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Ollin Tlahtoalli Center for Mexican Language and Culture

A beautiful valley surrounded by mountains. A pleasant climate year-round. A vibrant arts scene. A center of civilization for more than two thousand years. A lively, picturesque city center with sidewalk cafes and street musicians. All these factors make the city of Oaxaca, capital of Mexico’s second southern-most state, a great place for foreigners to study Spanish. The Pacific beaches are only a few hours away. And what’s more, according to one school, “In the state of Oaxaca there is a large and diverse indigenous population. Even today it’s possible to appreciate their beautiful handicrafts, their colorful dresses, and to listen to their native languages.” It’s all true, and those areoaxaca 2010 08 12 044 among the reasons we decided to make a return trip to Oaxaca as language tourists.

We had been in Oaxaca before for Spanish classes in 2001. The school we chose, like all the others, promised small classes, experienced teachers, a variety of class levels, homestays with local families, and opportunities to learn about the region’s rich culture. My most pungent memory is a conversation period following the morning grammar lesson. “What should we talk about?” asked the teacher. “Let’s talk about beer,” answered my classmates, most of whom were students from the University of Dallas studying Spanish for credit. As much as I like beer, I was more interested in discussing Mexican history, Oaxacan politics, and the strike by thousands of teachers which had shut down the picturesque city center.

Oaxaca seethes with social, economic, cultural, and political conflicts, many related to the indigenous cultures the marketers want us to see primarily as “colorful.” Four years ago the conflict boiled over when the annual teachers’ strike was met by police violence. Instead of staying home, thousands of everyday Oaxacans joined the teachers in the streets. For months, popular grievances over government corruption, mistreatment of indigenous communities, and the impact of neo-liberal economic policies fed a large-scale uprising that was finally quelled by more government violence. As I contemplated a return trip to Oaxaca this year, I wondered whether any of the schools would help me understand the social movements which are part of what make the city so fascinating.

If you Google “Spanish language school Oaxaca” you can turn up tens of thousands of web pages with information about dozens of schools. Many of them advertise their proximity to the city center, cultural programs such as cooking and dance classes, tours to nearby archaeological sites, connections to local service projects, and wi-fi connections as well.

I’m glad I spent enough time Googling to find Ollin Tlahtoalli, which advertises no tours, cooking classes, or salsa dancing, and whose web site is hard to find unless you type the school’s name into your browser. Instead of amenities, Ollin emphasizes language instruction and connections to indigenous communities.

To say our classes were “small” would be an overstatement. When my partner and I were there for three weeks in the summer of 2010, we were pretty much the entire student body. Our three hours of class each day consisted mostly of one-on-one conversations on topics of mutual interest, such as racism in the USA and Mexico, the recently adopted immigration enforcement law in Arizona, the recent death of a prominent Mexican intellectual, the chronic water scarcity in Oaxacan neighborhoods, the upcoming state election, and the teachers’ union, which had once again shut down the city center to demand higher levels of support for public education. While we talked, my teachers would correct my grammar. Homeoaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 019 croppedwork assignments included grammar exercises and short essays on the issues we were discussing.

The school, whose name derives from Nahuatl words meaning “movement” and  “language,” is directed by Omar Nuñez, a linguist who grew up in Oaxaca. He and the other teachers are skilled, experienced instructors. In addition to teaching Spanish, Omar’s passion is for work with indigenous youth on issues of cultural identity.

Give Ollin a try if you’re looking for a small school with teachers who will tailor classes to your interests. I’ll bet Omar and the other teachers would even talk about beer, cooking, and salsa dancing if that’s what motivates you to study Spanish.

For more information, go to: www.ollinoaxaca.org.mx.

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