6 Questions With Bilingual Parenting Expert Maritere Bellas: Transcript

We spoke with Maritere Bellas, author of ‘Arroz Con Pollo and Apple Pie: Raising Bicultural Children,’ about growing up in Puerto Rico and the importance of learning a language with your child.

This is the full transcript of our interview with John McWhorter. To read the condensed version, “6 Questions With Bilingual Parenting Expert Maritere Bellas,” click here.

BABBEL: So, you have a forthcoming book, after Arroz Con Pollo and Apple Pie, and you have two more books already published, correct?

BELLAS: Yeah, so, Raising Bilingual Children was my first book, and it was published in English and in Spanish by Simon & Schuster. And because it was an eBook, I realized pretty quickly when I started going to conferences and book festivals and book fairs and speaking engagements that I needed to have a book for people to walk away with. So, I had the manuscript already finished for the Arroz Con Pollo and Apple Pie book and I went ahead and self-published that.

So, it came out about a year and a half after the eBook came out. And I’ve been promoting both but in the last year and a half, since 2016. Then I did the Spanish version and the English version, so we launched the English version in Miami and I launched the Spanish version in Puerto Rico December of 2016.

BABBEL: And can you tell me how the newest book is going to differ from your previous books? What new discourse is it going to bring to the table?

BELLAS: The new book that is coming out in a couple of months is a bilingual children’s book. It’s for ages four to seven, and it will introduce me to the bilingual children’s book world. That book is called Luisito’s Island, and La Isla de Luisito. I don’t know if you want the Spanish title in there, but … It’s about a little boy that has to move to the United States because the hurricane damaged his house and he makes new friends, and how he misses Puerto Rico and he tells the friends about the things that he misses. The illustrations will show five or six important things about Puerto Rico that the kids will learn about when they read the book.

BABBEL: Okay, and since you’re kind of pivoting to a new younger children’s audience, are you raising bilingual children, I’m guessing?

BELLAS: I raised two bilingual children with two languages and three cultures. My husband is Greek American so my children were raised with three cultures, and with Spanish and English. My background, I started writing a Spanish column directed to the immigrant parent that was living in the United States, because I lived that when I was having children. There was very little information about trying to find the balance and nurturing the native culture and the language.

And I had worked at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles in public relations, and when I left, I had a great relationship with the editor who then became the publisher, and she and I were having kids around the same time and I was going to the bookstores and the libraries and it’s not like … Today, there’s so many wonderful resources for parents that back then, twenty years ago, they didn’t have. So, she asked me to write the column. And my column ran in the paper for eleven, twelve years, and I kind of put it on hold because I started writing the books. I couldn’t do it all, but yeah, that’s how it all started, and the column ran in Chicago as well for five years.

At the same time, I was writing little articles for Help the Kids in Español. So, that’s how my writing career started. And I kind of became the Latino voice for parents, you know? There was no information at the time, so that gives me a little more credibility out there. I’ve been doing it for a while. And now my kids are adults, young adults, so they are a good example of the benefits. They’re reaping the benefits of being raised bilingual and tri-cultural.

BABBEL: And were there any challenges or super high benefits that you experienced while you were raising them, especially raising them multicultural?

BELLAS: It was a challenge, but it was something we were … I think the most important thing is the parents are committed to doing it. It’s not easy, it wasn’t easy especially in my case because the language, because my husband did not speak Spanish, so that was difficult. I wanted him to be part of the conversations that I was having with the kids and I found myself having to translate a lot. So, there were times when I wasn’t as successful and I would turn to English, so the kids kind of knew pretty quickly that I spoke English even though I spoke Spanish with them.

So, it was a challenge but I was committed enough. We were in an area that was predominantly monolingual, so the school that they were going to was a monolingual, English-dominant school and I luckily … They were probably the first brown faces in there but, you know, fast forward all these years, it’s no longer like that, it’s more diverse. But there were a couple of English-dominant moms that understood the value of being bilingual and the three of us fought hard with the school system. It took us eight years but to this day, since then, Spanish is a part of the curriculum of that school. Which is one of the things that I mention in my book, Raising Bilingual Children, about encouraging parents to be advocates for language and if they don’t have it just go ahead and try to do it, make it happen. Don’t be afraid to make it happen.

So, it was a challenge but I knew at the end I would be rewarded. Especially with the culture, I always felt like my kids would be better people because they were raised with different cultures, and from the beginning they understood, they didn’t see people as different, they appreciated the different backgrounds and cultures and today, I feel that they are the people they are because of that. Tolerant, compassionate, empathy, you know, all those great values that you instill in your children. I think raising my kids with different [cultures] contributed to the people they are today.

BABBEL: Yeah, I’m really glad that you had so much support from the other parents at the school.

BELLAS: It was, it was great and to this day, I’m so grateful to them. Unfortunately, by then my son … I started that when my son was in kindergarten, almost going in the first grade, so he did not benefit from it, ’cause by then he was going to high school. But my daughter was three years … And I mean, I did it for my kids, but I did it for everyone’s kids. I knew at some point we would succeed, even though it would take a long time. I just wanted everyone’s kids to benefit, and I wanted the parents to understand the value.

I knew the value. I grew up in Puerto Rico. I went to a school where the nuns were from the United States. They only spoke English, so by the time I graduated from high school I was completely bilingual. There was not a big issue about it, that was just the way it was, they spoke English so you had to … And we had classes. There was an understanding [of] the importance of going out into the world and speaking, communicating in two languages, but I chose to go to school in Switzerland to further study languages. That was going to be my degree because I fell in love with the English language, it was so easy for me. So, I decided that’s what I wanted to study.

So, I went to Europe and I was seventeen, and at seventeen years old I realized the benefits and the value of knowing many languages because everyone around me while I was there was speaking three, four, five different languages so naturally. So, the people in Europe knew this. And I was in awe, like, “Wow, this is amazing.”

And so then I end up here where all this stuff happened with bilingualism and all these changes and, you know, monolingual parents perhaps not understanding because they didn’t have the stats or the studies were not being done. So, fast forward until let’s say six, seven, ten years ago maybe, not quite, all the studies being done about us, everyone is born with a multilingual brain in Time Magazine, the Aspen Institute released the study and it was all over the newspapers, and thus how Simon & Schuster decided that they wanted that Raising Bilingual Children book, because of all the studies that were done.

So, the way I chose to write it is by talking to parents that were going through it or had made a commitment and how they were doing it and what worked for them, what didn’t, maybe that works with others, and I gave a hundred and one suggestions on how to do it. I talked about the myths and I interviewed three dual immersion schools, two in my area and one in Utah just to kind of show that nationally, this was going on and the value and the benefits of raising a child with two or more languages, you know?

BABBEL: Yeah, to piggyback off that, a lot more parents are realizing those benefits and are choosing to raise their children bilingual and multilingual and also a lot of those parents, like you mentioned, are monolingual and some of them are choosing to learn a language while they’re choosing to raise their children bilingual.

BELLAS: And that is helpful, I cannot tell you how helpful that is. Because it encourages the child, they see the parents wanting to learn the language and then that gives them more motivation. Like, “Whoa, my mom and dad wanna learn a language, then I should too.”

Yeah, it’s really amazing, in my research I spoke to a couple of schools, one of the school districts here, and this was now about five years ago, and the list of monolingual parents trying to get their kids into dual immersion schools was a mile long everywhere I talked to. It was great, even today. Today there’s even more, and today there are not only … At least in my area, not only Spanish, but there’s Mandarin, and French, and Italian, and you know it’s like, little by little, it’s more important for parents because we are all raising global citizens, let’s face it. So, if we can give … It’s a gift. It’s a gift we give our children.

I tell that to all the parents and I often talk to Latino parents that are trying to get this information and be more educated about it and sometimes they come to this country and they feel like, “Oh my god, I want them to learn English right away,” and they wanna forget about the Spanish because they’re so worried that their child is not gonna learn English if they continue with the Spanish at home. And you know, I try to explain to them, “That’s never going to happen. He’s going to learn English when he goes out that door and it’s okay for him to when he walks in the door, his house is Spanish. Don’t give it up, it’s so important, it’s such a gift that you’re giving your child.”

BABBEL: Yeah, that’s why I think it’s really important that in addition to focusing on bilingual, you focus on bi-cultural. So, honoring the culture than you have and that you come from and then accepting those of others as a way to learn about the world. That’s what I really appreciate in how you teach and how you talk about this topic.

BELLAS: Well, you know language is the number one thing that brings culture together, and they go hand in hand. To be honest, when Simon & Schuster wanted to do this eBook, Raising Bilingual Children, based on my Arroz Con Pollo manuscript, that manuscript came first. It was always about the culture, although that book, you’ll see that there is a whole chapter dedicated to language as well because it was my idea that they go hand in hand. But then when the studies were coming, they decided they wanted a book only on language, which was great because it taught me a lot as well. I had to go back to the drawing board and design how I was going to write that book, and do I want to do it the same way, interviewing families, which I thought was the right way to do it, and it worked out. It was a great experience writing it and meeting all these parents.

And I not only include Latino parents, there are parents in there … One great story, it’s a couple from India. Indian American wife and Indian dad, and they ended up in California. Both of them actually in their younger years ended up [in South American countries], so they already knew Spanish. And they came to California, made their lives here right around where I live in my area, and they had two daughters, and they decided that their first language was going to be Spanish, and their second language was going to be English.

So, everyone around them … I say that everywhere I go, it takes a village … so once mom and dad make a commitment to raise these kids with whatever language, they need to make sure that everyone around that child is on the same boat and that they’re going to be … ‘Cause the parents are going to need the support, if you do this alone it’s hard. It’s really hard. The kids come home and all they wanna do is speak English. Let’s face it, they’re at school all day, they speak English all day.

And then the other thing, going back to the culture, which was really hard for me to accept and to be okay with, is I have to remember as a mom that when my children grow up here, they’re also Americans. So, I need to honor that. And a lot of times parents tend to forget and then they are the ones that are hurt. The kids not wanting to do things the Latino way all the time, you know what I’m saying? So, it’s important that we recognize that they are Americans and that’s why it’s so important that we teach them how to preserve your own culture so they appreciate it and they support it but we have to show them that we understand that they’re growing up here. Does that make sense?


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