"Language School Tourism and Guatemalan Women"
by Cynthia Ord
|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.
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
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. 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. 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
Finding the right school in Guatemala
|Spanish school sign in the street in
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
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
|Noemi, Sary & Ilsy
operate a Spanish School
in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
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.
 Prensa Libre, “Inguat invertirá más, pero
turismo crecerá menos” Guatemala, June 25 2008
Hugo René Ojeda Delgado, DIGEACE, (Dirección General de acreditación y
 Informe Nacional
de Desarrollo Humano con datos de ENS 1989, ENCOVI 2000, ENEI 2004 y
 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
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]