Wendy Ramírez is a Latina, but she didn’t speak Spanish at first growing up. However, Wendy realized she could make more money if she was bilingual. Her personal struggles with Spanish motivated her to start her program, “Spanish Sin Pena,” an online space for Latinos to learn Spanish.
Spanish Sin Pena wants Latinos to not feel judged or ashamed, so they can learn Spanish and be able to connect with their culture and relatives, according to Ramírez. She said it would give people more professional opportunities in their careers to be bilingual.
“It’s important for Latinos to speak Spanish because of that connection and cultural knowledge you feel on a personal level to your own background that other people don’t have. Then there is the other level, which allows you the opportunity to do so much more like travel and communicate with different people that opens more professional opportunities,” said Ramírez.
Being from East Los Angeles, Ramírez knew how it felt to be embarrassed not to speak Spanish in a Chicano environment. During her college years, she made it her mission to learn it when she studied abroad in Mexico City at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), leading to future opportunities. Her goal for this program is to reassure Latinos that they are not alone and show how fun learning Spanish can be.
Latinos who do not speak Spanish feel left out and looked down upon by other Latinos from their background, Ramírez explained. Some cannot speak to other relatives or feel like a fraud when they are around them since they can’t speak the language despite looking like them. It is important now more than ever for Latinos to speak Spanish, as the language is on track in the United States to have the most Spanish speakers by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
However, a big reason why some people do not know how to speak the language is due to their family’s immigrant background and if they were even spoken to in Spanish growing up. 97% of Latino immigrant parents speak Spanish to their children, but that percentage declines to 71% for second-generation Latino parents, according to Pew Research Center.
Spanish without shame
Spanish Sin Pena tackles this issue head-on with their emphasis on addressing the shame aspect, especially during the beginner level classes. It is difficult at first, but lead facilitator Ana Abreu describes the different experiences she has heard from participants in her class.
“Everybody has a different story, right. I’ve heard stories of classrooms where teachers tell students why they don’t speak Spanish to family members saying you said it wrong over and over, they’re corrected constantly. So they feel ashamed while other family members just never spoke in Spanish to them, so we have group discussions and just talk about it at first,” said Abreu.
Abreu, who teaches most of the virtual classes, explained how they work, as they are set from level one to five depending on your fluency. Classes start with six payments of $197 and meet up twice a week for 45 minutes at a time for a full year, depending on the season you register. The majority of the program’s participants are in California, but clients are scattered all around the U.S. in metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago, with a handful of them from outside countries.
The program offers way more than just conversations and lessons to learn Spanish. There are virtual music and cooking classes that translate all the words and recipes from English to Spanish. Students can also make their own podcasts about their experiences with Spanish, along with book clubs.
“I have connected myself to a new community that I did not know before,” said Selina Morales, a full-time program participant. “Every time I [join the class], I feel like I spent a great hour of my life like I really like invested in myself and invested in my culture. It has a choose-your-own adventure feel to it.”
Moreover, perhaps the most exciting part of the program is that about two times a year Ramírez will lead an immersion trip, as she likes to call it, to travel to a Latin American country, so students can apply what they’ve learned and appreciate their culture over a three-week span.
Ramírez has plenty of qualitative data to back up her business’s success by having students fill out evaluations to gauge how confident they feel to use Spanish on a day-to-day basis and for feedback. Each session, the program books all 200 spots with waitlists filled up, according to Ramírez. Many students have shared with Ramírez and Abreu how it feels to finally be able to communicate with their grandparents or family.
However, a few things are holding back “Spanish Sin Pena” from reaching its full potential. When the program first began, it was difficult to assemble and build a team, which became a problem once the COVID-19 pandemic began. As there was more demand than the business can handle, with many people waitlisted until there were enough instructors.
Both Ramírez and Abreu say there are always new challenges facing them, but their main issue has been people craving more in-person activities since COVID restrictions have been lifted. People like Selina love what Spanish Sin Pena has to offer, but can not have in-person interaction in her city with others.
“I only know one other person in Philadelphia that’s doing it [the program] but maybe I haven’t met the others yet. So I think if they want to continue to pursue the in person gatherings, trying to figure out how to make those more accessible to folks that don’t live in like the major cities will be a huge win,” said Morales.
Ramírez plans to book more trips to other countries so more people from all over the country like Morales can meet together for the first time, taking in a new culture. Even within the U.S., the program has hosted in-person meet-ups in major cities and will try to continue to do it more often next year.
Although Spanish Sin Pena has built a community for all Latinos, Ramírez realizes there is room to grow. All the current students are adults, but she would like to expand the program to youth.
“I want to continue serving the community the way that we have with professional adults, but somewhere in the future we would like to work more with the youth to expand our program further,” said Ramírez.
This story was originally published at DÍG EN ESPAÑOL, the bilingual journalism magazine published by students at Long Beach State.