[After completing some philosophy courses in San Antonio following my first profession of vows] I ran across a poster for a six-week Spanish-language program in Mexico City, the Instituto Cultural Tenochtitlan. Although I had some knowledge of Spanish, the Carmelites in Oklahoma were heavily invested in Mexican-American parishes. All the students needed to become fairly fluent in the language. I took the information to my superiors, and to my delight and surprise, they decided to send me and Brother Rene to the program. We would live with the friars at the Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, across from Chapultepec Castle and about a forty-five minute walk to the school. Rene was Mexican-American, but his parents had raised the kids to speak English. He had no trace of an accent and claimed he did not speak Spanish all that well. So the two of us made out plans and the summer began to look more promising. I would be in Mexico for most of it, and after we got back, I would head for Dallas and my new life.
That was the first of three summers that I spent in Mexico studying Spanish. It was a great experience, and my Spanish improved significantly. After ordination, I was able to celebrate Mass, give homilies, hear confessions and even preach ten-day retreats in Spanish. I was often complimented by native speakers on my accent, because I had a good ear. The Mexican friars, many of whom had studied at the monastery in Washington, DC and spoke good English, were great. I got to know the City pretty well, traveled into the countryside on a few occasions, forced myself make my Mental Prayer in Spanish, read novels and lots of comic books in Spanish and before the end of the summer, my dreams were in Spanish. Total immersion is clearly the way to go.
After I had been in Mexico about five weeks, I ran to catch a bus just as it pulled away from the curb. I jumped and hung onto the still-open door, finally pulling myself into the crowded interior. At that moment, I knew I had adjusted to a new culture. I no longer thought it odd that there were ladies carrying live chickens in string bags on the bus. I knew that a mordida might look like a bribe to someone from Texas but it was viewed as a tip in Mexico. I found myself giving directions to lost American tourists. It was a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say.
Rene and I had taken the train down and back, and that was an adventure in itself. On the way down, I had felt crowded and a bit stunned. When the train arrived in Mexico City, four hours late, we stepped off into chaos. We had no idea who we were looking for, we had no telephone number, we had no sign. In Mexico, priests and religious cannot wear Roman collars or habits outside the monastery, so we did not even have that clue to help.
Then a middle-aged man with a huge smile walked up. “Carmelitas?” he asked.
“Si, si,” we almost shouted. It was Padre Agustin, the prior, come in person to pick us up. When we got back to the monastery and met the community, I heard one of the friars ask Augustin how he had found us.
“I just looked for two good boys,” he laughed.
The day after we arrived, Rene and I walked past the Bosque de Chaputlepec to find the school we were attending and to let them know we were there. After taking care of that, I was ready to head back to the monastery. Rene, on the other hand, wanted to do some exploring. He stopped a woman and asked her how to get to the Zocalo, the main square downtown. Although his Spanish was quite good, she looked a bit frightened of us and just shook her head. We walked along a ways and then saw a bus with ZOCALO on it. We went to get in line, and lo and behold, the lady we had asked was right ahead of us. When she saw that we really had only wanted to know how to get somewhere, she thawed a little. She and Rene managed to get a seat in the bus and I hung onto the overhead railing.
It felt like I was hanging on that rail forever, and the aisle became more and more crowded. I got pushed further and further back, but I kept my eye on Rene. After a long time, he turned around and signaled to me. I thought he meant to get off at the next stop, but all he intended was that I start fighting my way towards the door. Our stop was several blocks ahead. Meanwhile, the summer afternoon rain storm had started. I got off the bus, looked back and saw Rene waving from the window. All I could do was keep walking through the rain, with no raincoat, no hat, no umbrella and hope that I could catch up to him.
At the next stop, Rene and the lady he had been sitting with got off the bus. They ran two blocks back to find me, and then she led us into a shelter in a nearby Metro station. She told us then how to take the Metro to where we wanted to go, blessed us and walked back into the rain to catch another bus.
I was amazed. A total stranger had gotten off a bus, run two blocks in the rain, found us shelter and helped direct us to where we wanted, then gone back out into the rain to wait for another bus to take her home. I tried to imagine a random New Yorker doing it for a lost Mexican and couldn’t manage. We may have just lucked out and found the one great ordinary person in Mexico City that day, but I immediately decided I was going to like it there. And I did.