A group of teenagers on a field trip order a tamal from La Loma and strike up conversations with music vendors at Mercado Central. Columbian Cumbias and Mexican Rancheros float overhead and mute sounds of chopping onions and frying chicken. A child pushes tamarind candy out of porous plastic cartons below a mass of fluorescent colored piñatas. A man studies the prices of international phone cards below displays of sleek cell phones, ipods and iphones.
This is what greets adult students before they head upstairs to Abra Palabra for their weekly Spanish lesson with Marcela Estibil. Once there, they say hello to her and each other in Spanish, whip out their grammar books and novels, and take a seat amidst the brightly colored Latin American tapestries and posters, neat stacks of books and warmly lit lamps.
Marcela Estibil has been teaching Spanish to adults for nearly 15 years, including at community colleges and at the Resource Center of the Americas. Now she runs Abra Palabra, a Spanish language school and translating/interpretation business tucked away in a cozy corner of the second floor of Mercado Central.
Estibil, who is originally from Chile, says the location is a definitely draw for her students, who use the weekly visits not only to learn from Estibil, but also from the shops and services in Mercado Central.
“They are always asking me, ‘Hey what does so-and-so mean? I saw it on a sign downstairs.’” Estibil said. “They like the whole atmosphere downstairs and they bring it to life…they bring it to the class.”
The students also get to practice their Spanish with vendors.
“I think one of the things students really like is to get here a little early and order things in Spanish,” she said. “They love to do that. The ones who are more social able like to make small talk, and the ones who are not so sure of their Spanish still get a chance to go downstairs and order a tamal, or enchilada or something in Spanish.”
At a recent class two of Estibil’s long time students, both business professionals in their 40s, discussed their plans for the week in a slow paced precise Spanish before going to lunch at one of the restaurants downstairs. Five minutes after their class had finished they had only made it a few steps down the hallway and were still conversing in Spanish.
Estibil says this is typical of her students because many of them are professionals or students who are highly motivated to learn Spanish for their job or for personal reasons. She says that she has seen an increase interest in Spanish courses and Hispanic culture in the Twin Cities since she arrived here as an Amity Aide in the 1990s.
This is obvious to her as she watches her students interact with the many immigrant vendors in Mercado Central. Estibil says the Spanish classes create a two-way learning experience and cultural exchange. Her extroverted students take time to get to know the vendors, and she gets word of their conversations.
“The people downstairs they tell me, ‘hey your student came the other day—you know the one who is tall and blonde?’ (And of course I don’t know because so many of my students are tall and blonde!) But the vendors say, ‘hey she’s so nice,’ or ‘he was talking to me in Spanish,’ or ‘we were talking about soccer.’”
She added, “It becomes a real exchange.”