Using Literature to Teach Our Bilingual Kids About Latin American History

As author of “An Honest Boy, Un hombre sincero” — the only children’s book on the life of Cuban legend José MartíMagdalena Zenaida evokes a sense of cultural pride by embracing biculturalism. We sat down with her to chat about bilingualism, raising proud, bicultural identities and what José Martí means to her.

How do we interest our children in bilingual literature and why should we?  

I think a great way to interest children in bilingual literature is to look at it from the same perspective we do literature in a single language. What I mean is that I prefer introducing language as a function of the story rather than the other way around. Children are drawn to stories more than dictionary-style translations. I think learning a story they love brings a language to life the way memorizing a song does.

For me, I thought it was important to write “an honest boy, un hombre sincero” with the Spanish poetry interspersed throughout the story with translations of the poetry to follow. This was partly to showcase Martí’s poetry and how it fit into the lyrics of Guantanamera, but also to reflect the way I think a lot of bilingual children interact with language at home.

How do we make language learning and history fun?  

I think language and history learning are always at their best when there is a cultural context around the subject and how it relates to the child. One of the great things about Martí was that he recognized how important it was for Latin American, and all children, to have the base of knowledge about ancient Western civilization that was popular at the time, but he saw it as only a starting point. He thought that the internal pride and development that could come from knowing the legends and roots of one’s own land would create greater ways of thinking and connecting with each other. That’s why in this really simple way, I like the idea of talking about Martí, who was a complex political thinker, and connecting him to children who might know about Pitbull’s Guantanamera, or parents who listen to Celia Cruz’s, or grandparents who experienced Martí’s same feelings of exile. It’s a way of connecting.

How does the history of Latin America influence our children’s future across the United States?

This is a complex question with so many answers. I would say that most parents tell me they are interested in teaching their children Spanish because “x” percentage of the country will speak Spanish one day. But I think that really separates language as a skill the way someone would learn a math formula, rather than seeing it as a living language, a part of a growing culture. Latin America is still a place of amazing natural resources and the United States is still, despite its difficulties, a place of professional opportunities. I think Martí was very forward thinking in seeing that these two things were interdependent instead of a one-way relationship, that it wasn’t a producer-consumer relationship even in the early 20th century that would benefit all people. I think the more children are exposed to culture and history of those surrounding them, it breeds a caring about their environment and those further afield and how those things can be integrated.

{Image courtesy of Vanessa Bell}

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