“Vagabundo.” V-a-g-a-b-u-n-d-o.

That’s the word that won Munger Mountain Elementary School fifth grader Mili Garcia Hernandez the first Teton County School District Spanish spelling bee Tuesday afternoon.

Munger Principal Scott Eastman held up Garcia Hernandez’s fist triumphantly before a cafeteria full of students, who, screaming, leapt from their seats on the floor to applaud and chant, “Mili! Mili! Mili!”

Smiling shyly, Mili brushed tears from his eyes as friends embraced and congratulated him.

“It was like I was in a dream,” Mili said in Spanish.

Briana Olivares is an eighth grade dual immersion teacher at Jackson Hole Middle School. She said she spearheaded the Spanish bee after noticing most academic competitions at the district are in English, such as National History Day and the Geography Bee.

“I think it gives opportunities to kids really from all backgrounds,” Olivares said, “students who speak Spanish at home and also all the students in the dual immersion program who are learning Spanish at school.

“It’s a unique way to showcase our bilingual population of students,” she said.

Eastman said Munger Mountain seeks to “do everything equally in both languages.”

“One of our goals is to place an equal emphasis on English and Spanish,” Eastman said. “We had an English spelling bee earlier in the school year; we felt it was appropriate to do the same in Spanish.”

In total Garcia Hernandez bested 46 other students in fourth through eighth grade in four rounds of Spanish spelling.

Melanie Bedolla Perez, a fourth grader at Colter Elementary School, and Van Baltes, a sixth grader at Jackson Hole Middle School, were the two runners-up.

Teachers selected students from Jackson Hole Middle School, Colter Elementary School and Jackson Elementary School to send to Munger for the bee, Olivares said. For example, she said her classes sent four: two native Spanish speakers and two students for whom Spanish is a second language.

A large whiteboard offered students hints about spelling in Spanish specifically, such as how to distinguish between the letters “b” and “v,” which sound the same in Spanish, or how to describe a double “ll” or “rr.” The entire bee was conducted in Spanish, including kids’ requests for words to be repeated, defined or used in a sentence.

“It is incredibly hard,” Eastman said. “You have to have a really strong understanding of the Spanish language to do well in a Spanish spelling bee, because you have to use Spanish pronunciation of all the letters, you have to understand where the accents go.”

The first round’s words started out on the simpler side: “zombi,” “violín” (the accent stumped), “relación.” By round three, as things began to heat up with a narrowed field of nine kids, Eastman’s voice boomed out over the school P.A. system inviting classrooms of Munger students to come sit on the floor and watch.

“We felt it would be a great opportunity to model this for our younger kids who are obviously working hard on a day-to-day basis to become bilingual,” Eastman said.

School psychologist Sandra Sanderson, the pronouncer, went down the list as students stepped up to the mic: “Parlanchín.”

In a sentence? “La gente dice que mi hermano menor es muy parlanchín.”

Definition? “Muy hablador.”

The student attempted to spell the word, which means “chatterbox,” in English.

“Incorrecto,” Sanderson told the student, who picked up a consolation pencil leaving the stage.

Another student stepped up to face the next word challenge: “Subterráneo” (subterranean).

“Incorrecto,” Sanderson said.

Winner Mili said he didn’t practice at all. In fact, the only other spelling bee he’d participated in was the Munger Mountain school’s bee the previous day.

“My mother always taught me how to speak, and she showed me where the accents were, where you need to put a period, if it was an S or a C,” Garcia Hernandez said.

The best part? Participating together with his peers. The hardest part? Shaking his nerves at the podium, the champion said.

In addition to a Hole Bowl gift card his victory won Mili a chance to travel to Denver in July as the first Wyoming student to participate in the annual National Spanish Spelling Bee, said David Briseño, organizer of the event. At the Denver bee, the ninth, Mili will compete against spellers from Texas to Alaska to Wisconsin. Last year 36 students from 11 states participated in the national competition, Briseño said.

Briseño said he founded the national Spanish bee to offer kids another opportunity for academic competition and showcase the fact that the U.S. is not a monolingual country.

“It’s bringing kids from various backgrounds, various cultures, various ethnicities together under one roof, bringing their families together,” Briseño said. “It’s kind of counter to the culture we’re seeing develop in our country today where everybody’s so divided and everything so polarizing.”

Eastman said sometimes educators can operate with a “deficit mindset” by focusing on what students can’t do, like a lack of English proficiency. The Spanish spelling bee offered children who have particular strengths, like Spanish fluency, a new chance to compete academically.

“It’s a unique opportunity to highlight what so many of our students offer our district and bring to our community,” Eastman said. “We want all kids to participate, but it’s a nice opportunity for all our kids who don’t usually have the opportunity to be recognized, to earn that recognition.”

Contact Allie Gross at 732-7063 or county@jhnewsandguide.com.

Allie Gross covers Teton County government. Originally from the Chicago area, she joined the News&Guide in 2017 after studying politics and Spanish at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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