NORMAN — For Arn Henderson, the classes offered a chance to converse more fluently in his wife’s native language of Spanish.
Empty-nester Betsy Nelson wanted to use her newfound time to gain more knowledge about Hispanic culture, while Sister Maria Faulkner wanted to communicate better with the elderly Hispanics she often aids through a ministry program.
And Don Garner said he needed to strengthen his Spanish-language skills to help heighten his experiences during trips to countries like Costa Rica and Colombia.
The motivation for attending the Father Stanley Rother Hispanic Cultural Institute is different for each student, but their commitment to the program is the same.
Such dedication is more than the institute’s co-founders hoped for when they started it six years ago at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 421 E Acres in Norman.
The program is offered for $25 each fall and spring semester. People from the community gather on Tuesday evenings for a session on Hispanic culture then break into smaller groups for Spanish-language classes.
University of Oklahoma medieval Spanish professor Luis Cortest, and Maria de Jesus Paez de Ruiz, OU professor emeritus of modern languages, literatures and linguistics, two of the institute’s co-founders, said it was created for several reasons.
Cortest, 62, said he was tired of all the negative images about the Spanish-speaking world — undocumented immigrants, drug cartel violence and drug trafficking — that seemed to proliferate in the U.S. media.
The professor said he was born in Wichita, Kan., to Mexican immigrants, which is part of the reason he is so passionate about fulfilling the institute’s mission.
“The whole goal of the institute is to present a more positive and yet informed picture of Hispanics and Hispanic culture,” Cortest said.
Ruiz said in her many conversations with non-Hispanics, she had realized that many of them instantly thought of Mexico when someone mentioned anything about Hispanics.
“But there is so much more to our culture than one country,” the Cuba native said.
Ruiz said she also saw the program as a way to educate metro-area Catholic priests and other religious leaders who increasingly were encountering Hispanics in their daily ministry.
The two educators, along with several others, envisioned a program that offered weekly Hispanic culture and Spanish-language classes to members of the community-at-large.
They said they hoped that through their weekly interactions, people would begin to build bridges of understanding across the lines of culture and faith that often keep them distanced from one another.
The program’s participants said the institute has done just that.
“Padre nuestro, que estasen el cielo, santificado sea tu Nombre (Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name),” the students said in unison as a weekly session of the institute began recently.
Ruiz, the program’s coordinator, said each session begins with a group recitation of the “The Lord’s Prayer” in Spanish.
This is followed by a lecture on Hispanic culture which could mean a discussion on the differences in Hispanic foods or a speaker’s recent visit to a Latin America country.
After providing a map of Mexico to each of the 25 participants, Cortest talked about America’s neighbor to the south, asking the group questions about Mexico’s currency and economic future, along the way.
Henderson, OU professor emeritus of architecture, listened intently.
He said he had been taking classes at the institute for several years, hoping that his newfound Spanish-language skills would help him speak more fluently with his Guatemalan-born wife.
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AT A GLANCE
What: Father Stanley Rother Hispanic Cultural Institute
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays
Where: St. Joseph Catholic Church, 421 E Acres, Norman.
Cost: $25 per semester.
Information: 321-8080; firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com; http://hculturalinstitute.blogspot.com.