Category Archives: Culture

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.