Brainerd woman shared the language, celebrated culture since 1969
By Jennie Zeitler
Because of her German heritage, Jan Kurtz of Brainerd originally wanted to take German class in high school. Instead, she took a Spanish class. It was a simple change that changed the direction of the rest of her life.
That Spanish class led to the opportunity of a three-week trip to Saltillo, Mexico, in 1969, when she was 15.
“For me, being there and using the language, there was no going back. I had so much fun,” she said.
Jan’s group drove from Wisconsin to Saltillo, and everyone stayed with Mexican families. The students attended an international school during their stay.
During her college years at Hamline University in St. Paul, she studied in Seville, Spain, for a semester. She lived with a family from August to January, going to school and travelling.
“My Spanish brother Mario and his friends were musicians. On Friday nights, they walked through the barrio singing. People bought them a glass of wine or some snacks,” she said. “People socialized more in Spain. Meal times were longer. Groups of friends were always getting together. We had some very close, fun friendships.”
Jan really enjoyed the old history of everything there – centuries old. The well-known Giralda bell tower in Seville was built in 1248, just one example of historic buildings.
After graduating from Hamline, she reached out to places like 3M and Pillsbury, seeking to work as an interpreter or a cultural advisor.
“At the time, it fell on deaf ears,” she said. “It wasn’t until about 15 years later that I saw businesses were looking for people who were culturally sensitive and would hire people to do that.”
She got married and took her husband, who had absolutely no foreign language experience, to Spain for three weeks. They experienced Madrid, Seville, and Gibraltar together.
“He had to know how important the Spanish language and culture was to me, such a big part of me,” she said.
After Jan’s husband was killed in a motorcycle accident, it was imperative that she work to support her one-year-old son. She took her first teaching job in White Bear Lake. She also taught in Forest Lake for two years. After a few years, she had met and married Robert Morgan, and they moved to Fort Ripley, where they “built our home by hand.”
At that point, Jan took a year off from teaching. When she resumed, she was teaching Spanish at Brainerd High School (BHS) and Franklin Junior High School.
“I took a class at the Resource Center of the Americas in Minneapolis, ‘The Many Faces of Mexico’,” she said. “I proposed teaching that at Brainerd High School, but was turned down.”
In 1985, Jan took a group of BHS students to the Centro Bilingüe in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Rosita Partida was the head of student housing, and Jan, as a teacher, lived with her for the 10-day stay. Rosita became a lifelong friend, and they have been reunited many times when Jan returned to Mexico.
She took a sabbatical year to complete her master’s degree at Hamline. As part of that program, she spent six weeks in Saltillo, returning to the place where she first fell in love with Hispanic culture.
A year after her master’s was done, she started teaching part time at Central Lakes College (CLC) in Brainerd, and cut back to teaching half time at the high school.
“I taught at both for a couple years before going full-time at CLC,” she said.
Early during her tenure at CLC, she started a group called La Mesa. It was a time and place for people to gather to have conversations in Spanish.
“It was a nice mix of people, with teenage College in the Schools students and retired students in the same group, along with exchange students,” she said. “Spanish-speaking employees at El Tequila [a restaurant in town] also came. They stayed later, to learn English.”
By the late 1990s, Jan started “Cultural Thursdays” in her classroom. It evolved into community-wide events with presentations by professors, students, and community members who had travelled. They shared their cultural experiences with the attendees.
“I wanted to leave a legacy of a booming language and cultural atmosphere,” she said. “It really means a lot to me that El Mesa is still going on.”
CLC gave her a dedicated space to have bilingual games and books, mostly Mexican décor such as posters to check out, and Spanish movies. Jan was thrilled when her request to teach “The Many Faces of Mexico” was approved.
The program continued to evolve, and CLC began offering a certificate in Latin American Studies.
For eight years, Jan coordinated a fundraising festival for the Kurtz-Poland Spanish and Latin American Scholarship Fund.
“Each year, two students receive a scholarship from that fund,” she said. “It’s something that anyone can donate to through the CLC Foundation.”
Jan retired from CLC in 2014, but that didn’t mean that life slowed down too much.
In 2015, she accompanied a group of 40+ Brainerd High School students to Peru. She really enjoyed visiting areas she had never been to.
Her Spanish adventures continued with a 2017 trip to Spain, accompanying CLC’s student group. She stayed with Rosita during part of the trip. She walked some of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in northern Spain. From the French border, she walked as far as Pamplona.
Along the way of her life, Jan has put together Shutterfly books of her trips and experiences. She has recently written a book, Northern Shores – Southern Borders, Revelations of a Bilingual Life. She has labelled it a “historical/hysterical memoir.” Proceeds from the book sales are being donated to the Kurtz-Poland scholarship fund, through the CLC Foundation. The book is in several local shops, and can be found online at www.janetkurtz.com.
There is no sign of Jan slowing down as long as there are so many things to do in life. A life’s passion must be pursued.
“Everything keeps weaving back to the beginning - Spanish, trips, and friends,” Jan said. “I’ll keep going back as long as I can. We never know what the future holds.”