A is for Alfaro: Spanish school founder provides forum for students hoping to bridge societal gap
Spanish school founder provides forum for students hoping to bridge societal gap
Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, the demographics of the United States are undergoing a major change. That’s true for Colorado in particular, as people with Latino heritage — speaking predominantly Spanish — gain as a percentage of the state’s population. Like it or not, in the shadows or right before our eyes, a cultural shift is happening.
In short, the societal game is changing big time, and that makes people who are bridging the gaps between cultures and languages true game-changers.
Like Alberto Alfaro, the co-founder and a teacher at local language school Spanish Now!, a venture he began in Grand Junction with his wife, Megan, in 2009.
Language by its nature is a bridge, and the people who sign up with Alfaro for either group or private Spanish language lessons clearly recognize that it’s important to make connections through communication, whatever their initial reasons are for making a commitment to learn another language.
“I think the people that do it realize that it’s something important,” the 29-year-old Alfaro said.
“First of all, I think they are curious — it’s often something they have always wanted to do, whether it’s for work, so they can reach more people. Or some people are curious about it because when they travel they want to be able to use it.”
“And some people I think don’t even really know why. They just know it’s important. And when they start getting into it, they realize that there is a lot to language. Fortunately, some of them stick around, even though they didn’t know that it was going to be that big of a commitment,” he said.
Anyone who has tried to learn a language knows that only so much progress can be made in a classroom, no matter how great the teacher. That’s why Alfaro recently organized a trip with four of his Spanish Now! students to travel to his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico — a real “immersion” experience spent with Alfaro’s family.
“(Students) wanted a different kind of trip where they weren’t necessarily on vacation, but they were there living as people live. And that’s what we tried to do for them,” Alfaro said.
“Really just hanging out with people that didn’t know any English and just getting to talk with those people,” Alfaro said.
One of the students who went on the trip was Judy Williams, who called the experience “fantastic.”
“While I went to Monterrey with the intent of improving my Spanish speaking skills, I returned with the most unexpected appreciation of the culture of the people in Monterrey,” Williams said in an email. “Alberto’s family felt like they were my family. We were welcomed, embraced, cared for and supported the entire time we were there.”
Monterrey is really where Alfaro’s personal story begins. Well, Monterrey, and then Texas, where his family moved when he was a little boy. He learned English in the U.S. and eventually moved back to Monterrey, where he learned how to be a teacher of English as a Second Language, and then opened an English language school there.
That’s the thing to do these days in Mexico, he says.
“Whether it’s a private bilingual school or taking English classes on the side, it’s very trendy, especially in the big cities,” he said. “If you speak (English), you’re very cool. Anyone who is younger studies it.”
He met his wife Megan, who is from western Colorado, when she was on a mission trip in Mexico with a church group. She later taught at the school in Mexico with Alfaro, and in 2007 they moved to this area. Today they have four boys, and Alberto earned his U.S. citizenship last year.
Though his family has settled here in the U.S., the subject of the growing violence in Mexico, and in Monterrey in particular, is never too far removed from his consciousness.
“It’s not the same as it used to be. That’s the sad part about it,” he said.
“It just worked out that when we got here, that’s when a lot of the violence started — especially in the area where we lived. It’s pretty bad there,” Alfaro said. “It’s one of the things that you enjoy here (in the U.S.), that for the most part you enjoy a lot of freedom to do things and go places without being fearful.”
While not overblown, the systemic violence — largely fueled by drug cartels and their foot-soldier “narcos” at war with each other — doesn’t make Mexico necessarily unsafe for travelers who exercise an abundance of caution.
“Every time I have gone, it’s been OK. We haven’t really seen or heard anything except on the news,” Alfaro said. “While we’re there, when you talk with family members, they give you some hints to maybe do things you didn’t use to do before — like be home when it’s dark — when before it didn’t matter.”
“Maybe if you are at a red light and it’s night time, go ahead and run it — don’t just sit around,” Alfaro said, rather pragmatically.
While there are concerns for travelers in Mexico, it would be a shame for Americans to stop visiting the incredible historic cities and ruins that Mexico claims. Most people don’t realize they can visit the third-largest pyramid in the world (Teotihuacan), along with a host of pre-Columbian ruins, all across the sprawling country just beyond the U.S. southern border.
Learning Spanish makes traveling to these amazing places that much richer of an experience, and Alfaro said travel is an impetus for many of his students signing up at Spanish Now!
“I think people are kind of tired of the idea of getting catered to in English every time they go somewhere,” Alfaro said. “If you don’t use Spanish in those places, then you just stick around the hotel zone, and places where they only speak to you in English.”
“I think that when you have a little bit of Spanish background — even if you are not fluent — then you adventure into the real areas that are a little bit out of the way. You start eating at places that you wouldn’t have eaten at before, and meeting people that you would not have met before,” he said.
This type of perspective is indicative of Alfaro’s teaching style, students say. Ordinary or stale activities are rarely, if ever, a part of his tailored lessons.
“Alberto has a superb understanding of student learning styles and how to use teaching methods to enhance student learning,” Spanish Now! student Williams said. “He is a master at creating a friendly, upbeat (yet appropriately challenging) learning environment. He uses a variety of methods to help with his classes such as visual aids, auditory aids, mimicry, pantomiming, real life examples, and many interactive activities among the students.”
In other words, learning a new language can actually be fun, in addition to being an incredible challenge. Alfaro embodies that teaching theory — all the while subtly guiding students across the new cultural landscape in which America now finds itself.