I’ve been volunteering with a nonprofit called El Niño y El Cuento for about a year now. It’s a bilingual short story contest in its fifth year with an overall goal of encouraging kids to read and write in Spanish. Any kid six to fourteen years old can participate, but El Niño y El Cuento tries to reach kids who come from Spanish-speaking families. The director of the project, an immigrant herself, saw her own children grow more and more unfamiliar with Spanish, their native language, the longer they were in the US school system. So she started El Niño y El Cuento.
I love the mission behind the project because, as much of an advantage as it is for kids to speak Spanish, it’s an even greater advantage for them to speak it and write it correctly. And studies in bilingualism show that kids who immigrate to the U.S. and have a strong academic basis in their native language will do even better, academically, in English. Benefits all around.
But my real draw to El Niño y El Cuento from the beginning has been the cuentos (stories) themselves. I got involved because the director asked me to be a judge last year. That meant reading through about 75 stories from elementary school kids. It tapped into the Comparative Literature major in me, and felt like a window into these kids’ worlds. I was delighted to find in so many of the stories, creative methods of mixing English and Spanish, natural dialogue, recurring motifs, playful changes to the narrator’s perspective, metaphors, similes, and definitely lots of onomatopoeias. I think the most beautiful thing about it was the use of all these literary techniques were just flowing out of them. I doubt they knew when they were using a metaphor, but they wrote from their guts and they echoed the styles of the authors they were into without even realizing it.
At the awards ceremony last year we celebrated the writers, giving out prizes and certificates, making speeches and applauding enthusiastically. But something was missing. The judges were the only ones who had gotten to read the stories. The stories themselves needed their day in the spotlight!
So this weekend we held a reading at the Mexican Consulate. Nine brave kids stood up in front of family and strangers to read their stories. It was beautiful. I was as impressed with their public speaking as was I with their story-crafting.
El Niño y El Cuento fell into my lap at a time when my dad had recently died, my mom was bouncing back and forth between chemo treatments, I’d quit my fast-paced nonprofit job and the political climate was (still is) hostile. I’m still maneuvering life with those dark clouds and uncertainties hovering above, but diving into this project has given me something to focus on. And there’s no better medicine than a story.