Luisa Fuentes-Tuel. Photo by Brooke Broten.
“I like adventure. Anything I can try that is unknown, I will do. If you said, ‘Let’s move to China,’ I would do it.” – Luisa Fuentes-Tuel
Even though she has been in the United States for 12 years and is now an American citizen, a piece of Luisa Fuentes-Tuel’s heart will always be in Peru. “The biggest challenge in my life was coming to Minnesota. It’s like I have two lives. When I’m here, I have to be a different person. I am a professional, a wife and a mom,” she explained. “But if you come to my house, it is a Peruvian home. I cook Peruvian food everyday. My parents are Peruvian. When I’m in Peru, I’m so relaxed.”
Yet she willingly traded that comfort for love. While in Minnesota visiting her sister, who was living in Willmar at the time, Fuentes-Tuel met the man who is now her husband. An independent and daring nature also pushed her to make the move. “I like adventure,” she confessed. “Anything I can try that is unknown, I will do. If you said, ‘Let’s move to China,’ I would do it.”
This love of adventure also pushed her to become an entrepreneur, first in Peru and later in Minnesota. After earning degrees in both teaching and journalism, she taught early childhood education classes for 15 years in Peru. In her spare time, she ran a small company making and selling T-shirts screened with Peruvian insignias and designs. Yet when she came to America, Fuentes-Tuel struggled with English. “I went to an English-immersion school in Peru,” she said, “but my teacher was Peruvian so my accent was not good. I would say ‘hi’ to people here and they would not understand me. Even now, some days it is easy for me to talk and other days,” she shrugged, “I don’t know what happens to my English.”
Though the English language may sometimes be challenging, moving almost comes naturally to Fuentes; it’s what she’s used to. Her father was a national police officer in Peru, and because his assignments varied, the family moved every few years. She’s lost track of the number of times she’s been to Machu Picchu, the famous lost city of the Incas buried high in the Andes Mountains. “I went to Machu Picchu all the time when I was a girl. It was like going to a park,” she said. Another place that she remembers well is Cuzco, an ancient town set at a high altitude and ringed by mountains; it is the launching point for travelers bound for Machu Picchu. It was the capital of the Incan empire before the Spaniards conquered South America. “It was a beautiful place,” Fuentes-Tuel said. While she loved the scenic atmosphere, in particular being surrounded by mountains, the ancient quality of the place appealed to her too. “Everything is so old there,” she explained. “I remember playing outside in the dirt and I would pick up a stone, look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s a bone.’ That happened all the time.”
Evolution of an entrepreneur
When she first moved to the Twin Cities, Fuentes-Tuel worked as a customer service representative for Sun Country Airlines. Post 9/11, the airline changed and downsized, and she found herself out of a job. She returned to what she knew best: early childhood education. Fuentes-Tuel contacted a number of local daycares and arranged to teach weekly 45-minute sessions of Spanish and Latin dance to children whose parents were interested. “When I started,” she said, “I had six kids signed up and by the end of that year I had over 200 students at 17 daycares.”
The feedback was so positive, from parents and daycare providers alike, that Fuentes-Tuel decided to start an early childhood, Spanish-immersion preschool. She stumbled onto the idea when seeking a program for her son, who was then 3. Though there were a number of Spanish-immersion schools in the metro area, they don’t start until a child is in kindergarten. She wanted her son to start in a Spanish-immersion school earlier than that. “He was 3 and it was important to me that he grew up bilingual,” she explained. “I knew that a child’s brain develops in a different way. Learning another language is easy if you do it at a young age. It’s more like playing than work. And studies show children who are bilingual are often faster at math and more proficient in their first language.
“I learned I wasn’t the only parent that wanted this,” Fuentes-Tuel said, and noted that her year driving from daycare to daycare taught her that. “Many parents are realizing that the next generation needs to be bilingual. Spanish is a good choice for a second language. Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States.” There are 400 million Spanish speakers worldwide.
She christened her new preschool Rayito de Sol, which translates to “little ray of sun,” and opened her doors in Plymouth in 2002. Since then, the school has grown. Rayito de Sol started with one employee and now boasts 14. She has opened a second location in Brooklyn Park and a third is slated to open this fall in downtown Minneapolis. “We are full,” Fuentes-Tuel smiled. “We take children at 16 months to age 6 and we guarantee fluency after one year with us. There is a 12-month waiting period. Sometimes moms call when they are pregnant. I tell them to call back later.”
All of the teachers are native Spanish-speakers and trained educators. To ensure this, Fuentes-Tuel learned to navigate the complex world of foreign visas. Her teachers come from Mexico, Argentina, Peru and beyond. Many are here on three-year HB1 visas, which are renewable for a second three-year stint.
However, in order to secure the visas, Rayito de Sol has to pay for any accumulated costs, like travel. To protect her investment, Fuentes-Tuel has worked hard to establish relationships with teaching universities in different Latin American countries. Through these relationships, which she considers vital, she is able to hire skilled graduates. “I put an ad in the paper in Peru,” she explained, “and I had more than 400 applications in one day.”
Fuentes-Tuel is proud of her accomplishments, as a mother, as a woman and as a Latina. “Because I look different and speak with an accent, people always ask me, ‘Where are you from?'” she said. “Unfortunately there is a stereotype of Latin people. So many come here to work in restaurants, but I am very happy to be from Peru and to be a professional.”