Mercado Municipal, San Pedro Cholula

A butcher in the cavernous Cholula market sports a Club América jersey. Why not a shirt for El Puebla, I ask, joking about the far less successful, local team. “El mejor,” he says, thumbing out the logo, “the best.”

“The best at spending money,” I volley back. I am dismissed with a wave and a laugh. My wife Julie and I order two fillets and chorizo. After we pay, the butcher asks me: “eres profesor? eres gringo?”

The word “gringo” might jar in the United States, we know to avoid stereotypes, though I have traveled enough in Mexico not to take offense. My skin is pink. My Spanish sounds like it comes from the bottom of a churning ice bucket. Frankly, these days, I can expect to be called far worse. My goal in Mexico is, always, to avoid being “un pinche gringo.”

We broker these divides in a second language. Over the next four months, I will be in Cholula for two reasons: to teach English as a Fulbrighter at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP), and to improve my Spanish.

The latter, for me, means finding a niche.

When I first learned that the Fulbright would take me to “la UDLAP,” I pulled up a map. Puebla is the fifth largest city in Mexico, an hour and a half southeast of the capital. UDLAP (despite the name) is actually in Cholula — an ancient Olmec and Toltec city, later a suburb absorbed into Puebla’s sprawl. Adding to the confusion, there are two Cholulas, San Pedro and San Andrés. The two differ vastly in feel. Central San Pedro, famous for its elegant zócalo and market where I joke with the butcher, bustles with visitors. San Andrés, home to “la UDLAP,” is historically agricultural and remains laid back. Residents of San Andrés, off to San Pedro for an errand, might say “voy a Cholula.”

As a perpetual Spanish-learner, geography matters. Where should I position myself for casual interaction? How can I melt the ice off my gringo tongue?

To find the best place to live, back in the U.S., I first sketched out a map. Relying upon internet geography, I located an apartment that is close to coffee shops, tacquerías, that would be walkable to campus. Once settled in San Andrés, however, I questioned my decision. Why not San Pedro? Or Puebla proper, a thirty minute bus ride from campus–and closer to the action?

The answer is simple: to learn a language, we need a niche. After a week in San Andrés, Julie and I have found a favorite store for rice and paper towels, the tortillería, plus two (and counting) cervezerías that feature local brews. A green grocer on our block covers most of our produce.

After our trip to Cholula Market, Julie and I stop at the nearby grocer, Recaudería Lupita. We still needed fruit for morning smoothies.

I chat with Cornelio, whose Uncle Arturo owns the place. Cornelio points out a basket of green tuna, fruit from the nopal (or prickly pear). Having only seen red tuna, I ask whether the fruit is ripe. Cornelio takes out a knife, slices it through a lime to clean the blade, and carves open a sample. “Pruébalo,” he says. The green is in season. Julie and I taste. We take home four tuna.

Later that evening, we pass the same market. Cornelio has gone home but another family member minds the store. I offer a “buenas tardes” as we pass, requisite for San Andrés. A woman’s voice answers, “buenas tardes Tomás.” We had not met. (Marta, I learn later.) In a few days, Arturo would volunteer Marta to come to our apartment, to teach Julie and me how to make nopales–or sauteed cactus pads.

We promise to try soon.

I am in San Andrés to work on my Spanish, to close some linguistic gaps, to bridge divides that start with language. I have come to the right place.