By Hannah Lee / Photography by John Michael Simpson
Rebeca “Becky” Cabrera was seven months pregnant when she heard the rumors. Her job at the CHICLE Language Institute was in danger – not because she’d done anything wrong – but because the then-owners, who founded the center in 1999, were ready to sell the business or shut it down completely. The soon-to-be mother was only teaching two Spanish classes a week in 2014, but educating others was her plan for the foreseeable future. The question her husband had asked her kept ringing in her head: “So, what are you going to do?”
Answer: take matters into her own hands.
First, Becky asked Perla Saitz, the in-the-know Spanish program coordinator since 2001, about the rumors. “I had been here for so long, and I had a role in making it grow,” Perla says, “and so for that, I just couldn’t let it close.” When Perla confirmed the owners’ intentions, she then asked Becky: “Would you want to partner up and take over the institute?” Perla felt that, as the parent of young kids, she couldn’t do it alone. But luckily, Becky said yes.
Becky and Perla started out strictly as colleagues, but bonded over their shared backgrounds: Both followed their husbands – Becky from Costa Rica and Perla from Mexico City – to Chapel Hill to raise a family.
Of course, these women never expected to take on a business with no entrepreneurial foundation – especially Becky, who jokes that she’s still trying to perfect her English. But with a fearless passion for languages and the fierce instinct to take care of their families, Becky and Perla partnered that year and bought the business.
These days, with three full-time employees (including Perla and Becky) and more than 30 contractors, the business has become more than just teaching kids and adults languages – the institute teaches anywhere from six to a dozen at a time. “It’s funny because sometimes we get very specific requests,” Perla says. “One of our former students who took Spanish for many years, she’s traveling to Europe next year to give a [lecture at a] conference, because she’s a physician. She’s going to Poland, so she wanted to learn Polish before she goes. So we found a teacher for her to work on Polish.”
Perla and Becky realize they’re lucky to be located in an area with top universities, like UNC and Duke, that bring them fluent instructors – in fact, 95% of their teachers are native language speakers. With those credentials, CHICLE attracts big-name clients including current contracts with Orange County Health Department and the Town of Chapel Hill to help residents, especially the growing Karen and Burmese refugee communities, receive translated municipal updates.
But far beyond educational courses and interpreting documents, Becky and Perla largely contribute to improving bilingual medical programs in the area. The Duke Physician Assistant Program contracts CHICLE every spring to create and teach a Spanish medical terminology course. Even HR departments from local hospitals ask the CHICLE team to interview potential candidates to find out if they’re truly fit for bilingual positions. These courses and evaluations, very specific to the language institute, are a unique service for the medical community.
It also calls attention to Perla and Becky’s many hats, which continue to change in size and color. Their students most certainly see the value in that.
Mary Altpeter, who playfulls calls herself the “abuela,” is one such student. The grandmother and retired research scientist has been taking classes on and off with Perla since 2013. And in those years, Mary has been overwhelmed – in the best way – by Perla’s teaching tactics, ranging from playing games together in Spanish to watching full-length foreign films. “She goes so far above and beyond,” Mary says. “Some teachers, it’s like, you have your 45 minutes or your hour, and you’re done. Not Perla.”
Perhaps the best example of that is when, right before Mary’s first solo trip to Mexico City, Perla invited her to lunch at a local Latino restaurant in Durham. Only once they arrived, Perla pulled a teaching trick on Mary – the instructor faked like she didn’t speak Spanish, leaving the pupil to order for them both. “At this point,” Mary jokes, “I wanted to die a slow death.”
But Perla’s method paid off. Mary timidly approached the counter, then muttered the phrases she’d practiced: “Estoy estudiando español. ¿Puedes practicar conmigo?” (“I’m studying Spanish. Can you practice with me?”) To her surprise, the man behind the counter agreed, flashing a gentle smile. “Si, por supuesto.” (“Yes, of course.”) As Mary went about ordering, the gentleman kindly repeated phrases back to her and corrected her pronunciations. By the time she’d paid, even other Spanish-speaking customers had gotten in on the fun.
Perla, meanwhile, sat back watching and smiling. Another satisfied client.