Talking with Maritere Rodríguez Bellas about bilingualism & biculturalism in children
Most of you know that I’m very proud of both of my heritages which are Puerto Rican and Mexican as well as of being completely bilingual which is why I’m a huge advocate of being both bicultural and bilingual. Reason why when I met Maritere a few years ago, we hit it off so well, well, that and because she’s also Puerto Rican. We got to talking more and more and she told me all about her books and about biculturalism and bilingualism, something we both strongly believe in. With the launch of her most recent book, “Arroz con Pollo and Apple Pie”, Maritere embarked on a press trip here in Miami a couple of weeks ago and I knew I had to interview her because I had so many questions I wanted to ask her about this topic specifically. I don’t have kids now but when I do have them, I plan on raising them this way which is why I also wanted to chat with Maritere about this. Check out my interview with her below and let me know your thoughts on the topic.
Becky Boricua: In your native Puerto Rico where most children grow up being bilingual, some more than others, did you also grow up being bilingual or was English something you learned once you arrived in California?
Maritere Rodríguez Bellas: I went to a Catholic school from 3rd grade through 12th grade. The nuns were all English speakers so all the students learned English with them. By the time I graduated from high school I was fluent in English.
BB: Your latest book is about raising bicultural children, and the previous one was about raising bilingual children. Most people would assume that’s the same thing, but it’s not. Tell me why you believe both of these are important.
MRB: To be honest, I thought the same. When I was asked by Simon and Schuster to write my first book, Raising Bilingual Children, my manuscript for Arroz con Pollo was already finished. I thought we could just add on to what I had already covered regarding language but they felt there was a need for a whole book on the subject. They were right. There had been many scientific studies about language and the brain recently. It merit its own research and its own book. There is much to learn about language, the sounds, the rhythms, the lyrics, how it benefits a child, and the advantages of being fluent in more than one language. In regards to culture, language is one way to preserve culture but there are many other things we can do to teach children to love, respect, and appreciate their roots.
BB: Why did you make the decision to raise your children both bilingual and bicultural? Did the way you were raised influence this decision at all? If so, in what way?
MRB: I moved to California for school. It was never my intention to stay and make a life here. Until I fell in love… My husband is second generation Greek-American. I am Puerto Rican and an American citizen since birth. My two children were born in the U.S. There was no question our children would grow up with three cultures.
BB: What would you say is one of the hardest obstacles parents face when trying to raise bilingual and/or bicultural children, and how can parents overcome that obstacle?
MRB: Commitment. It takes a lot of time and effort. Especially once the children start school and most kids around them speak English. Parents need to make a language plan and stick to it. It helps when this plan involves the immediate family and the neighbors and friends. It takes a village, you know! If parents are serious about their goals, it will work. Same with culture. Though it is easier to find the ways to instill cultural pride. Like using food, for example. And perhaps every night of the week you celebrate a culture. At my house, we had Puerto Rican food twice a week and Greek food twice a week and American food twice a week. On the 7th day, we took turns. That way all cultures were equally important.
BB: I’ve heard many parents say that it’s hard for them to teach their children Spanish because the kids simply don’t want to learn. What advice would you give those parents?
MRB: Be patient. Be consistent. Be disciplined. Start since they are babies. Talk to them in the language. They become familiar with the sounds and the words. If we make it part of their lives from day one, it is harder for them to come home and say “I don’t want to speak Spanish,” because they are used to it.
BB: You and I have known each other for a few years and you know that I’m both bicultural and completely bilingual both written and spoken, which is something I’m very proud of because I feel that being bilingual gives me an advantage against other people who are not, and in a sense, I personally feel it makes me smarter which is why I’m such a huge advocate of bilingualism. I also love being bicultural because I love incorporating my Puerto Rican and Mexican culture into my daily life. I feel that that’s something that makes me unique. Because of the way I feel and think about both of these topics, I believe that parents who have the opportunity to raise bilingual and bicultural children and don’t do it are doing a great disservice to their own children because they’re taking away that advantage that they could have and benefit from in the long run. What advice would you give parents that maybe feel it isn’t important to teach their children Spanish or teach them about their culture?
MRB: Every family is different. For the most part, I want to believe parents understand the benefits and the advantages of raising bilingual children. In recent years, there are many scientific studies that prove it. As parents, we need to educate ourselves about these advantages and then we will be more knowledgeable and better prepared to help our children. I understand parents that emigrate want their children to assimilate faster and perhaps that is why they believe not speaking to them in Spanish will help. But, that is not the case. In reality, being bilingual has a positive effect on intellectual and mental growth and development, the bilingual brain is more capable of dealing and solving conflicts and a bilingual brain is less likely to suffer from mental health problems like dementia or Alzheimer’s. Language is one way we can preserve our culture. I can’t imagine parents not wanting that.
BB: I think it’s also important to note and remind parents that teaching their children Spanish as well as things from their own culture doesn’t make them less “American”. What are your thoughts on that?
MRB: Exactly! If anything, being bilingual and bicultural makes them a better prepared global citizen. I truly believe my children are better individuals because they were raised to appreciate all cultures and languages. It doesn’t diminish being “American,” it enhances it!
BB: Your most recent book is a great asset for parents wanting to learn how to raise bilingual and bicultural children. Tell me a little bit more about this book.
MRB: Arroz con Pollo and Apple Pie:Raising Bicultural Children is a guide for parents raising bicultural children in modern times. It is includes real life stories, my own included, of parents that have shared their adventures in multicultural parenting. It also discussed the benefits of being bilingual and how to use language as a tool to preserve culture. Some of the topics discussed in the book include the stages of immigrant adjustment, Latino children bicultural blues, the how-to of balancing the two cultures, and discipline with two cultures, among others.
A BIG thank you to Maritere for taking the time to chat with me about these two topics!!
Because I love this way of educating and raising children, and because I feel that this book can help in so many ways, I am giving you the chance to win your own autographed copy of Arroz con Pollo and Apple Pie:Raising Bicultural Children. There will be a giveaway for one book in English, and another one for the book in Spanish; both of them will be autographed by Maritere herself!