The following is a guest post by Julio Santamaria, co-founder of Habla Ya Spanish Schools.
Over 10 years ago, fresh out of university, my best friend and I began a small Spanish school in this magical mountain town called Boquete. For us, from the days of our childhood, Boquete had always been the most special place on earth, and it was natural that we’d come to Boquete, and try to make a living.
I moved in with my grandparents, my friend Carlos, moved in with his aunt, and we rented a tiny space where we were able to fit in 3 classrooms. We recruited a couple of Spanish teachers, and started to look for retirees who hadn’t had the opportunity to learn Spanish and were wanting to improve their quality of life, of their retirement experience, by being able to speak the local lingo.
Back then we had a close knit team, no experience whatsoever and a really adventurous group of expats who gave us a try.
To those first students back in 2005, and the hundreds of expats who’ve trusted us afterwards and continue to learn and improve their Spanish skills at Habla Ya, we’re extremely grateful… but really extremely grateful.
The curious thing is that we quickly realized that we weren’t going to find enough expat customers in Boquete to support a year round business. So even though Habla Ya was born to satisfy a real need amongst those who relocated to Boquete, by just having the expat community as our customers, we weren’t going to be able to make it and create full time jobs and retain quality teachers, which was one of the things that most inspired.
So as soon as we realized this, we shifted our focus towards tourists and professionals, from all over the world, who actually didn’t even live in Panama, but for one or another reason wanted to learn or improve their Spanish, and were willing to travel to us, get immersed, experience the best of Panama, pick up a very useful skill and have the time of their lives.
Fast forward to 2016 and we’re part of the 1% of educators from all over the world who represent Latin America and come to London every year, looking to recruit students from all over the globe. And instead of 3 classrooms, we now have 3 Spanish schools.
And even though Panama’s expat community is no longer the main reason why we exist, we still have yearly expat specials, and expats will always have a really special place in our hearts and remain the reason why we were born in the first place.
Those who know me (and some who don’t!), won’t deny that I’m extremely passionate about my country, about all things Panama, and that I’m a huge advocate and campaigner in defending our communities’ identities and values (or at least I try to). So at times, I can be quite vocal in my opinions about everyone who calls Panama their home, needing to speak Spanish if they want to feel welcome and really become part of this amazing country.
And as we enter the time of the year, where tourists numbers plummet in Panama, please don’t feel offended if we’re at it again, inviting everyone who lives in Panama to learn Spanish. We wish we could have huge discounts for retirees all year long, but the reality is that all of our teachers are hired full time, year round (job security is totally essential if we really want to offer quality lessons), and we can only offer those deeply discounted rates when we’re not attending to the travelers who keep our business up and running for the majority of the year. Any business owner in the tourism industry will understand how difficult it can be to keep up with wages, taxes, rent, etc. during the next 3 months, waiting until things pick up again in December. So once again, we’re really sorry if anyone has felt as if we only think about the expat community in September of each year, but hopefully at least this explanation gives a bit of context and will help to put things in a different perspective.
Any business who wants to stay relevant, always has to evolve, just as we did 10 years ago. For us it’s time to evolve again. There are many more new and cool things coming to Habla Ya this year, that we’re really, but extremely excited about, and we’re really looking forward to keep making our communities a better place for everyone. We’ll be sharing in the following months several initiatives that we’re currently working on, that are more geared towards sustainability, building autonomous, self sufficient and independent communities, and in general just inspiring our team, students and communities into finding a more balanced and respectful way to live in this world we call home.
I’d also like to take advantage of this opportunity to remember and raise my thoughts and soul to my great friend the late Lee Zeltzer (and his family whom I haven’t had the chance of really meeting and hopefully these words will reach them), whom I always miss and think about. I would always try to see Lee when I visited Boquete, and I was so fortunate to share with him some of the best conversations I ever had, about life and about Panama’s future. Lee was always a source of inspiration, of ideas, and whenever I’ve encountered difficult business times, the words and confidence he instilled in me are there. Lee for me was the model expat: fun, positive, with loads of friends, enjoying life, speaking his mind, reading, writing, trying new things, an active member in the local community doing his bit to make Boquete a better place for everyone, willing to help for nothing in return, and obviously he cared about knowing Spanish. When my hair goes gray, I want to be like Lee. He was very good at helping you see the big picture, and to put any obstacles and challenges in perspective. In several occasions when we were about to start new projects, he helped me focus on my strengths and past accomplishments, just helping me visualize that is was something totally doable, achievable and that we would find a way to make it happen. I truly hope Lee continues to inspire many of you out there, and that more of us can continue (or at least try to) to evolve into better human beings and friends, just as he did. All of us in Boquete were very fortunate that Lee decided to make Panama his home.
So once again, Boquete, Bocas del Toro and Panama City expat communities, we’re really grateful for your patronage throughout the years and we invite you one more time to learn or improve your Spanish with us here at Habla Ya.