By HOLLY GALBO | Moonshine Ink
In 2010, as the recession deepened, our family packed up and spent 18 months living in Oaxaca, Mexico. At the time, my husband and I were no longer generating enough income to continue supporting our family in the Bay Area. Testing the waters, we put our house up for rent on craigslist and within 48 hours it was rented to a nice family relocating and willing to pay top dollar in the tight Bay Area rental market.
After many lengthy discussions both in and out of a therapist’s office, we chose Oaxaca. My husband Chris had spent time there in his 20s and was somewhat fluent in Spanish. And in addition to Oaxaca’s vibrant culture, cuisine, and climate, we wanted our daughter Stella to acquire a second language. Spanish seemed the most logical. We found a house to rent on VRBO — an online vacation rental marketplace — and our landlady in Oaxaca connected us with one of the better schools in town, which luckily had a spot for Stella.
We packed up the house, bought one-way plane tickets, and on the way to the airport I remember feeling paralyzed with fear. There were lots of surprises once we got there. The worst being six straight weeks of torrential rain that washed out roads, bridges, and, in some instances, parts of rural villages.
We thought we could navigate Oaxaca without a car. According to Google Maps, our daughter’s school appeared to be walking distance from our rental house. What did not appear on the map was the precipitous canyon you had to climb in and out of every day. We tried to make it work; Chris would carry Stella on his shoulders as I stomped behind wearing impractical shoes. Mad and wondering if we had been nuts to come here, I asked myself why I did not pack Crocs for the whole family. After a couple of weeks, we succumbed to the canyon and bought a car.
The first few weeks were really tough on all of us. I slipped into a depression from all the rain, feeling isolated and unmoored. Stella went on strike and refused to speak Spanish after two weeks of trying in a baptism by fire. As her frustration escalated at school, she pushed a little boy and he scraped his nose. There was blood and we were called into the directora’s office and given a lecture.
Another major surprise we experienced at school was that parents were not welcome into the classroom. Often, the head teacher would stand in the doorway in the morning at drop off — a literal gatekeeper.
Another adjustment was the strict school uniforms and personal hygiene requirements. Stella had to wear a plaid pinafore and white polo shirt with off-white lace knee socks and blue buckled shoes. At school, there would be signs reminding parents to polish shoes and clean fingernails — complete with do and do not instructional pictures. Coming from Berkeley, where in certain circles clothes and shoes are entirely optional, this was very new to us. Adding to the challenge, Stella hated having her thick hair brushed. Sometimes, I’d give up and let her go to school with wild hair. When we picked her up from school, her hair would be neatly coiffed in perfect braids with bows.
Eventually, we grew to love the uniform and hair styling assistance. It saved time, money, and leveled a social hierarchy. I must confess: the kids looked uniformly adorable, unlike the free-for-all we knew back home in Berkley.
Ultimately, Stella rose to the occasion and acquired Spanish beautifully. I remember taking Stella to get her hair cut after a couple of months of living in Oaxaca and she began speaking to the hair stylist in Spanish, faster than I could even understand.
“If you can gossip in the beauty parlor, you’ve got all the Spanish you need,” a friend observed.
Stella’s fluency in Spanish is a gift, but she learned so much more than just a new language in Oaxaca. She told me she always goes out of her way to befriend new kids at school because she remembers what it felt like to be the new kid. I observe her playing with both native Spanish and English speaking kids on the playground, speaking in a mix of Spanglish. This makes me so proud, especially as kids often self-segregate.
In Oaxaca we learned a lot about ourselves and about each other, even if it was hard at times. Now I know that we can make it work anywhere, figure out how to live in a new place and make new friends, all while acquiring a new language.
Being pushed beyond your limits is not always fun, but we did it. Once back home, we were able to reboot our careers and navigate the dual-immersion elementary education with a little grace and a lot of appreciation for what we shared together as a family in Mexico.
Holly Galbo is the mother of two bilingual little girls. She is the manager at the KidZone Musuem in Truckee, lives in Incline Village, and is a newly-minted MBA from Dominican University in Sustainable Enterprise.
Do you have a parenting story to share? Contact Carol Meagher at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about KidZone Museum, visit kidzonemuseum.org or call (530) 587-5437.