Dateline: A Gringo-Infested, English-Speaking Barrio

Ajijic is a weird place. No, I’m not just referring to the crushing horde of elderly gringos patrolling the streets. Nor am I referring to the shocking abundance of good, foreign restaurants, though by Mexican standards, both of those things are weird. No, I’m referring to the preponderance of English. Drop into a restaurant, and more likely than not the menu will be in English. And the waiter too will be “in English.” Most surprising? There are plenty of folks down here who look totally Mexican, but when they open their mouths, they sound just like gringos, down to our slang and odd linguistic tics. Yeah, I know, they grew up, at least partially, in the USA and now find themselves back SOB for one reason or other. And really, where else in Mexico would speaking flawless English be a bigger asset? Perhaps San Miguel de Allende, but I don’t recall so much flawless English on the part of the natives there. Usually when a Mexican is speaking English in SMA, he’s got an accent, and maybe a limited range of vocabulary. Here? They’re one step away from correcting my English grammar.

And the truly weird thing? The thing that kind of annoys me, and trips me up? When I speak Spanish to Mexicans here, at least half of them answer me back in English, at least in restaurants. I’m not kidding. And it’s not because I’m struggling. At the risk of sounding conceited, I get TONS  of compliments on my Spanish here, when someone is willing to speak it with me. When they’re not answering back in English, the Mexicans usually are asking me where I’m from, as in they can’t place the accent. In Mexico City I’ve more than once been taken for either European or we-don’t-know-where-the-hell-you’re-from. But I’m seldom guessed as a Gringo, and folks, at least in CDMX, are often shocked by the truth. So it’s not that I’m struggling to speak heavily-accented Spanish. But here I get answered in English anyway. Oddly enough, this even happens from time to time in Guadalajara,  though rarely. But it NEVER happens elsewhere.

Some of the adulation is at least partly a function of the overall appalling state of Gringo Spanish here. I had a long chat one afternoon with the folks who run La Arepa Venezolana, a lovely little restaurant on the highway in Riberas del Pilar. They were not only shocked at my Spanish, but were surprised by the sheer number of gringos who had lived lakeside for ten, twenty, or more years and who could still barely manage anything beyond “La cuenta, por favor.” I told them that it gave me “pena ajena” (the opposite of schadenfreude) that so many of my countrymen had moved here but never learned the language.

But given the above, who can really blame them? Any effort to practice is quickly foiled, and only the most determined can proceed. Of course learning language at retirement age is going to be a bit of a slog anyway. Not only has one’s brain changed, but one’s entire approach to study is also different. I know a few gringos here who take Spanish lessons, but no one’s madly studying, either to really learn, or even just to pass an exam. The classes I know of are no-exam, no-pressure classes, probably due to the limited marketability of a real, tension-filled class with deadlines, papers, and stress. Sadly, it’s  the latter that motivates most of us.

So take all the natural reasons for not learning a language — difficulty, weak study habits, no sense of urgency — and then add a Mexican population which seems to be actively colluding to keep anyone from developing any real proficiency in Spanish, and this is what you get: the worst place in Mexico to learn Spanish.

My advice? If you want to learn Spanish, move somewhere else, and stay away from English speakers. Yes, it’s exhausting, but so is every other intellectual achievement you ever made, whether that be graduating from high school, college, trade school, learning a musical instrument, or some other achievement. However, if you stick with it, then some day you’ll gain a real understanding of this complex, crazy, and utterly fascinating country. Until then, avoid Ajijic like the plague. At least if you ever hope to speak naturally with the natives.