TFK sat down with Alexandra Gastelum-Sullivan to hear about how she has succeeded in raising bilingual children.

Where are you from?

I was born in El Paso but was raised in Juarez, then came back to Texas for college.

What language did you grow up speaking in your home?

Spanish 100%

My parents are bilingual, enough to work in English, but they learned English in their 20s, so only Spanish at home.

How did you end up in a bilingual household? 

I met my husband. It was love at first sight. The first thing I thought was, how am I going to introduce him to my family? That was my first thought before even speaking to him. 3 weeks later, we moved in together, and we’ve been together ever since. We met May 21 2005 and we were living together by June 29th.

So, how was introducing him to your family? 

It was very stressful. At the time, I lived in the dorm apartments, paid for by my parents. It all happened so quickly. I was supposed to rent a house with my sorority sisters, and in the middle of this, my husband was driving back and forth between Austin and San Antonio – because he lived in Austin, and I lived in San Antonio.

So all of a sudden, I had to tell my parents that I met someone 2 weeks ago and we’re renting an apartment together with a group of others. So, my parents cut me off. They said that this was not our culture, moving in with a big group of guys and girls, AND my new boyfriend.

It was already summer, so I decided to take him to Juarez to meet everyone as soon as possible. It was me, Sully and our Korean friend. Everyone in my family is mostly super Catholic, so it was not okay to live with him. My dad was open though. He asked if he liked animals, if he made me laugh until I cried, and if he had a good heart. I said yes, and so my dad said, welcome to the family.

The other family members made him really embarrassed. And my dad gave him pork feet soup, which almost no one will eat, and my poor husband ate it, to show them that he would be part of the family. I think he ate brain too at some point! In the end, they were okay with it, but yea, they never supported me with money ever again. They said if I could move in with a guy, then I could find a job too.

That’s actually how my English finally improved, as a waitress.

The Main Differences in a Bilingual Household

How did your life change due to living in a bilingual household? Or living a bilingual life?

I was already living in a dorm with English speakers, but that was only 6 months. It was really weird the first year with him, for us. The way he did things, even the time that he ate, it seemed like nothing was the same. I eat lunch at 3, he eats it at 11.

Oh! I remember and cringe at our first grocery shopping trip together. He wanted cans of food and I wanted everything fresh. He was Chef Boyardee and I wanted calabacitas (squash).

My cat eats canned food, not me! And he thought my calabacitas con queso were disgusting and he had never had huevos rancheros, or licuados, or anything that I eat. Foodwise, we always had a clash.

Thanksgiving! What is that? It’s his favorite holiday and it’s the biggest holiday for his family of the year. I didn’t know anything about this day and it wasn’t so important to me. But I had to start doing it of course because that’s his tradition.

And for Christmas, you celebrate on the 24th, not the 25th. But his family, they go to church on the 24th and the 25th is the big day. So, it’s weird.

How you Teach your Children Spanish at Home

So before you had kids, was there a plan to make them bilingual?

(There are tons of families in the US where the parents speak one language and the kids never learn that language; they only speak English and can’t speak to their grandparents.)

There was never an option for not speaking Spanish with our kids and teaching the kids Spanish. They were going to speak Spanish until they went to school, and they would learn formal English in school. There was a plan for my husband to learn it too, but that never happened. (She laughs, kind of).

What challenges were there speaking to your kids in Spanish but your husband did not understand?

I don’t know if he doesn’t want to learn Spanish or if he gets embarrassed or why he never learned. But he understands every single word. I told him, kind of like a joke, “Our kid is going to speak Spanish, I’m going to teach our kids Spanish, so you better get on board.” Later, when Ethan (our first child) realized that his dad didn’t speak Spanish, he started trying to manipulate the situation. He would get a ‘no’ from his dad, then come to me, asking in Spanish, and get a yes, because my husband didn’t know what he was asking. It’s hard. We would be in a deep conversation, my son and i, and then my husband comes in, and we have to turn in to English mode.

Then, if my husband leaves, i have to snap back to it and make sure the kids are speaking in Spanish when my husband isn’t there. It’s hard to keep insisting on speaking Spanish when the English speaker leaves. You have to make sure you always switch back to make sure that the kids can speak Spanish; you have to insist on teaching them Spanish. It’s challenging.

I was the breadwinner for a few years, and that was hard, because i wasn’t at home with the kids as much. So i would come home and we would have intense Spanish time. That was hard.

With our 2 year old now, I am at home full time, so actually, she doesn’t know English right now. So when my husband speaks to her, she doesn’t really understand. But now she is starting to distinguish between us. She has started answering ‘YEA’ with her dad and ‘SI’ with me.

He’ll ask her to do something in English and she looks at him confused. Then, I translate, and she goes and does it.

Now that my husband really does understand everything, we are staying in Spanish more and more.

Challenges when Speaking Spanish at Home

Biggest hurdle to get over in a bilingual household when teaching your kids Spanish?

The kids manipulate the situation because the dad doesn’t speak Spanish.

What do you suggest for this?

Don’t make my mistake and make sure you are patient and get your husband fluent in the language. We all have to be on the same page, and he’s always a page behind because I’ve neglected my husband’s learning. I should have paid more attention to this from the very beginning. When my son, who is 11, wants to have a private conversation with me, he goes into Spanish and that’s not fair to his dad. I should be doing more. I feel bad for my husband that he isn’t involved in all of the conversations.

Positives of Living in a Bilingual Home

Biggest blessing living in a bilingual household?

My husband’s open mindedness. He wasn’t raised how I was raised. So after dinner, he cleans, he does laundry, he mops. I would never see my dad do that. I’ve never seen my guy friends do that in Mexico. The wife cleans. The wife takes care of the kids. So I live a very different life than my friends in Mexico. My household does not have specific gender roles or chores based on gender. If I make the bed, he washes the sheets. It’s really 50/50. When I make coffee for him, it’s because I want to, not because I have to, or because it’s my job. My only job is to feed my kids. My job now is to take care of the kids. His job is to work at Costco. And OUR job is to take care of the house together.

Tips for Teaching Spanish at Home

What tips can you give to parents struggling with creating a bilingual household and/or teaching their kids Spanish?

Don’t give up.

Don’t let your kid be embarrassed or ashamed of their parents’ first language. When we first moved to our city, Providence Village, in Texas, our son was probably one of the only kids that spoke Spanish in his class at school. He was timid to speak it. I had to really talk to him about the fact that it’s a really good thing, that he’s using different parts of his brain that others don’t have, and he shouldn’t be ashamed. We have to define this for them and let them know how awesome it is. Especially if the other kids are making comments. Kids can be mean when they encounter something different, so I had to build a strong mentality in him – to be proud of both worlds. “My mom is Mexican. My dad is white. I’m both.” One time a kid told him, “You’re American. Speak English,” and he said, “My mom is Mexican and my dad is American. I speak both.” But I had to really ingrain that into his head. Now, in 5th grade, all the kids think it is so cool. Things are changing. Now, when his friends come over, I make some awesome Mexican dish, at first they don’t know what to think, but once they try it, they like it, and they talk about the cool Mexican dishes. I love this. But I also have to adapt when he goes to his friends’ houses. He comes home asking for all American breakfasts, chili, and mac and cheese. And I have to do those too, since he’s asking for those and curious and likes them.

TruFluency Kids! Loves hearing from bilingual families, how they’re living, how they succeeded in raising bilingual children, and the challenges that come with that. If you or someone you know is raising bilingual children, please contact us. We are eager to hear your story!

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