Monday Profile Positively precocious: College of Liberal Arts freshman Neely Brumfield studies abroad

CUERNAVACA, Mexico

As the rising ivory sun ignites the dusty sky, Neely Brumfield’s lightly freckled cheeks glint with sweat.
Even the locals complain.
“­QuÇ calor!”
How hot!
Walking to school in the feverish air, Neely pulls her chocolate shoulder-length hair behind her ears; to deal with the heat, she cut several inches from it just days after arriving in the sprightly Mexican mountain city.
“It’s always hot here,” she says. “Always.”
Neely, a 19-year-old University freshman, is spending spring quarter studying Spanish among the faded rooftops and narrow streets of Mexico City’s favorite little sister.
Just an hour’s drive south of the capital’s bustling, smog-choked sprawl, Cuernavaca is home to a number of international language schools. Atop one of its rolling foothills stands the Cemenahuac Educational Community, to which the University’s Spanish immersion program is tethered.
Neely and her roommate, University freshman Ephia Golightly, sublet their Northeast Minneapolis apartment and converged with 30 other University students in Cuernavaca March 28. The best friends room together with a host family, and will return May 30.
In less than nine weeks at Cemenahuac, Neely will complete the equivalent of Spanish 1103, 1104 and 1105, with a chance to test out of her College of Liberal Arts foreign language requirement upon her return. A history major, Neely says she hopes to someday teach high school.

Friday, April 17, just before 11 a.m.
Between classes, the school’s shady, open-air study area buzzes with the banter of at least 50 American students. Mostly from Minnesota and Ohio, they speak English, with the exception of a sarcastically inflected “­hola!” and “­como estas!” in passing.
“We always start out the day saying ‘OK, we’re only going to speak Spanish today,'” Neely says. “But by the end of the day, there’s been so many things you want to say but just don’t know how.”
Under a canopy of twisted, trunky palms, Neely and Ephia discuss plans for the night with other University students. In minutes, they will begin a three-hour session with their teacher, speaking only Spanish.
Neely, Ephia and University sophomore Kelly Keegan have had native-speaking Spanish teacher JosÇ Luiz to themselves for the first two weeks; no class at Cemenahuac is larger than five students. Next week they will move on to Spanish 1104 and a new teacher.
JosÇ kicks off the lesson the same way he has every day: with 10 or 15 minutes of casual discussion about events from the previous night. His wit and measured humor make the students laugh and titter; they say they will be sad to leave him.
‘Wise baby’
Growing up in South Minneapolis and Edina, Neely was a stabilizing force in a family with a fun-loving Jewish mom and a providing Catholic father with a strong work ethic.
Neither imposed their religious beliefs on their two daughters. A menorah and a Christmas tree peacefully coexist in the Brumfield household in December. Although she never attends synagogue, Neely considers herself Jewish.
“It started out as more of a cultural thing than a religious thing,” Neely said. “Then it became a history thing.” Last quarter, Neely took a Holocaust class, and is in the middle of reading “The Joys of Yiddish,” a book her grandfather gave her.
Embracing her cultural roots doesn’t keep Neely from expressing herself.
A simple, nickel-sized tattoo behind her right shoulder depicts two interlocking swirls representing Piscean fish.
“I actually sort of regret having gotten it now,” she said. “But I’m not going to have it removed or anything.”
Neely’s Feb. 19, 1979 birthday places her on the far end of the cosmic wheel at Pisces. While she lends only mirthful credence to astrology’s claims, Pisces’ characteristics describe her perfectly.
According to astrology, Pisces is the final destination of the soul’s astral journey; a culmination of attributes from each of the signs, where the oldest of souls reside, endowed with wisdom, full of compassion and moved by simplicity.
Neely’s unwavering smile and cherubic eyes convey a depth of experience she is too young to have had.
“Neely’s always been mature for her age,” said Adriane Harlem, Neely’s energetic mother. “People even said she was a ‘wise baby.’ You can see that in some of her baby pictures. She’s never struggled with things, even from day one. Everything she touched turned to gold.”
Adriane was 14 when she read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith’s novel about a family’s struggle to survive life in the city. She loved the book and the name of one of its characters — Neeley — secretly keeping it on her mind for the next 13 years.
She dropped the third ‘e’ from the traditional Irish boy’s name, husband Bill Brumfield liked it, and the couple so christened the first of two daughters. Recently divorced, they still live in the same Edina house with youngest daughter Kyle, 14.
They admit it’s a unique situation, but it works.
“We have a family focused on making sure the kids grow up with everything they need to be happy and healthy,” Bill said.
Adriane, Neely and Kyle behave more like girlfriends than mother and daughters. They share secrets, a love for local live music and a manic need to keep tidy households. Among the three, Neely often takes the maternal role.
Even her mother knows it. “Sometimes,” Adriane said, “I wish I could be more like her.”

2 p.m.
Class is over. The weekend begins. Neely and Ephia descend the steps to the sun-splashed pool area to finalize plans with friends. A pack of shirtless, cocksure Ohio State students, also finished for the day, yak in raucous voices and romp in the water. It is time to leave school and head home to eat.
Ephia at her side, Neely’s unhurried, fluid strides propel her up steep, crumbling sidewalks and around tight corners from the school to la casa de la familia Rojas. Here the two live like members of the Rojas family.
The high, windowless wall surrounding the Rojas home cloaks a lush interior built around a flowering garden. All rooms face into the blooming courtyard. With the doors thrust open during the day, fresh air circulates throughout.
Cool, stone tile floors would soothe hot bare feet, were it not for the threat of a wayward scorpion’s sting. It is wise to always wear shoes when in Mexico.
Se¤ora Chela Rojas and the maid are bustling in the kitchen when Neely and Ephia arrive.
It is time for comida, the traditional Mexican staple meal, typically served just after 2:30 p.m. Morning and evening meals of fruit, toast and cereal are as scant as the afternoon meal is abundant. Knowing this, the women eat heartily.
“One time when I was like, 10, I had some Taco Bell and puked,” Neely says. “I know that’s not really Mexican food, but it kind of turned me off the whole idea.”
Neely would just as soon sustain herself on plain pasta and skim milk. Instead, homemade tortillas, black beans, glazed vegetables and a particularly toothsome chicken-and-potato dish in a zippy orange sauce adorn the table, and the feast is on.
“I figured it would be too troublesome to try to find foods that I liked, so I just said, ‘Put it in front of me; I’ll eat it,'” Neely says between bites.
Se¤ora Chela brings more tortillas. She speaks no English and is not particularly talkative, but her robust smile and delectable dishes make guests feel welcome.
Se¤or Sergio Rojas is the more verbose of the two. He also speaks no English, but his bright, laughing eyes beam his jocular personality through the language barrier. He speaks slowly and clearly so the women can understand him.
Daughter Elsa Rojas speaks fluent English and happily translates when the women get stumped.

Minneapolis
Neely said she misses home. Someone at home said he misses back.
Paul Bringardner, 25, is Neely’s boyfriend of more than a year. He gazes into his collection of more than 2,000 vinyl records at his Minneapolis apartment, where he lives with twin brother Mark and a friend.
“I’ve been really kind of freaked out since she’s been gone,” he said. “I kind of look up to her.”
Rock ‘n’ roll posters gobble every inch of wall space in the living room, from Bob Dylan to the Grateful Dead to the Jayhawks. Trinkets and bric-a-brac line shelves; music is everywhere from ceiling to ear.
Neely and Ephia’s apartment, with few adornments and no clutter, reflects Neely’s penchant for well-ordered plainness. And while their decorating preferences separate them, a mutual love of music brought them together.
As Neely and her mother waited to buy tickets to see Semisonic’s Dan Wilson at the Bryant Lake Bowl in February 1996, Adriane struck up a conversation with Paul. Interested more in Adriane’s stories of 1970s concerts, Paul said he barely noticed Neely.
Neely then told Paul of a bootleg recording of Semisonic her guitar teacher gave her from a Coffman Union performance when the Minneapolis-based band was still called Pleasure.
Paul said he couldn’t believe it — he and a friend had made the recording in 1994.
“I was thinking, ‘My God, it filtered all the way to Edina already,'” he said.
Paul had scores of tapes at home. Interested, Neely accepted the offer for more. But he had mistakenly made arrangements to copy tapes for Neely the same night he had tickets to see McCoy Tiner at the Dakota Bar and Grill in St. Paul.
“So out of guilt,” he said, “I invited her along. At this point, you see, I still had no romantic inclinations toward this girl.”
As fate would have it, he said, the night turned into a date.
“You know how when you catch somebody staring at you, and they look away?” Paul said. “Well, that night, she didn’t look away. She just kept on staring.”
Paul said he loved the fact that Neely played guitar, but didn’t know she was also a polished pianist with a penchant for Chopin.
“She’s great,” he said. “She played for me on our first date. I couldn’t go in the room because she was self-conscious about having an audience.”
She still is, and won’t play the Rojas’ piano.
“It’s really out of tune,” she claimed.

Saturday, April 18, just after 1:18 a.m.
As the amigas walk the crooked streets, jeers and catcalls hail from casual passers-by, cabdrivers and machine-gun toting policemen alike. Annoyed but not intimidated, the women ignore the whistles and lewd remarks that fall between disdain and playful taunting.
Inside a pulsating nightclub, however, they command a different kind of attention.
After stops at a restaurant and jazz bar, Neely, Ephia and a handful of friends from school find themselves at Kauza, a small but popular nightclub where thumping music and billowing smoke machines propel the gyrating throng.
Neely doesn’t take the term “friend” lightly, fostering only one or two meaningful friendships at a time. But in a crowd, she is far from antisocial.
“We’re not big drinkers,” Neely had said earlier in the evening, a couple of screwdrivers ago. Two of the women have had their fair share of tequila; Ephia drinks nothing but Cokes. Nevertheless, the mood is rowdy among them all.
“You guys watch my purse?” Neely asks suddenly, a full tequila sunrise in front of her. “I’m going dancing. Just bring it down if you’re coming.”
Just as suddenly, the drink is empty and Neely is gone.
Ephia smiles wide. “At home, Neely doesn’t dance,” she says. “But since we’ve been here …” her speech trails off as she laughs and mimics Neely’s moves.
One by one, the women take to the crowded floor, forced to fend off the unwelcome but harmless advances of eager men who follow them back to their dark corner table. Two of them target Neely.
“OK, these two guys, they say they’re brothers,” Neely says mockingly, leaning over so they cannot hear. “And they have, like, routines on the dance floor. They’re synchronized. They have hand motions and everything!”
Neely stays in control; the men get the hint and eventually leave.
By 3 a.m., everyone is home safely and in bed.
The next morning, several students lounge by the Cemenahuac pool to soak in the ivory Mexican sun and relax for awhile.
“As you can see,” Neely says after a couple of hours in a reclined deck chair, “we have it pretty rough here.”
Morning eases into afternoon, and the Ohio State pool bullies are back. The bronzed ruffians take turns doing suicide belly-flops into the water, splashing irritated poolside sunbathers.
“So … this is some kind of macho contest?” Neely says to Ephia as they pack up to head home for comida.
“Yeah,” Ephia replies with desert-dry sarcasm, “except everyone loses.”
They laugh as they begin the long walk home.