Several hundred miles north of Mexico’s border with Belize, expat Catherine Gray has been making a big difference in the lives of the mostly Maya people through her language school in Quintana Roo for the past eight years.
Gray, now 47, first moved to Felipe Carrillo Puerto in the southern part of the Yucatán Peninsula in1996 as a volunteer for a local environmental charity that was affiliated with the Audubon Society. She came to teach bio-reserve courses in the town that is just west of Mexico’s Sian Ka’an, the UNESCO World Heritage Site biosphere reserve that was established in 1986.
She was born in Alexandria, Virginia to a physicist father and a mother who was a guidance counselor for many years. After graduating from high school there, she received a bachelor’s degree in political science with minors in anthropology and environmental studies from James Madison University before heading to Seattle to live with her sister.
“I fell in love with the west coast and got some of my friends to move out there, also,” Gray said. “I started working for the Seattle Audubon Society and while there saw an opportunity to work with an affiliate of the organization in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, about an hour’s drive southwest of Tulum. I came as a volunteer in 1996 to do environmental education and learn Spanish”
Her only experience in Mexico prior to her move was a college graduation trip to Cancún and the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in 1992.
She left her job in Felipe Carrillo Puerto two years later and returned to Seattle to receive a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) certificate before heading west, way west. She had met her future husband, Pedro, in Mexico and the two moved to Seoul, South Korea so she could teach English for a year before they began traveling throughout southeast Asia. The couple returned to Mexico in 2001 to get married.
“When we returned to Felipe Carrillo Puerto I was fortunate to get a tenure-track position teaching English at the local university,” she said. “I taught there until 2010 before staring our business with Pedro, who was a social studies teacher.”
The Na’atik Language and Culture Institute now has over 200 students of all ages who receive instruction primarily in English. A growing number of international students come to learn Maya and Spanish.
“The word na’atik is Maya and means we are understanding each other,” she explained. “A perfect name for an intercultural language school.”
The couple hired an abogado and formed their business as a Sociedad Civil, which is a legal entity for education, museums and libraries in Mexico.
“In addition to the school, we also wanted to start a non-profit based in the U.S. for people to help fund our local English program through donations. It’s called Na’atik Projects.
Gray operates her school with no local, state or federal funding. All income is generated through tuition and donations. Ten percent of the tuition received from the Maya and Spanish language classes for foreigners goes back to the non-profit, which in turn helps subsidize the English classes for local students.
“The local poverty rate is about 70 percent, so right now we have 26 students on scholarship,” she said. “We have an emergency scholarship fund for short-term use, also, because we don’t want kids dropping out because they can’t afford it. We’re proud that many of our graduates have gone on to the state university.”
Gray and her husband purchased their home in 2003, which is conveniently located several blocks from the school.
“It’s small with an open living room, kitchen, two-bedrooms, one-bathroom and a backyard with a palapa,” she said. “perfect for our three kids and three crazy dogs.”
Gray estimated that a new home with three-bedrooms, three-baths and a small yard would now cost about U.S.$50,000. To rent a home of that size would cost about U.S.$600 per month.
One thing is for sure: Felipe Carrillo Puerto is not a hot spot for expats. Located in the jungle of southern Quinta Roo, this town of about 30,000 people is due west of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a little over an hour’s drive from Tulum and about two hours north of Chetumal, the capital of the state of Quintana Roo.
“Not counting our school staff, we have just a couple of other full-time expats living here,” Gray said. “If we want to see expat friends, we drive north to Tulum to enjoy the beaches and take a little vacation. For shopping, we’re more likely to head south to Chetumal, which is a city of around 150,000 people just north of the border with Belize.”
One advantage of living in Felipe Carrillo Puerto is its proximity to many of Mexico’s marvelous Maya historical sites, including Coba, Tulum, Xel-Há, Xcaret, Chacchoben, Kohunlich and Muyil. Chacchoben is nearby.
Another benefit of living in the area is its low cost of living, except for electricity. Jungle living can be hot and humid most of the year, so air-conditioning is a necessity for expats. Gray’s home is equipped with air in the living room and bedroom, but it is only used on the very hottest days because of cost. Solar, however, is making headway in Mexico and Gray has equipped their school with solar panels.
Gray said day-to-day shopping at local markets is wonderful. Fresh eggs, amazing fruits and vegetables and a local butcher with a variety of meat provide for daily needs and are inexpensive. Shopping expeditions to Tulum or Chetumal take care of everything else.
The family dines out often at local restaurants where the entire family can savor local delicacies for about US$8. Gray’s favorite meals always involve some form of tacos.
For those looking for modern communications, Felipe Carrillo Puerto was recently wired for broadband, so Internet connections are very good. If you love your television and smart phone, many choices are available. Even Netflix is offered.
The local hospital, Gray said, generally is fine for most things, but in case of emergencies, ambulances take local people north to Playa del Carmen or south to Chetumal, where large, modern hospitals are located.
Gray is fluent in Spanish and told us she just finished a novel in Spanish. Her children also are fluent and attend a nearby local school. She, however, speaks to them only in English. Marriage to Pedro, with his large family, has accelerated her acquisition of language skills.
“I have amazing in-laws,” she said. “All of my husband’s siblings and his mother and father are educators and love to study.”
Family is a major blessing for Gray. She said that everyone in town is connected somehow, no more than “three degrees of separation.”
“There is a real comfort in that. My kids can still ride their bikes to school without worry. Here, whenever a crisis hits, it’s amazing how family comes together. In Mexico, family is everything.”