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"Language School Tourism and Guatemalan Women"
by Cynthia Ord
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Language school in Antigua, Guatemala

 Que onda, vos? This casual Guatemalan greeting, translating to “hey, what’s up?”  is one of the first things Spanish students from all over the world will learn inside Guatemala’s many Spanish schools.  For the past ten or fifteen years, Guatemala has built a growing industry upon the fact that foreign tourists will pay to learn Spanish as part of a vacation experience.  The proliferating supply of Guatemalan Spanish schools is as diverse as the foreign tourist market that seeks it, generating economic opportunity that reaches Guatemalans, especially women, of all backgrounds.  Guatemala’s reputation as a Spanish-learning destination has bolstered tourism in the country.  Rather than just passing through Guatemala with cameras and guidebooks, travellers are stopping awhile to learn the language, communicate with the people, and enjoy the new dimension of access their new Spanish skills will grant them.

Guatemala predicts the arrival of 1.7 million tourists for the year 2008, a 5% increase over 2007[1].  Tourism has experienced similar annual growth patterns since the early 1990s when the first Spanish schools started appearing. The signing of the 1996 Peace Accords ended the country’s brutal 37-year internal armed conflict.  As the political turbulence stabilized, foreigners poured in from all directions – governmental and NGO (non-governmental organization) personnel, private interest developers, missionaries and religious organizations, and especially tourists ready to fall in love with the country’s vibrant indigenous culture, natural wonders and historical treasures.  A common theme among all the outsiders was that they wanted (or needed) to learn Spanish.  Enterprising Guatemalans picked up on this growing demand, and the first licensed Spanish schools started opening in Antigua.  Other Central American countries have since followed suit, but Guatemala still leads in price and quality of services.  An internet search for Spanish Schools in Guatemala also yields more results than similar searches for neighbouring countries. 
Like other sectors of the Guatemalan economy, the Tourism industry and the Spanish School industry are plagued by informality.  Schools open and close without even registering with the two monitoring institutions, Guatemala’s Department of Tourism (INGUAT) and the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC), making a total count of Spanish schools impossible to find. For example, 66 Spanish schools are registered through INGUAT on the national level, whereas MINEDUC has only accredited 33[2].  Regionally, INGUAT reports 29 Spanish schools in the area of Antigua alone; however, Conexion.com, an internet portal, lists the names and websites of 41 Spanish schools in Antigua.  Likewise, 20 Spanish schools are registered with INGUAT in Quetzaltenango, but another portal Xelapages.com lists 24[3].  Registered schools will publicize their certification with INGUAT and MINEDUC, but schools find that an internet presence is more important to the credibility of their schools.  The most competitive schools maintain well-developed, professional websites with features such as online payment options.
Most Spanish schools follow the same basic formula.  In order to serve foreigners for a short term, schools offer individualized classes that often consist of one-on-one instruction on a week-by-week basis.  Students can often customize their classes to fit how many hours a day they want to spend studying, the level of Spanish instruction they require, and the style of learning they prefer.  As schools have proliferated, they have competed by adding all the extras that a student might want.  Some host social mixers such as games, pot luck meals, parties, and salsa dance classes.  Others advertise excursions and tours to nearby attractions.  Many offer to connect their students to volunteer opportunities with local non-profits, hospitals and elementary schools.  Some Spanish schools make contracts with local Guatemalan families who take students into their homes and provide room and board.  Others have their own guesthouse accommodations adjoined to the school.  Many offer the choice between the two.  Beyond simply giving Spanish lessons, schools market themselves as multi-service providers to travellers.
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Spanish school sign in the street in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Finding the right school in Guatemala
With so many different schools to choose from, how is a prospective student to decide which one will be the best match?  The majority of schools are concentrated in the most visited areas of Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and Quetzaltenango. More intrepid travellers can find Spanish schools in the remote areas of Quiche and Peten.  Each of these destinations’ distinct personalities means Spanish schools for students of all kinds.
Antigua, Guatemala’s beautiful colonial ex-capital and a World Heritage Site, offers some of the most high-end services and accommodations to be found in Guatemala.  With its diligently-maintained cobblestone roads, charming central park, Spanish colonial architecture, romantic ruins, and refined dining and shopping options, the small city attracts visitors with money, both foreign and Guatemalan elite.  Quality of life in Antigua has risen above the Guatemalan norm, as has the cost of living.  The Spanish schools in Antigua follow this trend, meeting international standards of professionalism and quality.  The priciest schools have been operating the longest, some for over 15 years.  Their services include live online Spanish instruction through Skype, and their alliances with Guatemalan universities allow them to offer classes worth transferable college credit.  Antigua is the choice destination of professionals wanting to learn business Spanish or other field-specific Spanish.  For retirees learning Spanish as a hobby, Antigua is accessible and comfortable. Relatively safe and easy to navigate, Antigua is also good for high school and college-age Spanish students nervously venturing abroad for the first time.  Antigua’s attractiveness as a Spanish-learning destination has become almost self-defeating; among Spanish students, other tourists, volunteers, ex-pat business owners and ex-pat retirees, everybody speaks English, including the Guatemalans who live there.
Travelling from Antigua to Lake Atitlán in the western highlands, Spanish students will find schools in a less epicurean, less expensive, and slightly less foreigner-infused environment.  The lake possesses its own set of assets both cultural and natural. Its surrounding villages are home to native Mayan people that don their traditional costume and speak the indigenous tongue, and its surrounding volcanoes form a landscape of primordial tranquillity.  The town of Panajachel is the portal to other favourite lake destinations such as San Pedro.  Panajachel and neighbouring San Pedro receive the majority of the Lake’s tourism, catering largely to backpackers on low budgets looking for high times.  With prices for food and accommodation so low, visitors can afford to enjoy the avid nightlife.  Spanish schools around the lake are also some of the most affordable, appealing to young and independent travellers on spontaneous and open-ended schedules.  The schools in the area take advantage of the richly Mayan culture, using Mayan names and offering perks such as traditional weaving demonstrations, Mayan rituals, and visits to markets where traditional artisan crafts and textiles are sold.  A Spanish student at the lake will probably find these activities “totally mind-blowing” in a way that resembles the indigenous residents’ bafflement toward this youthful traveller culture. 
A third concentration of Spanish schools has sprung up in Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela), the second-largest city in Guatemala. Big and bustling, it is decidedly urban with all the implications – arts and culture, pollution, nightlife, crime, higher education, industry, etc.  Located in the disadvantaged western highlands region, the city is headquarters to many of Guatemala’s non-profit organizations. They range in size and purpose, from public health to environmental protection to micro-credit to human rights to fair trade to responsible tourism. Accordingly, Xela is a Mecca of volunteerism. EntreMundos, an organization that links foreigners to non-profit activities, publishes lists of volunteer opportunities, sponsors lectures on social issues, and hosts lively benefit parties where Spanish students and volunteers can mingle and drink for a good cause.  For nature-lovers, a number of non-profit organizations guide treks to the surrounding volcanic highlands then hand all the proceeds over to community projects.  In this climate of mission-based activity, many of Xela’s Spanish schools support social initiatives.  Even without donating time as a volunteer, Spanish students in Xela can make a difference with their dollar.  They can choose Spanish schools with social projects, fair trade coffee shops, eco-tours to coffee farms, and the NGO-initiated laundromat where victims of domestic abuse learn work skills.  The used book store sells peanut butter and jelly made by Guatemalan women’s cooperatives.  In Xela, options are plentiful for socially conscious consumers.
For those students trying to steer clear of other students so as to find the most intensive immersion experience possible, schools in remote areas offer lessons and authentic rural Guatemala homestays.  One school based in Xela takes its students 45 minutes outside the city to its site, where no nearby traveller bars can tempt students to speak English with each other.  The town of Nebaj, Quiche is part of the Ixil triangle, a strongly indigenous area hit heavily by the armed conflict.  Nebaj’s home-grown Spanish school and off-the-beaten-path experience make the hours of harrowing bus rides worthwhile.  Likewise, a school in the sparsely-populated department of Peten boasts language classes, environmental and community volunteer projects, and an ecological park. 
An income opportunity for local women
No matter where a student decides to spend her Spanish school dollar (or Quetzal, rather), the industry as a whole has been a source of great economic opportunity for thousands of Guatemalans, especially women.  Income disparity between men and women remains wide in Guatemala. However, indexes show increasing economic activity among the female population over age 10. In 1996, 42.2% of women were found to be economically active, up from 38.2% in 2004 and 24.5% in 1989[4]. Spanish schools are offering new jobs to women, some who had never earned income before, while  wages for Spanish teachers are competitive.  Teachers working 25 hours per week earn between Q1600 and Q1700/mo (between USD$216 and $229/mo) whereas the average wage in Guatemala for men is Q1704/mo (USD$230) and Q1447/mo (USD$195)[5] for women.  Women employed as teachers in Spanish schools earn an income that is above average for women and on par with their male counterparts.
Noemi, Sary, and Ilsy
Noemi, Sary & Ilsy operate a Spanish School
in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
In the Spanish school industry, women are finding meaningful work not only as Spanish teachers, but also as host mothers and even entrepreneurs.  Sary, a 28-year-old Xela native, founded a Spanish school and hostel in 2005 that has created work opportunities for herself and a ripple of women around her.  About four years ago, she and an American friend dreamed up the business idea, and with a little capital and a lot of work, Sary made it happen. The school is also a guesthouse, with seven guestrooms that share a communal kitchen.  The dining area is an incognito café that serves pasta, sangria, or a good cup of coffee to pedestrian passers-by.  The school also showcases local artwork for sale and has film screenings in the cosy living room.
Spanish teachers generate income through Sary’s Spanish school.  Emerging Spanish schools face the challenge of a seasonally fluctuating market.  The number of Spanish students taking classes at a school at any given time is never a constant, and can be hard to predict.  Larger, well-established schools can count on a minimum volume of students and offer constant work to full-time teachers. Smaller Spanish schools such as Sary’s expand and contract with the demand by sharing a pool of experienced teachers that they hire on a student-by-student basis.  For the teachers, this means both flexibility and instability.
Ilse, age 38, is a single mother of three and a Spanish teacher in one of Xela’s biggest Spanish schools.  With a constant minimum of about 6 students, the school can afford to guarantee salary with benefits to only seven of the 30 teachers it uses.  The other 23, including Ilse, are paid hourly and work around 25 hours a week, but work varies with the seasons. Ilse has observed that many teachers are also single mothers trying to support themselves and their children.  Since they have separated from their husbands, they’re often more free to leave the house to work. The Spanish teachers’ schedule works well for mothers because it coincides closely with their children’s school schedule.  Positions are competitive – most schools require a month-long training session or extensive experience before putting a teacher to work.  At some schools, teachers are evaluated weekly by their students.  Ilse receives good reviews and her students usually decide to keep her rather than switch at the end of the week.  Even with ten years of teaching experience and a fairly regular workload, Ilse finds it important to supplement her income as a host ‘mother.’  Most Spanish schools, including Sary’s, offer students the option of a family homestay, which is normally arranged on a per-week basis.  The popularity of homestays has created another source of income for Guatemalan women.  Like Spanish teachers, they align themselves with a number of Spanish schools who certify them and hire them on a student-by-student basis. The ‘mother’ personalizes the student’s homestay by arranging a meal plan, meeting other needs they might have, and practicing Spanish with them. Often, host families make ends meet each month by hosting students in their homes. Sary concedes that the most difficult part of her business is coordinating students with families that will be a good match.  Given the short supply of happy, whole families and developed-world amenities, students’ high expectations can be hard to meet.  Nevertheless, homestay experiences are generally positive and beneficial for both the students and the families.

The growth of the Spanish school phenomenon in Guatemala has meant more variety among the schools while creating meaningful income opportunities for local women from every background.  With a little internet research or some in-country exploration of Guatemala’s key destinations, any potential language tourist can find a good match for herself. Self-starters such as Sary reach out to the market, while for others the market reaches out to them.  Either way, more Guatemalan women are crossing the threshold into economic activity. They are entering a field that offers benefits ranging from part-time flexibility and convenience to personal enrichment and positive cultural exchange for everyone involved.  Que buena onda.

[1] Prensa Libre, “Inguat invertirá más, pero turismo crecerá menos” Guatemala, June 25 2008
[2] Hugo René Ojeda Delgado, DIGEACE, (Dirección General de acreditación y certificación) MINEDUC
[3] https://einguat.inguat.gob.gt/
[4] Informe Nacional de Desarrollo Humano con datos de ENS 1989, ENCOVI 2000, ENEI 2004 y ENCOVI 2006
[5] Hugo Nopo Alberto Gonzales, Gender and Ethnic Wage Gaps in Guatemala from a Matching Comparisons perspective. Inter-American Development Bank, July 2008.

About the Author

Cynthia Ord is Assistant  Editor of XelaWho Magazine (Web: www.xelawho.com ). Originally from Denver, Colorado, she has been living in Quetzaltenango for nine months volunteering for various non-profit organizations and co-editing the monthly culture and nightlife magazine XelaWho. Cynthia may be reached at cynthia.ord [at] gmail [dot] com.

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