ideas sought for living and working in el mundo hispanohablante...soon!
November 30, 2010 7:35 PM   Subscribe

American citizen wants to spend some months living in a Spanish-speaking country and at least break even. Halp! Details within.

I find myself recently unemployed and planning to go to graduate school next fall. It occurred to me-- why not fulfill my long-time dream of learning Spanish? I have no real commitments-- this is the perfect time.

I'd like it to be something with a rather short turnaround time; that is, prestigious fellowships that require applications a year in advance are a no-go. If I could be on my way in January, that would be great.

Some random things I have professional/academic background/experience in (but am by no means limited to): linguistics, ESL teaching, nonprofits, human rights, transportation, sustainable agriculture, international development, the arts, university administration, tourism industry. I'm hoping to go to grad school in urban planning, so A+++ for anything relating to that, but I'm realistic about the chances of someone with little relevant experience and poor Spanish scoring anything related. Though such would be neat, what I do in Place X doesn't have to be some sort of great resume addition-- I just want to be in a Spanish-speaking context and have an interesting experience. Values-wise, I'm left-oriented, and all things being equal, I'd prefer to do something that helps others than not. I've worked as a language assistant in France, and neat-sounding similar programs exist in Spain and Chile, but as per what I mentioned before, these are programs with long application processes.

I know I could probably backpack around for quite cheaply, but I'm the sort of person who likes to have a purpose (even if a stupid one) somewhere; being a pure tourist for an extended period makes me very ill-at-ease. I don't need to come away with a ton of money, and I can afford to write off a plane ticket as a loss, but I don't want to be in a position where I'm continuously paying to live.

I have studied Spanish at a very basic level, and speak fluent French; this gets me surprisingly far in reading straightforward texts, but my production and verbal comprehension are pretty much nil. I'm definitely not currently capable of doing work in Spanish that isn't otherwise interculturally obvious (like potato peeling or something). I'm quite facile at languages and pick them up quickly in an immersion setting. I generally prefer an urban setting to a rural one. (But don't let that hold you back.) I have experience living in other cultures. I have a preference for places that aren't extraordinarily dangerous (so maybe hold off on the Ciudad Juar├ęz ideas).

Basically, even in the absence of concrete opportunities, I'm happy to hear about jumping-off ideas and general routes to pursue. This is something that sort of came to me in a flash and I'm fascinated to hear any ideas (or specific leads if I'm so fortunate) that you have.

I'm a 23-year-old white male, in case that demographic information is relevant.

I'll be lurking around in case you have any followup questions. Thanks a ton in advance!
posted by threeants to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry, I meant to say 'US citizen'-- I know this terminology can be sensitive.
posted by threeants at 7:37 PM on November 30, 2010

Would you consider moving to a city in the US that is heavily skewed to Spanish speakers? For example, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas is majority Spanish speaking.
posted by Brent Parker at 7:48 PM on November 30, 2010

WWOOF might be right up your alley. There are listings for organic farms in South and Central America as well as in Spain. It's ~ twenty dollars per country for listings and contact information. You work on the farm and they give you food and a place to live, though you're probably going to end up spending some of your own money too.
posted by wayland at 7:52 PM on November 30, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the idea, Brent. I'm not sure it's realistic, though, for me to think I'd be able to fall back on that-- it's too easy to fall back on Anglophone culture. I've lived in Texas before and even now I live in a highly Spanish-speaking area outside of Boston. I'm not really extroverted enough to talk to random people in Spanish in the U.S. And honestly, I'd just plain love the excuse to live abroad again.
posted by threeants at 7:55 PM on November 30, 2010

I know people almost literally in your exact position who flew to Montevideo and worked as English teachers. WWOOF is also good, in the sense that you'll have things more organized beforehand... all the people I know just went, stayed in hostels, looked for jobs (often working odd jobs) until they landed an english teaching gig, at which point they could definitely survive fine.

I also happen to love Uruguay so I'm biased... just saying though. The opportunities are there, BUT it's not going to have a lot of structure.
posted by wooh at 7:56 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks folks, very interesting ideas so far. Does anyone know what the deal is with work status in various countries? For example, from my experience in France I know that to do any kind of work you have to either be a highly-skilled worker, get transferred by a multinational company, go through one of a very few specific programs, or marry a European. Full stop. That is, the English teaching idea wooh mentions would not fly there. Are things different for Latin America?
posted by threeants at 8:01 PM on November 30, 2010

Technically, you can't work without a visa. That said, a LOT of people (at least that I met) find work without a visa. In Uruguay, at least, and many other countries, you can stay for 90 days, and then to refresh that simply have to leave for any period of time (so a trip to buenos aires or whatever). I don't think anyone I met actually had a work visa, as they are tough to get.

They all mentioned that getting similar jobs is basically impossible in Europe, because while it's not impossible to hire you, it's way easier to hire people from the UK to do the same job (teaching english, as they are native english speakers). Latin America is a lot more lax.
posted by wooh at 8:06 PM on November 30, 2010

Well, you'll certainly have a larger variety of options in the Americans, but I would recommend walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. It fulfills the urban planning requirement because you'll be walking in, through, and out of cities large and small, which is a tremendously enlightening experience. There are many French speakers on the trail in addition to Spanish people. You could find WWOOF farms near the route and extend your stay for practically nothing. The Camino can be done very cheaply, think 1 month on 5 euro a night plus food and drink. The Camino Frances, the most popular route, goes from the Pyrenees border w/ France to Santiago de Compostela, going through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, etc.

Maybe you could do that (in the warmer months), brush up on your Spanish, then go find a job in South America.
posted by acidic at 8:22 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in grad school in Urban Planning. I spent the last three months before school in South America backpacking, taking classes in Spanish here and there, but mostly partying and eating (though I spent 4k without making anything).

I'd recommend teaching in Cusco, Peru, as some of my friends did that, you could potentially break even. Friends have taught in Chile (more expensive) and Buenos Aires (ditto).

I love Peru, the food, the scenery, the "scenery", the culture, the weather.
posted by sandmanwv at 9:06 PM on November 30, 2010

You'll learn the most Spanish if you're doing a homestay program instead of staying in hostels. Years ago I did one with Radio for Peace International in Costa Rica. I worked as an English teacher in my spare time to get by. I'm not sure the radio station option is still available but if you look for something like that you'll learn a lot from it.
posted by hazyjane at 11:12 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have to second WWOOFing and homestaying, for educational and legal reasons.

Educational: If you really want to learn Spanish, avoid hostels, and preferably, don't teach English! I used to live in Japan, where English teachers often end up hanging out with ... other English teachers, and learn only the minimum Japanese. Having a practical goal like in WWOOF can be super for learning vocabulary, too.

Legal: I'm glad you finally though about the oh, yeah, visa issue, hm. One of the previous posters is correct that a lot of people get by working without the proper permission. And some people do get caught and sent packing. Sometimes this can mean a ban on re-entering the country for several years. If you do this in Spain, it could get you banned from all of Schengen. Any time in the future when you do apply for a visa, you will have to answer questions like "have you ever been denied a visa" and "have you ever been barred entry from a country" and you can imagine where those applications go when you answer YES. Sure, plenty of people never get caught. But, to me, it isn't worth the additional risk or stress when you have a professional career ahead of you.

Lastly, WWOOFing isn't just about farms, either. If that doesn't suit you, you'll find plenty of places looking for help at B&Bs, as tour guides or museum docents, and in other manual labor (painting, etc) avocations.

I hope you will follow up on this when you figure out your path.
posted by whatzit at 11:37 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

English teacher in Korea here - don't teach English if you're trying to learn Spanish. Most every country has jobs that require being bilingual - sorry to be so vague, but there are likely to be some most anywhere you look. It might be easier to be on the ground in said foreign country, or to have a friend / contact in said foreign country. Whatever you can do that's unique, bring it to the table.
posted by chrisinseoul at 7:55 AM on December 1, 2010

How about spending some time in Puerto Rico? Avoids the visa issue!
posted by acridrabbit at 7:24 PM on December 1, 2010

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