Spelling Test and a History Lesson

I mentioned before that Diego is in first grade in a Spanish dual immersion program.  There are several different models for dual language immersion education, but in Diego’s school  the students begin in kindergarten with 90%  of the  curriculum taught in Spanish and 10% in English. The ideal student composition is 50% Spanish dominant speakers, and 50% English dominant speakers.  Every year the ratio of  instruction in Spanish to English is reduced. This year Diego is receiving 80% instruction in Spanish and 20% in English.  By 5th grade, with a 50/50 ratio,  the  students should be fully bilingual and biliterate.  

This is the goal, and that is my hope for Diego.  Over the years I have struggled to become bilingual, to no avail. At best, I am conversant.  On the other hand, my husband Juan’s first language was Spanish.  He learned a lot of English watching Sesame Street.  As Diego becomes more fluent, he and Juan have begun speaking more Spanish around the house.  I try to speak Spanish to Diego too, but my accent is terrible.  Juan sometimes will make fun of my Spanish, saying I speak like a spaniard, with a Castillian lisp.  Hmmm.

This morning, I was drilling Diego on his spelling words, in preparation for his weekly spelling test.  I did this by saying the Spanish spelling word, using  it in a Spanish sentence and Diego then would spell it out loud, using the Spanish alphabet.  I took care to speak each word distinctly so he would hear all the syllables of each word.  Sounding the words out this way should have given him a good spelling hint, since Spanish words sound like they are written, unlike the English language, with its words that sound nothing  like they are spelled.  Words like right, neighbor, enough or receive. 

So, as I drilled Diego for his spelling test, I asked him to spell the word sed. It means thirst. He spelled it correctly aloud in Spanish.  Then I got to the word, hacer. It means do or make.  Diego spelled hacer, h-a-s-e-d.  I told him it was wrong and repeated HACER.  I was very careful to speak distinctly, trying to roll my r’s.  Hacerrrrr. Diego started laughing. Then he told me I was saying the word incorrectly. He began mocking me, speaking like a Spaniard with a Castilian lisp, saying hased, hased, making great fun of his mami!  Hmm.

Later, I told Juan about this and he started cracking up. He told me it reminded him of his own childhood, trying to spell in English.  He recalled when he was 6 years-old and was thrown into english-speaking kindergarten even though Spanish was his dominant language.  He remembered his Spanish-speaking mother quizzing him on spelling words, speaking the words aloud in heavily accented English. Juan remembers becoming  so frustrated trying to decipher the English spelling word that he told his mother, “Shakespeare couldn’t teach you English!” Ouch.

Thankfully, Juan has become fully literate in English, however he still relies heavily on spellcheck.  Nevertheless, from now on, Juan will be doing all the spelling drills for Diego, in Spanish.

Arepas, Tamales, and the Smell of Childhood Memories

The other day I was driving Diego to school and eating a Colombian breakfast to go, an arepa con queso. For those of you who do not know what an arepa is, you have not fully lived. But I must confess, until I met my Colombian husband, I did not know what an arepa was either. It wasn’t until I was invited to Juan’s birthday dinner, prepared by my future suegra, did I learn about the wonderful flavors of a “plato tipico.”  There was chorizo, carne, white rice, frijoles, platanos, patacones, and arepas.  Dinner concluded with coffee, (of course), and the birthday boy’s specially requested homemade apple pie. Because what else do you serve in a Colombian/American house? Ahh..it was wonderful…but I digress.

Anyway, ever since my introduction to the arepa I have had cravings for them. They are kind of like a mexican tortilla, only more so. They are thicker and more flavorful.  Arepas made with roasted corn, called chocolo, are my personal favorite. This type of arepa is especially tasty because of it’s sweet and smoky flavor. Arepas can be eaten at any meal. They are great with breakfast, when spread with butter and served with good-sized chunks of cheese. The white kind of crumbly, mild flavored cheese. The arepa is well-loved in my husband’s family. Here’s a photo from some good times in Colombia, when Juan’s cousins found out how much I loved the arepa. 

I could go on and on about the arepa, as I probably already  have. Can you tell home much I like them? Well, one morning I was driving Diego to school while savoring my chocolo arepa, when Diego exclaimed, “Ewww, what’s that smell?” He then rolled down the car window.

“What smell?” I said, trying, unsuccessfully to catch the arepa and cheese crumbles as they flew out of my mouth.

“Something stinks.”

WHAT? How could he spurn the arepa, especially the sweet-smelling arepa de chocolo? Then I recalled my similar childhood reaction I had to the unfamiliar smell of the masa from homemade tamales. I remember my mother and grandfather preparing tamales in our kitchen and the foreign smell that emanated from the big, white enamel bowl, as they mixed the masa.  My sister and I stayed outside the house on tamale making days, coming inside only if we had to, and then we would only enter if we held our nose. 

However, now that I am an adult and have experienced tamale making with my mother and grandmother, I no longer am repulsed the smell of the masa. In fact, I kind of like the smell. It is no longer a foreign smell to me and it brings back memories of those tamale days.  Plus, I know that once the masa is spread on the corn husks, filled with the meat and red chili, wrapped like tiny Christmas presents, and cooked,  the raw, gritty masa will become fluffy, sweet and light. And delicious. Just like an arepa.

So,  I explained this to Diego, how I didn’t like some smells when I was little, but that he should be open to try all foods, especially foods from our culture. When I explained to him how tamales and arepas are part of his culture, from his Mexican american mother and Colombian  american father, and how delicious arepas con queso are, how did he respond? 

“Well, Mommy, I guess I am not as Mexican or Colombian as you and Daddy are.”  Sigh.

Oh well, more arepas for me.

Monolingual Mommy/Bilingual Baby

 If I could change something about my childhood, it would be that I did not grow up learning Spanish. My grandparents all spoke Spanish.  My father grew up speaking Spanish and is fluent in both English and Spanish. My parents made a conscious decision not to raise me and my siblings speaking Spanish. I believe this was because they wanted us to have a good command of the English language, and my father remembered the stigma that was associated with speaking Spanish in his youth.  I understand their decision and I appreciate them for wanting my  siblings and I to become strong in our English reading and writing skills.

 Still, I wish I was fully bilingual. Not that I haven’t tried to become fluent in Spanish. I took 3 years of high school Spanish, one semester in college, and post-college I attended 2 more years of Spanish evening classes at a community college. In law school I spent a summer living with a Mexican family, studying law in Mexico, and taking Spanish language classes. It’s my great frustration that despite all my efforts I can still only say that I am “conversant” in Spanish.

So, last year when Juan and I learned of a new program launching in our local public school district that would fully immerse the kindergarten through 5th grade students in Spanish, I was very interested. Diego was about to start kindergarten and on track to enroll in the same private catholic school that Nico and Erica attend. Juan and I had to make a decision to send him there or invest in our public school and put faith in this new program. We were on the fence because, honestly, our public school system does not have the best academic reputation, and we liked the small, family community and spiritual development our other kids were getting at their school

The day that we had to make the decision to send our seat deposit in for Diego at the private school, I was in San Francisco, attending a conference about the transitioning Mexican legal system. Prominent Mexican judges and attorneys were lecturing about their legal system, in Spanish. I was only one of a few attorneys who needed the aid of simultaneous translation.  That moment helped me to make the decision that Diego would attend the public school Spanish immersion program.

I have not regretted that decision. He is becoming bilingual and bi-literate. Soon he and Juan, who is a fluent Spanish speaker, will be able to talk about me without me fully comprehending what they are saying. Tonight, I am attending a special screening of the movie “Speaking in Tongues” at Diego’s school.  This film shows the benefits of dual language programs. It’s such an exciting concept.  I encourage anyone who is in the Pasadena area to attend this event.  And if you’re into “Twittering” please give this post a “tweet.”

El Dia de Los Muertos

Today is El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This is a holiday typically celebrated in Mexico, which commemorates the lives of family members who have died. I really like this holiday, but because it falls on the day after Halloween I usually am experiencing such a sugar crash that I can’t seem to get enough energy to do much to participate in all the festivities.

I first became interested in celebrating Dia de los Muertos about 15 years ago, when a good friend of mine who was also Latina, and an artist, would dress up as Caterina Calavera and attend festivals. We would drive all over southern California looking for festivals. There were a few places we would go, but the festivals were not big celebrations. They often felt like well-kept secrets, that only a few artists and others in the community knew about. Times have certainly changed. This year there are several festivals in my area. I actually had to choose which one I could attend. So I chose to go to one of the more popular events in Los Angeles. It was the Dia de los Muertos festival held at the Hollywood cemetery. It was quite an event. There were all kinds of arts and crafts, face painting, costumed and made up festival goers, food, music and of course,  altars.

The altars were works of art. There were so many different types of altars, built to celebrate the lives of loved ones.  On the altars there were the offerings of favorite foods, drinks,  and other typical items symbolic of the holiday.  There were marigolds, the strong scent which is thought to help the dead find their way to visit the living, bread in the shape of human or animal forms (pan de muerto), and photos of the departed. This holiday, which some may consider a bit morbid, is actually quite happy. It is a time when family members gather to celebrate the lives of their departed loved ones. I felt that joy too, as I looked at the altars and spoke to the artists who had created them.  I took several pictures, but the photos do not truly capture the uniqueness of this holiday and the beauty of the festival.

There were several elaborate altars, but those I  enjoyed the most were those with a personal significance. One altar I especially liked was created by several family members who lived in different states. They came together to create a large, beautiful altar which had photos of all their ancestors, and the matriarch of their family, a great-grandmother who had died on November 2. It was amazing to see this large group of family members, dressed up and made up as calaveras (skeletons) eating and drinking and playing music as they sat beside the altar. As they celebrated the life of a woman who had died several years ago, it was not difficult to feel her presence among the living. This is what Dia de los Muertos is all about.

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Fun Friday

The first in a series of ocassional Friday posts about the fun times.

POP QUIZ

Guess who is coming to our house tonight?

A.   The Great Pumpkin

B.    The Tooth Fairy

C.     Ratoncito Perez

 

ANSWER: BOTH B AND C!

Diego is learning spanish so we bought this bilingual  book for him.  It tells the story of  how the Tooth Fairy meets Ratoncito Perez.  I guess we’ll have two visitors tonight.