Shaping a Mayor’s Spanish, Not His Ideas (The New York Times)

Published: August 4, 2008

Read it at the NYTimes

The men sat at opposite ends of a coffee table speckled with a half-dozen books — on the history of New York’s municipal lawyers, on the subway system’s rich architecture. Their legs stretched out, left foot resting on the right, they were mirror images of disparate worlds: the tutor, an immigrant from Colombia, with his student, the mayor of New York, face to face for 90 minutes in an elegant chamber at City Hall.

Andrew Henderson/The New York Times Michael R. Bloomberg and his Spanish tutor, Luis Cardozo, at a lesson in City Hall. “I can see myself making a lot of progress,” Mr. Bloomberg says.

Andrew Henderson/The New York Times
Michael R. Bloomberg and his Spanish tutor, Luis Cardozo, at a lesson in City Hall. “I can see myself making a lot of progress,” Mr. Bloomberg says.

The tutor, Luis Cardozo, wore a suit — thin white stripes slicing light gray fabric that matched his yellow tie. The student, Michael R. Bloomberg, had on a plaid buttoned shirt, casual pants and Irish-green socks.

“¿Cómo fue su viaje a Washington?” Mr. Cardozo, 46, asked of the mayor’s trip to the nation’s capital.

Mr. Bloomberg, 66, quipped: “Si tú tienes tiempo para descansar, toma un avión.” Translation: If you have time to relax, take a plane, which spurred a discussion on the travails of dealing with airport security, even for someone like the mayor, who has a private jet.

And so began Friday morning’s lesson, much like many others had begun for almost six years: a question prompted an answer that led to other questions, other subjects, their flow uninterrupted.

The mayor stumbled on a verb tense or two and forgot a few words, or spoke them out of order. “Guerra Mundial Primera,” he said at one point. Gently, Mr. Cardozo righted him: “Primera Guerra Mundial” — First World War.

“I correct his mistakes,” Mr. Cardozo said later in an interview, “not his ideas.”

Theirs is a relationship of measured intimacy and mutual respect, like that of longtime neighbors who have never visited each other’s home. When asked once about his tutor, the mayor admiringly noted that Mr. Cardozo had been a lawyer in Bogotá before moving to New York in 1999. Mr. Cardozo, meanwhile, speaks of the mayor with palpable deference, saying that meeting him has changed his life.

The interaction unfolds away from prying eyes, in a room that past mayors have used as an office but that Mr. Bloomberg has employed as a private meeting hall. (Mr. Bloomberg agreed to a reporter’s request to be allowed to sit in on one of his lessons.)

“I’m doing it because I started it,” he says, “and I don’t like to quit anything.”

Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged that in this setting, he had been at a disadvantage all along: he was the one who stood to be corrected, who had been forced to face his limitations, who had to freely admit that there were things he did not know and problems — of language usage, in this case — that he could not resolve on his own. It is not a position that Mr. Bloomberg, either in public office or in private life, is accustomed to.

“I think if you say, ‘Are you fluent?’ ” the mayor said in an interview, “not a chance. But a year from now I’ll be. I can see myself making a lot of progress.”

Despite his shortcomings, Mr. Bloomberg, at his last lesson at least, was clearly in control.

It was the mayor who commanded the conversation, expanding on topics that were agreeable to him, like the stories his mother told him about patriotism during World War I and his several visits to Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, where, he said, there was a fortress with “cannons.”

“Cañones,” Mr. Cardozo remarked.

The mayor exhibited his knowledge of history, weaving personal memories with what he had learned in books. He told his tutor about President Harry S. Truman’s visit to Malden, Mass., an old mill town near Medford, where the mayor grew up. He said he was “seis años” — 6 years old. It was, the mayor explained, one of President Truman’s many stops during a train ride across America following his decision to integrate the armed forces in 1948.

“Él integró los negros y los blancos,” Mr. Bloomberg said. (“He integrated blacks and whites.”)

Mr. Cardozo nodded approvingly.

Like many other middle-class professionals, Mr. Cardozo left Colombia to escape the violence of the drug cartels, he said. He was divorced and came to the United States on his own, staying at first with relatives in Forest Hills, Queens. He said he dreamed of practicing law in the city but also wanted to send for the son he had left in Colombia. For that, he needed money, he said, and so he went to work.

“The first job I was offered was at a language school,” Mr. Cardozo said. (He had taught Spanish literature at a high school in Bogotá.)
Mr. Cardozo has tutored Mr. Bloomberg continuously since 2002, after a brief stint as his tutor during his first campaign for mayor. The language school had brought the two of them together, but Mr. Cardozo said that he had to give up tutoring the mayor after some months. Mr. Bloomberg needed someone who would be able to travel with him overseas, but Mr. Cardozo said he could not leave the country then because he had not yet received his green card.

When the mayor took office, Mr. Cardozo sent him a congratulatory letter and told him that he had left the language school to start a Spanish tutoring business. It was not long after that that the two of them reconnected.

“I got a call from him and he asked, ‘Are you still teaching Spanish?’ ” Mr. Cardozo recalled.

Their lessons started the next day, and they have followed no set schedule. Sometimes, they take place once a week, if at all. Other times, they happen every weekday; there were four last week. (Mr. Cardozo seemed amused when he said he had been watching the television show “The Apprentice” one evening and heard that the winner of the day’s challenge would get a half-hour with Mr. Bloomberg.)

Alone in class, the mayor and his tutor have listened to Willie Colón, the Bronx-born salsa musician; as an exercise, the mayor has had to fill in the words missing from song lyrics that Mr. Cardozo handed to him. They have read Spanish-language newspapers like New York City’s El Diario La Prensa and Spain’s El País, and the jokes that Mr. Cardozo’s friends send to him by e-mail. And the mayor has shared business tips with Mr. Cardozo, who, after several years of running his language school from his apartment in East Harlem, is renting an office in Midtown and will start offering group classes there next month.

During what is left of their time, the two men talk — about their pasts, their children, their plans for the weekend.

On Friday, Mr. Cardozo said he told the mayor that he was going to the Salvador Dalí exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art that afternoon and to the Jersey Shore on Saturday.

When asked what Mr. Bloomberg told him, Mr. Cardozo smiled and changed the subject. It seems that the tutor has learned from his student not to reveal to details of the mayor’s personal life.