guerrero) where Mexicans have told me nearly unanimously that they don’t go there and I shouldn’t either.
Monterrey, however, is back to being a beacon of relative stability and security in Mexico’s turbulent north. Its city center is coming back to life at night, and on the weekends there’s live music and dancing in the Macroplaza. The Barrio Antiguo is full of hostels and street markets. Traveling in and out of the city to nearby Santiago or Saltillo or to its iconic mountains Cerro de la Silla or Chipinque is all safe, pleasurable, and recommended.
Deja Vu in Nuevo Leon
My first day in Monterrey was really my first day ever actively speaking Spanish. I took classes in high school six years ago, and then another semester somewhere in the incoherent haze that was my third year of college. For the last 6 months or so I’ve been refreshing my memory and Skyping inconsistently with Spanish-speaking friends, and while that’s been helpful, it’s not quite ‘the real thing’.
When Karen arrived at the bus station to pick me up, I greeted her with a big hug and lots of “omg I miss you!” talk, in English of course. She took me to the car where her mom waited, and I quickly forced out one of my comfort sentences, those things I was saying often enough or had rehearsed enough to say them at a normal speaking pace and with a bit of confidence: Hola, soy Jake! Hablo un poco Español, entonces si hablas un poco despacio, puedo entender. ‘Hi, I’m Jake! I speak a bit of Spanish, so if you speak a bit slowly, I can understand.”
On the way to dinner Karen’s mom exhausted her English abilities talking to me: I like Orlando. Do you like Mexican food? This is the nice part of town. Basic (but correct) sentences. So far, this has been one of the high points of Mexicans speaking English in Mexico. Public language education seems to be more or less as abysmal as its northern neighbor.
We went to a restaurant in the city where I was treated with some typical Monterrey cuisine. The highlight was cabrito, a whole kid goat slow roasted on a spit for hours and then served to your table, thankfully not in full-goat-carcass form. I spent most of dinner parroting memorized phrases I was comfortable with and relying on gestures and key nouns to figure out what Karen and her mom were talking about, often making Karen play translator. I accidentally called the cabrito (‘goat’) we were eating cabrón (‘asshole’), which was about as linguistically as creative as I got that day.
Karen lives on the eastern edge of Monterrey in a house with her mother, sister, two aunts, and grandmother, all varying degrees of talkative, and none of whom speak English (except for the sister, who apparently speaks pretty decent English but for one reason or another prefers not to). The first night was full of introductions, not only with the resident family members but the cousins and uncles and aunts that popped in and out of the house. This was the easy part. Soy Jake. Soy de los Estados Unidos. Tengo veinticuatro años. Me gustan tacos, cervezas, y el color verde. After that part I spent most of my time asking people to speak más despacio, por favor or smiling with a sí or a no when I got enough of the important nouns and verbs out of a given sentence to figure out whether I should be responding positively or negatively to it.
Day two began in Refresquería Juarez, Karen’s family’s diner in the middle of Monterrey’s city center. Here I was consistenly stuffed so full of food that I began to wonder if I would be served to a Mexican witch in a house made of tortillas. Again, I was back in a sort of familiar high school Spanish territory: Capítulo 3: ¡En el Restaurante! But it turned out, unsurprisingly, that this scenario in real life was a bit more complicated (they never told us about background noise in class! Cómo se dice “I can’t hear a fucking word you’re saying” en Español?), so I decided that un poco de todo (a little bit of everything) would be fine.
After three or four days, I started finding my sense of ease. I was making more and more conversation with my new Mexican family. I wasn’t nervous when Karen wasn’t around to be my linguistic safety net. By the end of the week I could sit with the others around the kitchen table and tell them (badly) about my day and what I had done and what I wanted to do tomorrow.
I got through my first days in Mexico without getting kidnapped by drug traffickers or crudely insulting anyone who wasn’t a dead goat. To me, that’s Spanish for ‘success’.
Stop being a big baby.
There’s always a certain degree of stress or even shame associated with speaking a new language; by definition, you’re doing it wrong in the beginning, and you know that you’re inevitably calling your food an asshole in every other sentence. I have a theory that this feeling is even more intense for the native English speaker, since most of the educated world speaks your language and many speak it nearly as well as you do.
In this case, I had Karen, whose English is most of the time no different than that of a native. This all equates to a formula of feeling something like, oh fuck it, I’ll just speak English, it’s easier/less humiliating. And while the desire to lean on your anglophone friends or just hide somewhere and avoid talking altogether is always tempting, at some point you just have to get over it, open up your mouth, and say something stupid.
When my twelve days in Monterrey were coming to an end, I had already worked through the majority of my new language anxiety, something that took more like a year in Dutch. I was growing more comfortable in one-on-one conversations, especially about things that I was doing or that were going on around me. Twelve days had given me a great beginning to a solid Superbeginner level of Spanish, enough to prepare me for my next stepping stone in San Luis Potosí.
What aspects are you struggling with in speaking a new language? What was most challenging the last time you traveled somewhere where you had to speak a language you were still learning? Share your insights, stories, or questions in a comment here or a tweet to @JakobGibbons.