Mexican native finds home in the classroom

01/19/2012

Several months after arriving in California from her native Mexico, Guadalupe Tausch finally decided how she would spend her new life in the United States.

She had seen what many other Mexican women were doing and, when she converted their earnings back to pesos, she was incredulous. She came home one day to her new husband, Randy—a man originally from Ohio whom she had met in Mexico—and broke the news.

“Now I know what I want to do,” she announced. “I want to clean houses!”

That was in the spring of 2002, almost ten years ago. As it turned out, Tausch—vivacious and attractive with soft features and jet-black hair—never became a housekeeper.

Now 37,  she’s been running the Colors of Spanish language school in Petaluma for seven years, the past several in conjunction with her husband. Beginning this semester, in response to persistent local demand, she will expand the school to West Marin by offering two classes at the Point Reyes Community Presbyterian Church.

After humble beginnings in a converted Petaluma attic, Tausch’s school now employs multiple teachers and is housed in a comfortable multi-room suite in a residential part of town. By all accounts the business—not to mention its founder, who is equally at home in her native and adopted countries and the proud mother of a five-month-old son—appears to be thriving.

But for the girl from León, the largest city in the highly industrial central Mexican state of Guanajuato, it’s been a long road. 

When María Guadalupe García Gutiérrez first arrived in the United States, she struggled through a period of intense culture shock. Lacking connections to the area’s Latino community and able to speak only one phrase of her new country’s predominant language—“I’m sorry. I don’t speak English”—the innately gregarious young woman was isolated and without friends. 

“I didn’t talk to anybody during the day,” Tausch says. “I didn’t want to learn the language because it really is very difficult.”  

Still, she was grateful for the financial breathing room afforded by her unique situation: Because she migrated for love, not money, Tausch was largely unrestricted by the acute economic pressure facing most Mexican migrants, free instead to pursue a number of potential career paths. She also came from a middle class background and had already completed a business degree in Mexico.  

Not that her husband would have objected had she ultimately chosen to become a maid.

“‘You know that’s absolutely fine,’” Randy recalls telling his wife when she informed him of her housecleaning plan. “‘I have no problem with that—but you need to learn English first.’”

At her husband’s insistence Tausch began taking formal language classes, eventually enrolling in an intensive program in Palo Alto. Despite her initial stumbles, it was there she began to make great strides and slowly integrate into her new community.

“It lit the fuse,” Tausch says, her face lighting up as she remembers the empowering feeling that took hold of her. “I discovered that I could learn the language. I could communicate. “And what happened? I said, ‘Now I don’t want to clean houses.’”  

It would still take something of a chance occurrence for Tausch to realize what it was she did want to do.

Through a Spanish teacher acquaintance, Tausch received an unexpected request from a local family who wanted to practice with a native speaker. Having never before worked as a teacher, and still self-conscious about her limited English, Tausch was anxious, but visited the family anyway—Randy waiting faithfully in the car.

It turned out there was no need to be nervous: Tausch was an instant hit. “‘Wow. I love you!’” Tausch exclaims, imitating the mother’s reaction after the first session.  

For her efforts that day Tausch was paid $25, at the time a staggering sum. She was excited—‘‘‘Oh my god! Almost 300 pesos!’”—but she also sensed a deeper, more meaningful transformation taking root.

“It was the beginning of a new stage. It was a change in my life,” she says. “I discovered what I wanted to do all my life. I discovered a gift in myself.”

Through the school’s various programs—besides a host of classes for children and adults, Colors of Spanish also leads a book club and is beginning to expand into local public schools—Tausch hopes to have an impact that extends beyond teaching pronunciation or verb conjugation.

Colors of Spanish, she believes, can serve as a conduit for fostering a deeper connection between the Latino community and the rest of society. It can also be a  valuable link for local Latino families who hope to preserve their own heritage. While the majority of her students are white, Tausch says she also teaches some second and third generation Latino children, native English speakers whose parents enroll them in an effort to maintain linguistic and cultural ties.

According to the 2010 Census, over 39,000 people in Marin County identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino, including roughly 10 percent of West Marin’s population. But Tausch, herself a testament to cross-cultural integration, senses that for the most part Latinos are often poorly assimilated into the mainstream.

“Culturally they are living in their own circle,” she says. “There’s not much connection with the white community.”

Jewel Soiland, now 16 and helping babysit Santíago, Guadalupe and Randy’s new baby, studied with Tausch three hours a week for roughly four years.

“When I first came here, all I knew were probably a handful of nouns and a handful of verbs,” she says.

Now Soiland is nearly fluent, evidence of the effectiveness of a teaching style she describes as “extremely interactive.”

“It’s a more natural way of learning. It’s like a baby learning their language just from hearing it,” she says.

“And oftentimes the class was very fun and we’d always burst into laughter at things.”

Laughter seems to be a recurring theme.

During a Tuesday afternoon class, the intermittent howls—this time from much younger voices—can be heard from well outside the classroom. Inside, teacher and students sit together on the floor, surrounded by colorful letters and posters. None wear shoes.

Tausch leads the kids—three boys and two girls, all but one light-haired—through a syllable-counting exercise.

“Cuántas sílabas tiene ‘guantes’?” (How many syllables are in ‘guantes’?) she asks, her tone friendly but decisive. Together the group claps out the syllables: “Guan-tes.”

“Dos sílabas,” the teacher says. 

Later, after playing a game in which the kids walk to a picture hanging somewhere on the wall to identify the word—“Dónde está la chaqueta? Dónde está el gorro?”—and a brief song, it’s time for Tausch to read a story.

She quiets the class, opens the book—Froggy—and begins reading. She uses a high-pitched, squeaky voice for one character, then switches to a hoarse tone for another.

The kids are immersed, listening and responding in unison to Tausch’s periodic questions before once again erupting into laughter. No translation necessary.