This guest note was written by Catherine Gray of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo. Na’atik Language and Cultural Institute was founded by Catherine Gray and her husband Pedro Esquivel Puc in 2010.
The only other American volunteer in town handed me the chalk and said, “teach”! That’s my answer when people ask how Na’atik began. Twenty years ago, my first teaching gig was as a volunteer at the Casa de Cultura in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. An unexpected staffing shortage thrust me into my new role: English teacher. I called a teacher friend for advice, quickly improvised lesson plans and crafted handmade flash cards. I was pushed from my comfort zone – and l loved every minute of it.
Teaching then took me across the globe to Korea and eventually back to Carrillo. By 2001, I was working in the local university. I valued the work, but felt a pull for those early teaching moments connecting with locals and sharing our culture and language. I saw the need for high quality, affordable English education and began taking on a few students, privately.
Word spread that the “gringa Maestra Catherine” was the person to see for English. By 2009, my husband Pedro and I rented a house where the classroom was in the living room and the bedroom was rented out to a friend. Then, the bedroom became another classroom and the back porch another. That house was becoming a school. A school we named Na’atik.
The next years have brought incredible growth and the inevitable challenges that accompany every labor of love. We were able to secure land, build a school with three classrooms and launch a US based non-profit to ensure that a willing student would never have to forgo an English education due to financial constraints. Along the way, I’ve learned some of the many cultural quirks of running a business in Mexico.
One of the first things I learned was the importance of building and maintaining a good local reputation. A good or bad word from a neighbor will outdo all else. Word-of-mouth is how I find my local staff, contractors and the majority of my customers. When I was first looking for land to build on, it was only through asking people that I found out what was (or could be) for sale.
Unpredictable inflation, hidden costs and the relaxed attitude towards time-keeping has made project planning and accurate budgeting difficult. On my first building project, I was hit with an unexpected final payment for the project manager, throwing all my earlier attempts of sticking to a budget out the window! Then one Saturday morning, when we were first building the school, my phone rang at 7.30am and my architect asked me what I’d be providing for the builders who were going to roof the school that day. I had no idea what he meant. A quick chat to a local friend taught me that it is customary for the building owner to provide food and beer for the albañiles on the day a roof is erected. So, it was a mad dash to buy tacos and beers for 25 hungry men!
I’ve also discovered that if I want something done fast, a car or bike fixed for example, I must build waiting time into my day. Sitting with the mechanic until the job is done, not only keeps you at the top of their priorities list but is also a good way to build a relationship and ensure you get the best price and quality work. Even as my staff team has grown, because the culture here respects hierarchy and appreciates formalities, it’s not always possible to delegate such tasks.
Now, we are nearing the completion of our second construction project. A second-floor addition that will provide new classrooms, teacher offices and most importantly, a library. This next phase of Na’atik is not just a construction project. It’s an investment in the future of this mission, to provide education and opportunity for all who wish to learn and I am pleased to say that this time I was prepared for roof day!
By Catherine Gray for TYT
Na’atik Language and Cultural Institute was founded by Catherine Gray and her husband Pedro Esquivel Puc in 2010.
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