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Semester in Spain

About Us: Elsa Cortina

Celebrating Elsa Cortina's impact on Calvin's Spanish department

Elsa CortinaElsa CortinaFrom the first classes she taught in 1966, former professor Dr. Cortina dedicated herself wholeheartedly to Calvin, including starting the Semester in Spain program in Denia, Spain. In her more than thirty years in the Spanish Department, Dr. Cortina taught nearly 200 classes and had an impact on the lives of over 3,000 students.

To celebrate twenty-five years of SIS and to honor Dr. Cortina, we are establishing the Elsa Cortina Scholarship to enable future students to study in Spain. (Give to the scholarship fund!)

Students who have been with her in Spain remember Elsa as a warm, enthusiastic teacher who was excited about the material she taught. She was also a friend for the students, always approachable, sensitive, and willing to help with personal problems. Students remember meeting her with her friend "Ge" (María Angeles) on the streets of Denia and being invited to sit down and chat for a while in a café. They remember the many stories that she told and how she was able to relate literature to life. Read the full tribute to Dr. Elsa Cortina below.

Retirement Tribute for Dr. Elsa Cortina

Spring 1990
by Dr. Marilyn Bierling

When Elsa graduated as a Doctor in Education from the University of Havana in 1951, she could not have known that the greater share of her teaching career would take place in the country to the north. Elsa had been born in Camagüey, Cuba, where she attended elementary and secondary school and received an undergraduate degree. Her father had died when she was only eleven, but her older brothers and sisters took responsibility for her and insisted that she move to Havana to continue with graduate education. There Elsa dated Carlos Cortina, a fellow student at the University of Havana whom she had met in Camagüey. Elsa remembers one of Carlos’ friends very well. This particular friend was a law student, lived in the same apartment with Carlos at times, and enjoyed playing baseball. At one point this friend mentioned that some day he would like to play in the major leagues, and if he had, history might have been different. His name was Fidel Castro.

Carlos and Elsa married in 1953 and their only daughter (also named Elsa) was born in 1955. In 1956 Elsa organized her own private school, in which she taught Spanish grammar and acted as principal. But the Cuban Revolution changed their lives: their school was taken over by the government, and Carlos spoke out against Castro. Carlos became involved in the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion, and when the invasion failed, Elsa feared for her husband’s life. In 1961 they were able to obtain a visa for the United States and found themselves living with thousands of other Cuban refugees in Miami.

Elsa's first contact with the Christian Reformed mission in Miami was when her daughter came down with a bad case of measles and Elsa sought medical help. The two Elsas began attending the Spanish Christian Reformed Church and finally convinced Carlos to visit also. Carlos, who had not attended a church in Cuba, became a Christian and began to teach classes on the Bible. Only ten months after fleeing from Cuba, the family moved to Grand Rapids so that Carlos could attend Calvin Seminary.

Elsa helped to make ends meet by washing dishes in the cafeteria of Blodgett Hospital, but soon was asked to teach Spanish at East Grand Rapids High. In 1965 Elsa came to teach part time at Calvin, and the following year she taught full time. After Carlos became the pastor of the Spanish Christian Reformed Church in Wyoming, Elsa found herself involved not only in teaching, but also as a leader in Sunday School, Bible School, and women’s societies. In addition, she worked for S.C.O.R.R. and for the literature committee of the CRC Board of Home Missions.

After Carlos died of cancer in 1973, Elsa made the decision to continue her education at Michigan State University. She studied for several years, until in 1981 she became chairperson of the Spanish Department, a position which she held until 1988. One of her major accomplishments in the Spanish Department was to begin the “Study in Spain” program in 1983 for beginning Spanish students and the advanced program in 1986 for Spanish majors and minors. She very much enjoyed her many semesters in Denia, Spain, with the Calvin students, sharing with them her love for Hispanic culture and Spanish literature, and demonstrating for them her love for the Lord.

Students who have been with her in Spain remember Elsa as a warm, enthusiastic teacher who was excited about the material she taught. She was also a friend for the students, always approachable, sensitive, and willing to help with personal problems. Students remember meeting her with her friend “Ge” (María Angeles) on the streets of Denia and being invited to sit down and chat for a while in a café. They remember the many stories that she told and how she was able to relate literature to life.

Some of the present teachers in the Spanish department have known Elsa as their teacher as well as their colleague. We remember her as a person full of life and enthusiasm, eager to share her knowledge of the Spanish language and her many experiences with us. She led by her Christian example and her willingness to spend time with us and give advice. We also admire her for the active part she took in the Hispanic community in Grand Rapids and for her resilience after so many difficulties. We will miss her as she moves away from the cold climate of Michigan and joins her brother and sisters in Miami. ¡Que Dios te bendiga, Elsa!