Se Habla… A La Paz Success Story



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By Gregory A. Lakes

For a foreigner to succeed as a small-business owner in Baja California Sur requires a special set of skills, according to those who have tried. A sharp business sense is essential, but it’s not nearly enough. What’s required, they say, is as much empathy as analysis and as much concern for people as for profits.

There are endless impediments for a foreign entrepreneur, they say, that sooner or later overwhelm the best of plans. Those businesses that survive the first couple of years are a relative few. Those that last a decade or more are a rarity, their owners among the exceptions who understand their adopted community and their place in it.

Some of those impediments may be more or less expected: the language barrier, glacial bureaucracies, and seemingly ambiguous rules apparently randomly applied. Others are a surprise: unnerving differences in work ethics, labor laws and culture, and an endemic apathy, or worse, toward foreigners and their plans. Still more are well beyond anyone’s ability to foresee: a global economic meltdown, international fear of a deadly flu pandemic, and the reflected glare of drug-related crimes elsewhere in Mexico.

Yet, for 16 years, international students have come to Se Habla … Le Paz to learn the Spanish language in an immersion setting. Students come for at least a week of individually tailored and professionally administered classes, and most leave with much more than they expected. They get a taste of Mexican culture and a good look at everyday La Paz. They may live with a local family and find new friends for life. Perhaps most profound, through the network that Se Habla founder and director Juli Goff has created and nurtured over the past decade and a half, they may openly or imperceptibly nudge the fates of La Paz’s orphans, its poorest families, its young musicians, and its professional community.

By Goff’s own account, the past 16 years have been more adventure than she expected. By others’, it is a testament to that extra skill set — perseverance, patience, and unwavering compassion.

“I don’t know how she did it, other than just sheer determination and a good heart,” said Jillene Roldan, who with husband Jonathan Roldan, owns one of the area’s largest charter fishing companies and a popular restaurant in La Paz. “I don’t know anybody else who could do what she’s done with the grace and style that she has. “

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Goff is the daughter of a middle-class, middle-American family. Her parents worked hard and the family wanted for nothing, she said. Her mother taught Latin. Her father sold appliances, but he really sold unwavering service. She recalls him deferring his family’s holiday to repair a customer’s oven in time for Thanksgiving preparations. The gist of that lesson, Goff said, drives her business model.

I just knew you had to be on 24/7,” she said. “We try to make sure the nuances of each student’s needs are met. … It’s personal, it’s individualized, it’s kind of a concierge approach. Every student is different.”

The school draws about 250 students a year, most from the Western U.S. and Canada, with a smattering from across Europe. Some weeks there are a few students and in some rare weeks there may be 30. About 200 of those annual students are returnees. They have been to Se Habla before and are coming back for more.

“The quality of teaching has always been as close to the top as possible,” Goff said. “It just keeps reinforcing itself.” Others agree but say there’s more: the professional academic approach, the chance to stay with a local family and mingle in the community, the comfortable facility and environs, the relaxed pace of the classes, and for many, the chance to do some unexpected good.

Clara Perez-Mendez is a Tijuana native, part-time La Paz resident and president of Puentes Cultural, a Colorado consulting company that specializes in cross-cultural relations and that contracts with the University of Colorado-Boulder. She’s helping to restructure part of the university’s master’s degree program for speech pathologists, specifically for those students working toward a bilingual emphasis, and the idea arose for the students to finish their last semester with an immersion experience. Perez-Mendez said she surveyed her contacts in La Paz for recommendations. Without exception, she said, they referred her to Goff and Se Habla.

Six students, a supervising professor, the program director and Perez-Mendez came for two weeks. For some, it was their first time in Mexico. In addition to courses, the students volunteered at a rehabilitation center for disabled children, where the parents and staff were grateful for the collaboration and the students got a bright new facet to their education.

“It was a very full experience for the students,” she said. “It was exactly what they are going to be doing.” In their subsequent evaluations, the students gave the project the highest possible scores, she said. “They were in awe at how everything worked out … at the program that Juli runs.”

While the university department hasn’t finalized its restructuring, she said administrators are enthused about incorporating immersion at Se Habla.

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Goff answers every email or phone inquiry within 24 hours. Starting with each initial contact, she and her staff assess each student’s ability and needs, and start outlining a customized course of study. They tend to details: travel and accommodations, extracurricular activities and after-class entertainment.

Every Tuesday, the school hosts a cultural event, free and open to the public, with topics that have ranged from the histories of tequila and mariachi to SOMETHING CEREBRAL HERE. Goff and her instructors routinely and enthusiastically direct students to La Paz’s museums, classical and local music, art galleries and events.

The instructors meet twice a day, formally at 8 am to discuss each student’s needs, progress and lessons, then again at mid-morning to re-evaluate.

Andrea Konig Fleischer, as education coordinator, oversees the curriculum, continuously evaluates each instructor, and provides the feedback to effectively execute Se Habla’s goals. She teaches the teachers.

“Juli is a fantastic administrator,” Fleischer said. Fleischer recently led an internal analysis of the school’s strength and weaknesses. The pervasive values it evoked were respect, honesty and loyalty, which she said originate with Goff: “There’s a noble heart behind it – definitely, a great, noble heart.”

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Jonathan Roldan finished his Loyola law degree and came to Baja for what was supposed to be a yearlong hiatus. Instead, he began a charter fishing business with the $6 in his pocket and turned it into one of the largest in the area. Five years or so ago, he and Jillene started the Tailhunter, a landmark three-story restaurant and bar on La Paz’s waterfront. They are also among the few who have succeeded in business for more than 15 years.

Now, Tailhunter International’s sportfishing fleet brings as many as 1,500 customers a year to La Paz. The Roldans employ about 25 area people in the fishing business and another 13 as restaurant staff. Some of those employees support three generations of their extended families and are the only ones who work. The Roldans provide social security, medical, dental, sick leave and vacation benefits, the first time most of those families have had them. They have put some staff through culinary school and helped others buy homes.

It has not been and still is not easy, Roldan said. They are thoroughly enamored of La Paz and its people, and their staff is family. They are thrilled to see the locals beginning to outnumber the visitors in the restaurant. Still, if he had it to do all over again, he’s not sure he would take on all those impediments.

“Language is huge,” he said. “The work ethic is very different. You, as the business person, are seen as the oppressor; everything is against you.” He has gone through dozens of employees to come up with the permanent and reliable staff he has now.

“You’ve got to survive that learning curve,” he said.

A few years ago, Goff and Jillene Roldan decided to start a self-help circle for foreign entrepreneurs. The Baja Foreign Business Group was intended to spare others some of the learning curve Goff and the Roldans had already climbed. Each month, they brought in an expert on Mexican business practices: lawyers, accountants, and tourism and tax officials. At its peak, the group had 52 members. Three years later, Roldan said, all but three had folded up and left. In his words, most of them had more education, more money and more brains than he, yet the result was empty storefronts and offices.

“Business plans don’t work. Harvard Business School does not apply,” Roldan said. What also emphatically doesn’t work is a gringo adamant about how things should be. Jillene Roldan said she has stood in line for 6 hours to pay a bill. That’s just how it is, she said, and that just has to be OK. “It’s not the way we’re used to doing business in the U.S. You really have to let go of ‘why can’t it be this way.’ ”

“You have to have an inherent love of the place,” Roldan said. Maybe, he said, the key to longevity is reciprocal respect. A foreigner has to respect the people he hires and the ways of his adopted culture, never forgetting that he’s an outsider and always will be. But with enough time, slowly, maybe grudgingly, probably imperceptibly, that respect will be returned. It has worked for them, they said, and Goff has made it an art.

“Juli is the transition that connects a foreigner to the language and the culture and the code by which we all get along here,” Roldan said.

How does the resident La Paz community view Goff after 16 years?

“Con respeto,” Jillene Roldan said. “You lasted and you did it with grace.”

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Goff was a physical therapist in her hometown public schools, then director of physical therapy in an Illinois hospital, then took a larger directorship at a Tucson hospital, where she climbed the corporate rungs until the late 1990s, about the time HMOs began to control health care. Patients’ treatments were more often being decided in distant insurance offices, she said, based more on cost than benefit. “It just became too calculating,” she said. “We lost touch with our patients.”

At the same time, Arizona’s immigrant population was increasing dramatically, but there were few bilingual health-care specialists. If a Latino woman went into labor, the nurse would go find one of the housekeeping staff to translate. If a Hispanic came into the emergency room, doctors had to call up a maintenance man to communicate symptoms and treatment.

Arizona’s hospitals would periodically gather up old and outdated equipment and supplies and ship them to Mexico, “the stepchild of the U.S. in terms of everything,” Goff said.

All those factors were brewing into a midlife crisis for Goff, she said, and her attitude was, “well, let’s make it a good one.”

With a friend who had been in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and a significant other of Mexican descent, they talked about what they knew and the needs they saw, and decided to start a school to teach Spanish to medical professionals. Only Mexicans would instruct, she said. The visiting students would meet with local doctors to not only learn the language but the culture of medical care in Mexico, and in the process, become more attuned to their Hispanic patients back home. Her first step was to enlist the support and help of La Paz’s doctors, for them a dramatic change in attitude from being the recipients of second-hand American bedpans.

She said, “We need your help.” They said, “Thank you for asking.”

Goff was 48 years old and had a business background but spoke no Spanish and had never lived in a foreign country. Her partners and their fluency negotiated the early legal and logistical hurdles, although not without incident. To Roldan’s list of impediments, she nods. “Yes, all of that.”

Still, she counts herself luckier than most. Her business partner was a superb organizer. Her significant other discovered a talent for carpentry. They found the abandoned home the first day they looked and remodeled it into a warm and inviting school. They held their first class in June 1999 with one student, a young man soon to enter the University of New Mexico medical school whose name she still remembers.

Almost immediately, a different clientele emerged. La Paz is home to a sizeable fleet of foreign boat owners and businesses that cater to them. The cruising crowd, business owners and other foreigners wanted general Spanish from the only immersion school in Baja.

“We were stunned at the demand,’’ Goff said, and it quickly grew into the heart of the business. Over the years, Se Habla has introduced a legal Spanish program for lawyers . The legal program succeeded until 2008, when global events kept lawyers – and nearly everybody else – from coming to Mexico.

The financial meltdown in the U.S. and around the world dried up foreign income, cut deeply into retirees’ finances and all but eliminated disposable income for many, including Goff’s potential students. Americans and others rushed to sell second homes in Baja and the real estate market imploded. Foreign development in Baja evaporated, airlines began to curtail service, and even the region’s foremost tourist destination took a severe beating.

“Cabo crashed,” Goff said. Her business slumped. She struggled to keep her instructors working and her home-stay families active.

In 2008, escalating drug-related violence in parts of Mexico began to command headlines across the U.S., without distinguishing between the perilous border and mainland areas, and the rest of the country. Out-of-the-way La Paz was not – and is not — involved but was tainted by the image of random and rampant violence.

In April 2009, the first cases of H1N1, or swine flu, a mutation of the deadly virus that swept the world in 1918, were reported in Mexico City, probably having started months earlier in Veracruz state. Officials closed most of Mexico City’s public facilities, but the virus spread well beyond Mexico, and in June 2009, the World Health Organization officially deemed it a pandemic and its first-ever public health emergency of international concern. Mexico was effectively off the map for most visitors.

Se Habla “tanked” for two years, Goff said. In response, she developed new marketing approaches, embraced social media and the web, and developed the means and the staff to conduct classes via Skype, tapping a market segment that wants to study but can’t or won’t travel to La Paz.

“I think it’s brilliant, part of a really good business sense and an inquisitive mind,” said Nancy Tietge, longtime student and now a key component of Goff’s network. “I have tremendous admiration for her, for what she’s put together, maintained and grown. A lot of people would have quit during those tough times.”

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Tietge had sampled other language programs in Mexico and Central America before she took classes at Se Habla and spent two weeks in the home of a local family. That was about 10 years ago, she still raves about her first visit, and she has come back to class every year since. Shortly into her first stay, Tietge said, she knew she wanted to return but also knew she needed to fill her idle time. She asked Goff what she might constructively do. Goff had an immediate response, Tietge said: “Let’s go meet the Padre.”

Padre Fernando Querada Covarrubias runs La Ciudad de Los Ninos de La Paz, locally known as the orphanage. He currently has 38 kids and teenagers from Baja and mainland Mexico who attend his primary school through the sixth grade, then the public schools, living on his immaculate campus at least until they graduate. Not all are orphans but all have no other home, whether due to poverty, addiction or violence. Without the orphanage, they would be on the street.

The orphanage is funded by the church and by kindness. It relies on private sponsorships, and the Padre appreciates donated goods and time — particularly consistent, reliable volunteer time.

When Tietge asked the Padre what she could do, he said teach English to his teenagers. She started the following January, with much enthusiasm but little teaching experience, pursued some training on her own, and has returned every May. The first year, the Padre sat in on her classes, she said, in part to learn some English, but mostly to evaluate her ability and credibility.

“Now he pretty much gives me carte blanche,” she said. She has taken the Padre’s kids swimming, camping and snorkeling, and on guided trips to see whale sharks and sea lions.

Goff and Tietge soon saw a bigger need and a larger role. After high school, the kids were generally on their own, with no support and sparse hopes. Goff and Tietge, with Tietge in the lead, created a path to opportunity, developing a scholarship program for those who expressed an interest in going on to college or technical school. WHERE DOES THE MONEY COME FROM?

“They are like the next step,” Padre Fernando said through an interpreter. “Nancy and Juli are really the crucial people.”

Padre Fernando said at least seven of his kids have received scholarships, and although not all have completed a post-secondary education, none of them otherwise would have had the chance to try.

Two students, however, persevered and soon will graduate, one from teachers’ college; the other from nursing school. Goff has known both since they were 8 years old. One recent afternoon, she was preparing for a shopping trip to buy the future nurse the uniforms and shoes she’ll need for her clinical rotation.

“Some of these kids are so smart, so talented,” Goff said. “When you reflect on the privilege that you had and what you see on a daily basis … it’s just like, wow, we get to make a difference.”

Goff spends hours at the orphanage simply taking an interest in the kids, lending an ear and offering moral support, Padre Fernando, said. “Juli is always there – OK, what’s wrong? How can we get you back on track with your studies?”

He said the running joke is that the orphanage is Goff’s second home. She always has Christmas dinner there with the kids, he said.

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Tietge describes Goff as an intent listener with an inherent ability to match people with skills or resources to the people or projects that need them. For 15 years, it has benefitted all involved.

Goff’s students have included a Los Angeles fireman with particular technical skills; he visited the local fire department and took part in training exercises. A group of visiting U.S. lawyers got a tour of an area prison. An accountant from the states met with Goff’s accountant to trade notes and the vernacular of their vocations.

A group of nurses toured the orphanage, gave talks on basic health issues to the kids and made lists of needed clothing, books and supplies to organize when they got home. A California judge is coming for classes soon, and the staff is arranging a visit with the equivalent of the State Secretary of Labor and some of Fleischer’s former law students.

Goff has given scholarships to foreign volunteers coming to Mexico to work on environmental projects; better language skills may aid their efforts and help their cause. Her visiting students have performed volunteer dental work, held English classes and taught computer lessons.

Years ago, she attended a performance of the local symphony orchestra, a venue for La Paz youth to hone their musical skills. Since, she has sponsored trips for the conductors and members to learn and perform throughout Mexico, and she has helped bring artists here. With her encouragement, some of Goff’s students have donated used instruments, as well as cash, to the symphony.

And with her model, the Roldans created a program that encourages their fishing clients to bring school materials, backpacks and other supplies to donate. They give the supplies to Juli; she gets them to Padre Fernando’s kids.

“The concept of giving back, of paying it forward, is a very strong concept for the majority of business owners,” Goff said.

Judith Peterson is president of the Fundacion Ayuda Ninos La Paz, FANLAP, an organization that helps La Paz’s poorest children stay in school. The colonias in and around the city are home to the disenfranchised.

The houses are predominantly tarpaper shacks, Peterson said. Fences are built of car doors and bed springs. Electricity is a relatively recent upgrade, although there are still no water systems and truck deliveries have been cut to every other week. Most kids go to school through the sixth grade, despite the law that requires a ninth-grade education, then join their parents washing cars or selling food from the sidewalk. She echoes the sentiment that prevails in Goff’s circles. “There’s just something that happens when we’re all working for the common good,” she said.

Peterson met Goff at a weekly ladies’ luncheon when Goff was new to town. They became friends and Goff started matching some of her willing students with work Peterson needed done. Later, Peterson’s group aspired to build a dining hall to augment the church’s existing breakfast program. Plans grew to include a library and computer room on the second floor, and one of Goff’s students was inspired to donate $15,000, about half the total cost. Now, 170 kids come every day for lunch and to study upstairs.

Other than the obvious, how would Peterson gauge Goff’s contributions?

“Very important,” Peterson said. “She helps to give us a good reputation in the community. She’s very well known, very respected. She has a lot of friends.”

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Se Habla has nine instructors on its payroll, all of whom have other jobs, and most of whom teach English or Spanish at area universities.

The value of excellent instructors is invaluable” says Goff with clear conviction.

Se Habla has a roster of five or six home-stay families that rely on the income from the school. All have been carefully screened, and all have become Goff’s friends. According to Fleischer, at least one woman has said the income has saved her life, and given the circumstances, that doesn’t sound like a stretch.

That’s an easy count of at least a dozen local families whose lives Goff has improved. Over 16 years, the number of others she has helped, openly or imperceptibly, is inestimable.

The Roldan’s said that nearly everyone among their friends has taken classes at La Paz, evidence of the reach of Goff’s network. Tietge, also a former physical therapy professional, speculates that anyone drawn to health care has a deep streak of altruism. Padre Fernando notes there’s no business benefit to Goff’s efforts at the orphanage: “She just wants to help.”

Education Coordinator Fleischer’s assessment is most succinct:

“It’s the philosophy to make a difference with your life.”

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