This article is from the March 2002 The Mexico File
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My Mexican Epiphany
by Hank Duckman
Hank Duckman lived in Mexico City from 1966 to 1971 where he attended medical school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Two of his children were born there. After practicing medicine in the United States for 25 years, he and his wife returned to live in Mexico permanently.
I can't say I was totally sane when I set out for Mexico City in January of 1966. What I can say is that I had always wanted to be a doctor and it seemed like my last option. Aunt Kay wanted it too. An unmarried nurse for many years and a real wheeler-dealer, she had been the first person to hold me when I entered the world from my mother's womb. She was not about to stand idly by and watch her nephew fail.
When the U.S. medical schools turned up their noses at my admittedly less than stellar pre-med performance, she hurriedly introduced me to one of her hospital's residents, a graduate of the National Autonomous University of Mexico Medical School (UNAM) in Mexico City. His name was Dr. Harry Sherrington. "Harry," she said, "you're going to get him into that medical school you went to." And far be it for Harry to argue with the head nurse of the emergency room, a veritable steamroller in woman's clothing.
So Harry, of Chilean extraction with Spanish as his native tongue, wrote a letter of application for me in Spanish and the response came in Spanish requesting various documents. Harry translated it. I submitted the documents, with a letter, translated by Harry into Spanish. The university assumed that the writer was me and Harry forebore to disavow them of this. Before I knew it I had a letter of acceptance. Don't you know... it was in Spanish. Harry had a dry sense of humor. With a droll smile on his face, he said, "Don't worry, you'll learn Spanish. If you don't, they'll just kick you out."
Up to this point, I guess I was really just humoring Aunt Kay. I certainly didn't imagine I would ever live in that exotic land with peasants asleep beneath coconut trees, heads shaded by sombreros, and burros pulling rickety little wagons. I told her I would wait a year to decide.
The next year of my life was a whirlwind. I got married and got a job. With no U.S. medical school acceptances awaiting me, I decided to take a chance on Mexico. Five months after our wedding, my wife and I headed for the border.
I won't tell you I wasn't anxious being launched into the unknown. We arrived by car climbing the mountains outside of Mexico City at sundown. As it got darker, the smoke-spewing trucks grew out of the landscape in ever greater numbers as the smell of burning automotive oil soaked permanently into my memory.
The majestic beauty of the massive city below with its myriad lights was tempered by our total confusion. I thought the traffic signs in Spanish had been easy to understand during the drive from the border, but at night in a strange place, with horns blowing at us and jumbled traffic patterns, they could as well have been in Mayan. We had A.A.A. maps and the name and address of a motel highly rated by A.A.A., the Sullivan Court Motel, which we chose because of the usual warnings one always heard about the water in
Mexico and because the Sullivan Court had its own water filtration system. I was exhausted, my eyes felt dry and scratchy and I was starting to think about what would happen to us if we just parked on the side of the road and slept until the sun came up.
Ahead of us was a glorieta. These circular roads at the juncture of several incoming radial streets, like spokes on a wheel, usually surrounded a garden with a monument or statue. No traffic lights were there to aid a novice driver in an orderly procession around it. Cars entering the circumferential traffic flow seemed intent on playing chicken with each other in their rush to get to wherever they were going. The sensation of driving into the merry-go-round of cars swirling around it was like being sucked into Charybdis, the mythical whirlpool.
Unfortunately, being a beginner in Mexican Driving I, I went to the inside of the traffic flow. My wife, monitoring the map, kept yelling for me to turn right - but a solid circle of cars on my right prevented this. I was reminded of Charlie on the MTA from the Kingston Trio song, who could never get off his subway train and "would travel forever on the streets of Boston...."
After uncountable spins around the glorieta. - and I still can't tell you for the life of me if there was a statue of a patriot sitting astride his trusty steed, an angel blessing the throngs or an Aztec king riding a tiger - I managed to break for the outside and escape the melee.
We came to a stop at a traffic light at the next corner, thoroughly shaken from playing ring around the glorieta. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed motion. Like anyone ignorant of Mexico, I still had the fear of looking any Mexican in the eye because he either might start talking to me in unintelligible Spanish,
which would be embarrassing because I wouldn't be able to either understand or answer, or he might have a weapon he was hoping to use to rob an unsuspecting gringo. I slowly turned my head and a smiling face was beckoning me from the next car to lower the window. I did, and the man, a Mexican, asked me in intelligible English where we were going. I told him the name of the hotel and he told me to follow him.
I glanced at my wife. What choice did we have. He led us right to the Sullivan Court Motor Lodge, got out of his car, and guided us into the lobby. He refused a tip.
The Sullivan Court became our base of operations for the next two weeks. Medical school wasn't scheduled to start for a few weeks. We started out trying to familiarize ourselves with the megalopolis which was, and is, Mexico City. We enrolled in an excellent Spanish institute, The Instituto Mexicano- Norteamericano de Relaciones Culturales on Calle Hamburgo in the Zona Rosa and attended daily classes. The teachers told us we wouldn't learn Spanish solely from the classes, but from practical application as well, talking to people on the street. We attempted to do this at every opportunity. I would wish someone a "buenos dias" and be accosted by a fusillade of words, few of which I understood. I began to feel sorry I asked.
We had to find a place to live. We bought the English language paper and a local Spanish language paper to peruse the classifieds. As anyone in the process of learning a foreign language knows, talking on the phone is one of the last skills to develop. To my dismay, many of the landlords who advertised in the English paper spoke little or no English. I would dial the phone number from our hotel room and my wife would be poised with pencil in hand to jot down specifics. The phone would be answered and a cacophony of unintelligible noise would come out of the speaker. I'd mumble a few words of Spanish I knew in response to I knew not what and hang up. My wife would look at me and say, "Well?" My shoulder shrugging was becoming very efficient. Her pencil didn't get much use.
We were not accustomed to riding along streets lined with architecturally vital structures and lovely gardens scattered among grungy shacks, nor with throngs of dark-skinned, dusky, serape-clad women walking side by side with fashionably-dressed matrons. The juxtaposition was harsh to two newly arrived gringos. These contrasts seemed woven into the texture of Mexico.
One day, riding around the "university city" we saw a "for rent" sign on the side of what appeared to be a new apartment building. The janitor, Daniel, whom we happened to find in the lobby, was able to understand my embryonic Spanish enough to know I was looking to rent an apartment. With luck, the owner of the building was in his apartment on the top floor and spoke excellent English. Señor Larios showed us a lovely new three bedroom, two bathroom apartment that occupied a quarter of the fourth floor. The price was the equivalent of $112US a month. The apartment building was directly in line with the medical school, across from the dental school, on the perimeter of the tree-lined street that surrounds "Ciudad Universitaria," University City .
We moved into the new apartment two weeks after our arrival in the City of Lights. Mexico City, Tenochtitlan, city of Moctezuma the Aztec Emporer - it was still strange to us. I felt as if I were balancing precariously on a wall, on one side a land of poisonous snakes, scorpions, banditos and dysentery, on the other a sunny, colorful, exotic and friendly place with a wealth of fascinating culture. To complicate matters, my wife was pregnant.
I had insomnia the first night in our new double bed in our new apartment. My wife had fallen asleep. It was around 2:00 a.m. Sleeplessness is often caused by a font of thoughts of the troubling kind that seep up from the subconscious. Doubts flew back and forth through my awareness, doubts about our existence in a strange land; about learning a foreign language; about my possibilities of becoming a doctor; about returning to the U.S. to be able to practice medicine and about our imminent parenthood. My head was full of disturbing scenarios.
From the edge of my perception, I became aware of a strange sound. It took me a few moments to realize it was music. I slowly got out of bed, trying not to disturb the sleeping figure next to me. I walked to the open window. It seemed the music was coming from outside but I couldn't imagine who would be playing music at this hour.
I stuck my head out and looked down. There under the glow of a street light four stories down was a mariachi band playing lively, melodic music. The thin cool air of Mexico City lent crystal clarity to my view. There was a surreal quality to the scene below. A short fellow was playing a full sized bass muchigger than he, spinning it around as he played like a whirling dervish. My face involuntarily broke into a smile. The music touched my soul and warmed me. I felt Mexico enveloping me in her warm embrace.
I knew then that all would be well.
This article is from the May 2002 The Mexico File
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My Mexican Epiphany, Part II
by Hank Duckman
Hank Duckman lived in Mexico City from 1966 to 1971 where he attended medical school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (U.N.A.M.). Two of his children were born there. After practicing medicine in the United States for 25 years, Hank and his wife returned to live permanently in Morelia. The first part of Hank's Mexican Epiphany appeared in the March 2002 issue of Mexico File.
My first experience at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, gave me pause. My wife and I had been living in Mexico City for only about six weeks, and I hoped to receive my medical education in the medical school. In spite of the language classes at the Instituto Mexicano-Norteamericano de Relaciones Culturales, my Spanish was still in its infancy. It still needed diapers to catch the egress of malapropisms, grammatic butchery and inadvertent non sequiturs.
A few days before the start of medical school classes, I had been summoned to the main administration building of the university, the rectory tower, to attend a meeting with the Dean of Foreign Students, Dr. Felipe Garcia Berraza. The building was a rectangular structure, many stories high and covered with colorful murals by some of the great Mexican artists. It stood in the center of the campus, an imposing contemporary monolith. My friend in the U.S., Dr. Harry Sherrington, a previous graduate, had told me that Berraza was very nice and that he spoke perfect English. Garcia Berraza apparently divided his time between teaching at a Texas university and fulfilling his post at UNAM.
I was ushered into his well-appointed office and received a warm welcome. My heart rate was sky-high as I was anxious to avoid the embarrassment sure to follow upon being confronted with my fraud. I had passed myself off as being fluent in Spanish by letting Harry Sherrington submit my application letters in Spanish. I had thought up what I perceived to be an acceptable excuse. I asked Dr. Garcia Berraza to excuse my use of English because my Spanish was "rusty," having only been in Mexico a short time.
With a knowing smile and in perfect English, he told me I would be notified to come back for a Spanish fluency test that would be administered in two weeks.
I returned to my apartment utterly distraught. I was certain that I would fail the Spanish test. Expulsion from medical school would certainly follow. I'd be back to square one with respect to my faltering career path.
In spite of this setback, as the next few days passed, my sagging mood was buoyed up by the inherent friendliness of the Mexican people. I refused to ponder the upcoming Spanish test.
I managed to make myself understood sufficiently to be directed to the room where my first class was to meet, thanks to a small number of students who spoke a few words of English. I was the only Gringo in my group and one of only forty or fifty among thousands of medical students.
When I walked into my classroom for the first time, I faced a dapper, smiling Anatomy professor, probably in his 50's, short and chubby, wearing a tweed suit and bow tie, who bowed and welcomed me expansively in heavily accented English and Spanish. He announced to the rest of the class of fourteen students something to the effect that they would have an "americano" with them from a friendly, neighboring country and that he was to be treated as one of the group at all times, like a true "compañero" or classmate. His name was Dr. Salvador Gomez Alvarez. He was a gentleman.
Each day, at least one of my "compañeros" would see me walking toward the medical school and accompany me to class. They were very protective of me. I was addressed by the Spanish version of my first name by some and by my last name in hispanicized English by others. People in the small shops and the tiny grocery store located in a small plaza just outside our apartment building were friendly and came to know my wife and me quickly.
My daily life in Mexico followed a pattern such that when something negative befell me, a positive event was always just around the corner. You might say, well, that's life - vicissitudes, ups and downs - but the paradigm seemed to affect all aspects of life in this country. Like ocean waves with their peaks and troughs, the flow of events appeared to mirror the visual contrasts with which I was confronted from every direction - modern buildings next to decaying hovels, late model cars sharing boulevards with burro-drawn carts, hordes of impoverished people walking on the same sidewalks as the fashionable and well-groomed, attractive walled-in houses next to garbage-strewn lots.
Having already studied Human Anatomy as a graduate student at an American university, I had the luxury of being able to focus on learning Español for the first year. I was anxious to compare teaching methods. I was especially anticipating the distribution of study aids. A week after the start of classes, I was finally assigned a cadaver in the Anatomy lab and there were four students to each corpse. The cadavers were in fairly good condition. My medical education in Mexico was on its way.
Several days later, two of my classmates told me they were going to pick me up early the next morning to get something that sounded like "huevos," Spanish for eggs. I thought it nice that they would want to take me out for breakfast, but why at 5 a.m.? They arrived punctually. One of them had a car. Five of us piled in.
I had still not completely mastered the road map of Mexico City. I watched where we were going with interest. It was still dark. There was a slight chill in the dry, crystal-clear air. Soon, the car turned into what appeared to be a large cemetery. We passed a section that was obviously for the ancestors of wealthy families. We passed a massive marble mausoleum and my classmates kept pointing and saying the name "Cantinflas," that of the famous Mexican comedian and movie star's family. We drove on into the depths of what appeared to be a never-ending succession of burial sites that were becoming less and less opulent.
I thought to myself , "Why would a restaurant be located in a cemetery"? For fear of sounding ignorant, I kept my mouth shut.
We reached what appeared to be the back end of the cemetery. There were no more mausoleums or gravestones, only an occasional simple wooden cross sticking up out of the rough ground. No landscaping with well-tended flowers and shrubs welcomed us as in the front part of this monumental place. The car came to a stop and my classmates got out and beckoned me to follow. I must confess to being nervous. I had no idea what to expect. Any appetite for eating the promised eggs had vanished. The earliest hint of light was appearing in the eastern sky.
A small group of men dressed in work clothes were sitting around on the ground. One of my classmates said a few words to them and they jumped up, carrying shovels. They started digging. Reaching down into the loosened earth, they picked up handfuls of human bones, with pieces of dried flesh and hair on them. Knowing I was in a traditionally Catholic country, my mind at first refused to accept what my eyes were seeing.
My classmates had an assortment of paper bags to hold the anonymous human remains. When they deemed the collection adequate, they tipped the gravediggers and beckoned me back into the car. I was still in shock when they delivered me safely back to my apartment handing me my share of the bones, my study aids. "Here are your 'huesos,'" they said magnanimously.
I had unwittingly participated in a tradition of medical and dental students of ages past, one that has occurred many times over the years and one that has continued up to recently in Mexico. I had also received a Spanish lesson.
Weeks flew by and I became immersed in my new schedule. I afforded my classmates many laughs with my frequent gaffes as I attempted to learn and speak their language. When I made errors, they gently corrected me with understanding smiles. Most of my studying that first year came at night after classes when I would sit with my Spanish dictionary, my grammar book and my headache, trying to understand all the things I had heard but not comprehended during the day.
You know, I managed to graduate, and I was never summoned for that Spanish test.