One by one, people filed into a home along Church Street in Wauwatosa, greeting one another with "buenas noches."

That's Spanish for "good evening."

They knocked on the door, were greeted by homeowner Joanne Shansky and chose a seat in a large circle of chairs in Shansky's living room. About 10 people attended. A bowl of chips and salsa sat on a coffee table in the middle of the room and beverages were on a table nearby. The group spoke Spanish to one another; some talked in long-winded sentences while others seemed to thread together words they knew.

The tradition of getting together and speaking Spanish is that of the Spanish Club of Wauwatosa. The group has met every month for more than a decade.

About 10 years ago, the group's founder, Sandra Dempsey, placed an advertisement in The Shepherd Express, an alternative weekly newspaper published in Milwaukee, asking if there was anyone out there who wished to learn or continue to improve on their Spanish-speaking skills. She always hung a flyer at the Wauwatosa Public Library.

About four people gathered for that initial meeting, said Dempsey, a native of Querétaro, Mexico, located about 130 miles northwest of Mexico City. She now lives in Milwaukee with her family and said part of the reason why she wanted to start the group, although she was already well-verse in the language, was to improve her Spanish grammatical skills.

Tony Swain was one of those who responded to the first meeting, which took place at the Starbucks in the Village of Wauwatosa. Swain, now a club leader, studied Spanish at Marquette University and spent a year living in Spain.

The initial meeting at the Starbucks — estimated to have taken place more than 10 years ago — went well, but the environment was too loud. Eventually, the group settled into Shansky's home. It provided a relaxing, welcoming environment that allowed the members to converse freely. There is a core group of people present at the meetings, said Swain, but there are often newcomers, including two women who attended the group's April 4 meeting for the first time.

The club is open to anyone, but most of the members fall somewhere between the late beginner to early advanced categories, Swain said. Many of the members took a Spanish class or two in college, but all strive to improve their skill set with the language.

The environment is a judgment-free zone, Dempsey said. There are homework assignments, but they're more to give members a sense of what will be discussed at the upcoming meeting so they can begin to formulate ideas in their minds, she said. The laid-back, conversational atmosphere is what draws many members to the meeting.

"We talk about real stuff," Dempsey said. "Vocabulary takes on a whole new meaning."

Over the years, the club has been involved with a number of activities, members recalled. There was the time Shansky brought a salsa dancer to a meeting to teach members how to dance, or when the group explored a delicious new Salvadoran restaurant. The group recently attended a bilingual poetry slam, where artists recited poetry in both English and Spanish.

The group has studied the questionnaires presented to those applying for U.S. citizenship and, of course, there was the time when the group decided last-minute to check out geocaching sites in the neighborhood — not really related to the club, but members were still able to learn some new vocabulary along the way.

"It's really a group of friends," said Dempsey. The group has thrown Dempsey two baby showers over the years.

The group is currently picking films to attend at the Annual Latin American Film Series at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, scheduled for April 8-14.

Get involved

To learn more about the Spanish Club of Wauwatosa, email leader Tony Swain at

Read or Share this story: