Maria Harrington – Casa de Español – Community Connection Through Language

When most of us think of learning a language, we often think of textbooks and flashcards, not rich cultural experiences.

Some may even think of tape recorders, AP tests, and the crutch of Google Translate — but  Casa de Español has something else to say about that.

 

The banner on their website proclaims boldly in the center: LEARN SPANISH. Then on either side: Learn the Language. And Experience the Cultures. The message it gives is clear: learning Spanish isn’t just learning a language in the traditional sense, with the workbooks and scratchy audio. The second aspect, which is just as essential, is to experience the culture where the language truly comes alive, via people and experiences. And that’s what Casa de Español is all about.

Hear Maria talk about her business, or read more below.

A dedication to immersive education

“Primarily we’re a language school,” teacher and founder Maria Harrington told us. There are students learning Spanish, and students with backgrounds from all over the Spanish-speaking world learning ESL — all taught by Maria and her team of three master Spanish instructors. But it doesn’t end there.

Maria, the owner of Casa, in one of the classrooms

“[The English and Spanish students] have tutoring sessions where they exchange both language and culture. And we have tons of different events to be able to get people inspired to travel and to just have a wider viewpoint.” These events include gallery displays, traditional dance, music, and food, showcasing the gems of different countries, the latest being Cuba. And always on display are the vivid tapestries of Sergio Martinez, a residential artist from Oaxaca, Mexico.

“Our vision has always been to capture the beauty of Latin America and Spain, bring it here to Sacramento and really be a hub of cultural awareness and also connection,” Maria said earnestly. All said, Casa de Español is more than just about learning the language.

Language learning that creates connections

Many of the students — there are more than 100 now — enroll in Casa in order to build connections. Whether it’s professionals seeking job advancement, people marrying into a Spanish-speaking family, or retirees keeping active through language learning and travel, people recognize that learning another language can be critical in building bridges — to a professional goal, a family member, or another culture. The stories Maria shared testifies to this.

“It allowed her to improve and get a better job”

One of her ESL students came back to thank her for the small class size (5-10 students) and dedicated instructors at Casa de Español. “She felt really comfortable, she was able to really develop a lot of key skills with her English,” Maria told us with a satisfied smile. “It allowed her to improve and get a better job” — a remarkable impact in its own right. But even more meaningful was the personal impact of being able to help her son with his English homework.

In other cases, learning language opens doors that students were initially reluctant to enter. “We have classes for heritage speakers, and that’s one of my favorite classes,” Maria told us. She went on to describe a student in one such class, a six-year-old boy whose parents were desperate to preserve his Spanish. It wasn’t so much that he was forgetting his native language, but that he was unwilling to speak it.

“You see that everyone else speaks English around you, and it makes you feel guilty or worried or embarrassed to speak the language,” Maria said of her young students’ plight. But the environment of Casa de Español, with its engaging instructors and enthusiastic classmates, lowered the boy’s barriers. He participated in the class, and later, could speak with accuracy and even pride when he visited his grandparents in Ecuador.

The power of this little language school in Sacramento to create worldwide connections is astonishing.

Economic connections: Help Chiapas

But the connections don’t end there. Besides being a language school and cultural hub, Casa de Español is a small business. And like all small businesses, it was aided, and aids other businesses, through investment. The school was founded in 2011, but its mission originates back to an older sister organization called Help Chiapas.

Before Maria was a business owner or even a teacher, she was a student at Berkeley exploring a question: How are indigenous cultures changing in terms of language and culture, given mass migration to the US? In her research, she followed a connection to Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. There, she lodged with the indigenous family of a friend in their jungle community.

“The family — they’re just so warm,” Maria recounted, “but they have the problem of economic development…The world has become global, and they just got electricity just five years before I had gotten there.”

“After I was done and I’d finished my thesis, I decided that I wanted to give back.” So in 2008, Maria founded Help Chiapas, a non-profit dedicated to the long-term economic development of the indigenous community. Along with raising funds and providing services, the organization offers English camps to the children every year in the hopes of giving them more opportunity in tourism and other industries.

How is the non-profit connected to Casa de Español? — The school was established in part to fund the development going on through Help Chiapas. The capital they make goes towards building a cultural center in Chiapas, which will provide jobs for locals and exhibit the beautiful Mayan culture. And every summer, Maria brings a group of students there to volunteer in the children’s camps and health services. The impact goes two ways: from the students, who grow in their cultural awareness and appreciation, to the natives, who benefit from the programs.

Economic Connections: The Power of Community Lending

But the thread of economic development can be traced even further, from Chiapas and Casa, to CDFIs like CDC (Community Development Corporations, a partner with CNote) and Small Business Administration. At an earlier stage of its history, Casa de Español needed outside capital, too.

Maria Posing in front of Casa de Español

“We love what we do, we’re masters of our craft; for example, I’m a master teacher. But then how do we turn that into a business that’s successful?”

“We only started with me at the beginning,” laughs Maria, but before long, the business proved successful and grew fourfold. However, that meant getting a loan from CDC to accommodate for the influx of students both with staff and added space.

“With the small business loan we were able to hire new employees as well as remodel the space…,” Maria recounted gratefully. “Being able to have that loan just gave us the peace of mind of not having to worry about that portion when there were so many other things that we had to worry about.”

But she is most thankful for organizations such as CDC and The SBA, and the guidance they provide, especially to idealistic, but non-business educated visionaries like herself: “We love what we do, we’re masters of our craft; for example, I’m a master teacher. But then how do we turn that into a business that’s successful?”

Thankfully, experts from SBA were able to answer that question for her. They walked her through the entrepreneurial process, from developing a business plan to finding the proper lawyer. And now Casa de Español is a successful business and thriving center of cultural education.

Conclusion: Our role in building and sustaining connections

But the impact doesn’t have to end here. We, too, can connect to stories like Casa de Español and Help Chiapas with the money we invest. The convenience of CNote is that through one platform it links everyday investors like you and me to CDFIs, non-profits, language schools, and a multitude of other causes and communities. Think of all the economic impact that results from just a few invested dollars. Visit mycnote.com to learn just how easy it is to make a difference while earning more on your extra cash.

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