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Episode 57: La vida en los tiempos del coronavirus (Life in the Time of Coronavirus)

By Duolingo on Thu 14 May 2020

Like many others around the world, Spanish speakers on both sides of the Atlantic have responded to the coronavirus pandemic with exceptional acts of courage and kindness. In this special episode, we’ll hear stories of people who have stepped up to serve their communities with creativity, ingenuity, and solidarity. We dedicate this episode to the global community of front line workers who have worked tirelessly to keep others safe.

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Martina: In March 2020, when the Spanish government declared a state of emergency to combat the coronavirus, Jesús de Alba moved into a Catholic church in his neighborhood. Jesús had seen his city in hard times before. But this time he had a hunch, or corazonada, that things were about to get a whole lot worse for Madrid’s most vulnerable communities.

Jesús: Yo tuve una corazonada desde el primer día. Si nosotros íbamos a pasarlo mal, ¿cómo lo iba a pasar la gente que no tiene trabajo o una casa? Por eso, con un amigo que es padre en la iglesia de Santo Tomás Apóstol, organizamos la red para entregar comida. Yo decidí quedarme a dormir en la iglesia porque desde allí coordinábamos todo.

Martina: The church of Santo Tomás Apóstol has a 1,000-square-meter garage. It was nearly empty the day Jesús moved in. Soon, it became a warehouse where thousands of kilos of food came and went each day, initially feeding 50 families in Madrid.

Jesús: En pocos días alimentamos a doscientas familias. Nuestro objetivo era que cinco mil personas recibieran, de forma gratuita, cajas con veinticinco tipos distintos de alimentos. De esta manera, les ayudamos a sobrevivir durante esta crisis.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to a very special episode of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I’m Martina Castro.

As you’ve probably noticed, these are extraordinary times. While COVID-19 has impacted every country differently, we believe there’s one thing that unites us all: the will and determination to help one another.

In this episode, we’re featuring four exceptional people: a community organizer, a flight attendant, an engineering student, and an opera singer — who’ve gone to great lengths to help their communities. It’s our tribute to the many people — doctors, nurses, and other essential workers — who have made great sacrifices to help keep us all safe.

As with every episode, these are true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world. The storytellers will be using intermediate Spanish, and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at

Martina: Even as a kid, Jesús de Alba liked volunteering. When he was just 20 years old, he got together with some friends and started bringing food to people living on the streets. They started out modestly, bringing bocadillos, or sandwiches, to the most dangerous areas in Madrid.

Jesús: Al salir de la universidad comenzamos con algo simple. Los viernes por la noche, dos amigos y yo distribuíamos bocadillos a los pobres de la ciudad. Lo hacíamos cuando teníamos tiempo libre. Nuestras madres preparaban los bocadillos.

Martina: Over the years, Jesús established a network of 70 volunteers to feed people every Friday. He and his friends founded an NGO named “Bocatas”, which in Spain is short for bocadillo. Although they had been helping people for two decades, nothing prepared them for the pandemic Jesús describes as a “tsunami.”

Jesús: En Madrid, el virus afectó más a los pobres que a las otras personas. Yo nunca los había visto tan necesitados como ahora. Muchas familias nos llamaban porque sus hijos tenían hambre. La experiencia era como un tsunami.

Martina: By early April, Spain had become the country with the most deaths per capita in the world. Companies were closing. Millions of jobs were lost. And those with fewer resources couldn’t afford rent, let alone food. Jesús decided he and his team needed to go all in.

Jesús: Los primeros días de la pandemia alimentamos a cincuenta familias, luego a sesenta, y seguimos creciendo hasta llegar a ochocientas. Ahora, queremos llegar a mil porque esta crisis es muy dura. Nosotros pedimos donaciones y la respuesta nos sorprendió. Los vecinos nos enviaron miles de cajas de alimentos y cada día llegan más y más.

Martina: Jesús designed a complex distribution system in which every volunteer was responsible for up to eight families. Delivery days were Thursday and Friday. Taking turns, volunteers loaded up their food boxes, making sure each box contained supplies to suit each family’s unique circumstances and needs.

Jesús: Aparte de entregar comida, nosotros tenemos una relación especial con estas personas. Si necesitan otras cosas, como productos para limpiar o artículos para sus bebés, se los llevamos.

Martina: Overflowing with donations, the garage at the church was stuffed with thousands of boxes of food. The goods kept coming every day. Many people who received the food went to social media to express their gratitude, prompting even more donations.

Jesús: Algunas cosas me emocionaron mucho. Hay personas que nos enviaron dinero para poder comprar los alimentos. La pobreza es un problema humano y la respuesta debe ser humana. Ayudar es importante.

Martina: Ayudar es importante, helping is important. Six thousand miles away, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, those same words were on Carolina Pérez Laigle's mind when a company car came to pick her up. It was March 27th. Carolina, a 29-year-old flight attendant, was agitated on her way to the airport. She had been flying her entire life, but this route would be unlike any other…

Carolina: Volar siempre ha sido parte de mi vida, incluso antes de nacer. Mi mamá es jefa de cabina y mi hermano es piloto, así como lo era mi abuelo. Yo crecí entre aviones y vuelos, pero esta vez era muy diferente. Este era un vuelo de riesgo.

Martina: The flight was un riesgo, a risk, because so much about the virus remained unknown. Many countries had closed their borders, and airlines around the world had shut down their routes. But Aerolíneas Argentinas, the country’s flagship carrier, is publicly owned. The government ordered it to retrieve Argentines who were stranded abroad.

Carolina: En ese momento, no había muchos casos en Argentina. Pero muchos pilotos y auxiliares de vuelo tuvieron que aislarse porque habían estado en lugares de riesgo, como Europa. La compañía pidió voluntarios porque había que repatriar a los argentinos que no podían volver a sus casas. Si yo podía hacer algo para ayudar a los demás, tenía que hacerlo.

Martina: Carolina wasn’t afraid for herself. Her fear was leaving her children, ages 4, 5, and 7, behind.

Carolina: Mi jefe me llamó y me dijo que mis primeros vuelos iban a ser a Chile y a Uruguay. Todo en un mismo día. Tuve que tomar una decisión y me embarqué en un vuelo muy extraño.

Martina: The first flight was indeed very strange. As soon as she got on the plane, Carolina opened up the first aid kit and took out gloves, face masks, alcohol wipes, and some trays. Then she buckled up for a long day.

Carolina: En el vuelo a Chile había pasajeros chilenos que volvían a su país. Fue extraño porque suspendimos el servicio, no dimos ni comida ni bebida. Pasábamos cada quince minutos para confirmar que todos estaban bien. Prestábamos atención para ver si alguien presentaba los síntomas del virus.

Martina: Carolina and the other flight attendants gave the passengers a document where they had to disclose if they had a fever or a cough. Before disembarking, Carolina handed these papers to the ground personnel, so they could check if the virus had made it onto the plane. Carolina tried not to overthink it.

Carolina: Todo pasó rápidamente. Desde Chile volvimos a Argentina y viajamos a Uruguay. La pandemia estaba apenas empezando y los pasajeros estaban tranquilos.

Martina: Carolina’s next destination was Perú. The airline planned to fly Peruvians home from Argentina, and then take back the Argentines stranded in Perú. But the Peruvian government was randomly suspending flights, and Carolina didn’t even know if the plane could take off, or despegar, from Buenos Aires.

Carolina: El gobierno había cancelado el vuelo anterior al nuestro con destino a Perú. Muchos peruanos habían pasado días durmiendo en el aeropuerto. Todos estábamos nerviosos, pensando que no íbamos a poder despegar de Buenos Aires.

Martina: Luckily, the pilot’s order to prepare for takeoff came quickly. But Carolina was still uneasy: There was a possibility that they wouldn’t be allowed to land in Lima. Some flights had been forced to turn around.

Carolina: Yo escuché perfectamente los suspiros de alivio cuando el avión tocó tierra en Lima. La gente estaba feliz de volver a casa. Ahora, solo teníamos que traer a los argentinos de regreso a su país. Nosotros no sabíamos con seguridad si nos iban a dejar despegar.

Martina: The crew disinfected the plane as fast as they could. There was no time to waste. Passengers began to board in groups of 30. There were families, older people, and students. But instead of being anxious and fearful…the passengers were all really happy.

Carolina: Yo estaba en la parte delantera del avión cuando un pasajero vino a decirme algo: “Muchas gracias, estamos eternamente agradecidos por esto”. Mis ojos se llenaron de lágrimas y él me dijo: “No llores porque nos vas a hacer llorar a todos”.

Martina: When the plane took off, the passengers cheered. Some of them recorded the moment on their phones and shared it on social media.

Carolina: Todavía veo ese video y me emociono muchísimo. Esta crisis despertó la solidaridad en todos. Nosotros tomamos riesgos, es verdad, pero los médicos y enfermeros de todo el mundo también lo han hecho y hay que ayudarles.

Martina: Helping doctors, nurses, and hospital workers was something that was keeping Gizéh Triana up at night. Two people infected with the virus had just arrived from Italy to his home state, Nuevo León, in Mexico. The morning news had reported that some local doctors and nurses still lacked protective gear.

Gizéh: Desde muy pequeño, siempre me ha gustado inventar cosas, crear y dejar volar mi imaginación. Mi padre es ingeniero. Yo también estudié ingeniería, pero mecatrónica.

Martina: Mechatronics is a field of study that combines elements of electronics and mechanics. Gizéh, who’s 23, also studied robotics. After the newscast, his dad turned to him and reminded him of a 3D printer they had bought a few months earlier.

Gizéh: Mi papá me dijo: “¿Cómo vamos a protegernos? ¿Cómo se van a proteger los médicos y todo el personal de salud? Tal vez podemos usar tu impresora 3D para crear algo para protegernos”.

Martina: What if this little machine, this 3D printer, could help save lives? Gizéh immediately had an idea. He could design a full face visor, basically a plastic mask that would fasten on the forehead in a way that allows for easy breathing while shielding the nose and mouth.

Gizéh: Yo tuve una idea, diseñar una máscara con dos características importantes: reutilizable y económica. ¿Por qué decidí hacerlo? Porque las máscaras de este tipo son muy caras y las hacen las grandes industrias. Por eso, hay muy pocas.

Martina: For a week, Gizéh locked himself in his room. He thought about what kind of materials he could use and what dimensions would fit a person’s face. And finally, he came up with a design: he would 3D print a plastic strap that would be shaped to hold a sheet made of acetate, a cheap and durable material.

Gizéh: El acetato es muy barato. Lo venden en hojas transparentes de diferentes tamaños. Otro aspecto positivo es que se puede comprar en cualquier lugar.

Martina: After a week, Gizéh finished the design and printed the first prototype on his home 3D printer. The printing took three hours, longer than an industrial 3D printer might take. But finally, Gizéh had the first mask in his hands. He thought it turned out better than expected.

Gizéh: ¡Había salido muy bien! Tanto, que compartí gratuitamente el diseño en dos páginas web para gente que utiliza impresoras 3D. Yo subí el diseño original y otro modificable. De esta manera, las personas podían adaptar las medidas.

Martina: Gizéh posted his designs for free on some engineering websites. And they instantly became the most downloaded designs. He started to get messages from faraway places, like the largest 3D printer company in the Czech Republic. They contacted him because 15,000 doctors across the country were using his design!

Gizéh: El primer mensaje que recibí fue de Canadá. Me dijeron que iban a implementarlo en su sistema de salud. Después, recibí mensajes de Francia, Estados Unidos, Italia y Alemania, y hasta de República Checa. En esos países, estaban imprimiendo las máscaras en los hospitales.

Martina: Mexico’s first infections started appearing later than many other countries, so Gizéh was able to send masks to local hospitals before they were near capacity. Soon, the country would also be overwhelmed and would enter a lockdown. Through it all, Gizéh kept working.

Gizéh: Yo paso todo el día imprimiendo máscaras y se las regalo a los hospitales. Alrededor del mundo se han fabricado más de 250,000 máscaras basadas en mi diseño, que fue el primero de ese tipo.

Martina: While Gizéh was designing his mask in Mexico, the virus was still spreading throughout the world. Back in Spain, the government ordered everyone to stay home to prevent contagion. In Barcelona, like in many other cities, people began to gather on their balconies every evening, to cheer in honor of healthcare workers. Begoña Alberdi started clapping, like the rest.

Begoña: Ese aplauso tan genuino fue muy emocionante. Todo el mundo estaba unido. Yo le dije a mi marido: “Estoy tan emocionada que quiero cantar”. Y mi marido respondió: “Entonces… ¡canta!”. Y me puse a cantar…

Martina: This is a recording from the night Begoña sang "O Mio Babbino Caro," a song by the opera composer Giacomo Puccini. It really was a treat for the neighbors. Most of them didn't know that they were living next door to one of the most famous and respected opera singers in Europe. A star who has performed on the best stages in the world...

Begoña: El silencio fue inesperado. Yo me pregunté: “¿Qué está pasando? ¿Me oyen? ¿Les gusta?”. Cuando terminé de cantar, el aplauso y los gritos fueron impresionantes. Me emocioné mucho.

Martina: Begoña’s neighborhood, Ensanche, is built in symmetrical grids. Each block has a patio inside where you can see…and hear…the buildings next door. Begoña’s balcony was like a stage. Her reviews had always been good, but never as passionate as they were after that first balcony concert.

Begoña: Cuando me levanté al día siguiente, tenía más de cincuenta mensajes en WhatsApp de amigos, familiares y vecinos. Me decían: “Eres tú, ¿verdad?”. Yo no entendía nada. Me dijeron que mi video se había hecho viral.

Martina: Begoña couldn’t believe it. The messages kept coming in, thanking and congratulating her. She decided that if this could help her neighbors during these exceptional times...she would do it daily. A small concert on the balcony, every night at 8 o’clock, for free. Then the requests started coming in.

Begoña: Recibí muchas peticiones. Al día siguiente, me desperté con el mensaje de un vecino que me decía: “Begoña, soy el vecino de enfrente. Hoy es el cumpleaños de mi mujer. Como sorpresa, ¿puedes cantarle "Feliz cumpleaños" desde tu ventana?”.

Martina: That night, after singing an aria, Begoña sang "Happy birthday" for her neighbor. Since then, she has received hundreds of requests to dedicate songs for birthdays, new births, and wedding anniversaries. Her followers have even created a hashtag on social networks: #VecinosDeBegoña, or Begoña's Neighbors. It trended worldwide.

Begoña: La gente me empezó a escribir de México, Israel, Argentina, Brasil, diciéndome que yo les daba felicidad, que esperaban con ansias escuchar el concierto cada noche. Para transmitirlo a todo el mundo, mi marido me graba con su teléfono.

Martina: Soon, Begoña had a full routine in place. Just before 8 o'clock each evening, she would announce through social media which aria she was going to sing, usually one by Puccini. After the aria, she would sing “Happy birthday” or some other dedication. Finally, she would end with the Traviata toast, encouraging her neighbors to join in.

Martina: Thank you to Jesús, Carolina, Gizéh, and Begoña for telling us their stories from Spain, Argentina, and Mexico. And thank you to all the essential workers and everyday citizens who continue making great sacrifices to get us through this challenging time.

These stories were produced by Tali Goldman, a writer and journalist in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

We’d love to know what you thought of this episode! You can write us an email at And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

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The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!


This episode includes recordings from @jrial, @Begonaalberdi, Metrópoli Abierta, and Isabel Cadenas Cañón under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Tali Goldman
Narrators & Protagonists: Virginia López; Carolina Pérez Laigle; Gizéh Triana; Begoña Alberdi.
Script Editor: David Alandete
Mixing and Sound Design by: Martin Chaussard
Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz
Production Manager: Mariano Pagella