CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Vivian Page and Tiara Mahoney Paulino sat down at a dining table and perused a restaurant menu, scoping out all the options for lunch.
"Oh, que rico," Page said, pointing to one item, signaling her appetite for the dish and how tasty it sounded to her.
The two continued to discuss in Spanish when restaurant manager Jesús León approached the table and asked if they were ready to order.
"¿Listos?" he asked.
It felt like a scene from a trip abroad, but the interchange was happening in East Charlotte, and the encounter was all part of a Spanish-language immersion tour, organized by Paulino.
"We decided to bring abroad to our clients here," Paulino, a Spanish language instructor and CEO of Dual Vida Language Academy, said. "Give them a taste of Latino culture right here in Charlotte."
Paulino said she first started teaching Spanish as a tutor, moved into a classroom setting, but then eventually, decided to branch out into a more interactive, real-life setting for learning.
"We know that the best way for folks to learn a new language or get better at the language and also be able to engage with that particular culture more fluidly is through immersion," Paulino said.
The tour stops at several businesses in a Spanish-speaking corridor of East Charlotte: Compare Foods, Morazán Restaurant, and Manolo's Bakery. Paulino said the experience isn't just about learning the language, it's also about connecting more profoundly with the Latino culture.
Page said she studied Spanish all through school, even taking that learning abroad, and treasured being able to brush up on her skills at home, with a program where she could take her husband and kids along.
"You are having conversations with different people," Page said. "You're talking. You're also, you know, being directed with different things. So, for example, sitting down and eating."
The ability to conduct such a tour also speaks to the boom of Latino and Hispanic culture in the Charlotte area.
According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, Charlotte is 15% Hispanic or Latino, and the number of Latinos in Mecklenburg County has grown 52% over the past 10 years.
León said he was among those who came to the Queen City during that timeframe, arriving in 2016. Speaking in Spanish, he shared how he felt there weren't many Latinos living in Charlotte at the time, then after 2017, he said he started to notice what he calls an "explosion" of Latinos, bringing more culture and businesses to the area.
Paulino said the local immersion tour isn't just a way to appreciate another culture blossoming in one's city, it might also be the most realistic place for some clients to learn.
"Not everybody has the level of comfort, the level of safety or the understanding of how to travel abroad and feel good doing it, or they might even might not even have the resources to be able to make it happen," Paulino said.
"One thing that I try to tell people is we're going to be your clientele. We're your local business owners. We're your students. We're your supervisors. So, we’re here--why not learn how to engage with us in a really meaningful, culturally sustaining, and linguistically sustaining way?"
Paulino said a tour costs about $150, with children under two attending for free.