Lola Hernández Mendoza, 12, knew how to spell every word but one at a Spanish spelling bee in Texas.
The eighth annual National Spanish Spelling Bee — or Concurso Nacional de Deletreo en Español — was hosted in San Antonio on July 14 by Educational Service Center, Region 20 and founded and coordinated by David Briseño. Instructions for the annual event, which serves to celebrate multilingualism, are offered in English and Spanish, but word lists are strictly Spanish.
Forty-three spellers from 11 states were required to correctly spell a range of Spanish words, including memorizing all accents and markings, in order to secure the championship, according to a statement from the National Spanish Spelling Bee.
After almost five hours of competition, Spring Harbor Middle School student Lola was one of two spellers left competing for the title. Lola and eighth-grader Maria del Sol Nuñez-Peña, of New Mexico, went head to head, both spelling words correctly for five rounds.
To end the intense standoff, the panel of judges at the McAllister Fine Arts Center at San Antonio College asked Lola to spell a word from a mystery list of words unknown to spellers: “Estatocisto,” which translates to “statocyst.”
Before answering, she took her white board and wrote out the first thing to come to her mind: “E-S-T-A-T-O-S-I-S-T-O.” Then she wrote her second thought: “E-S-T-A-T-O-C-I-S-T-O.” Before she gave her final answer, she asked to hear the word in a sentence, and for the definition and the word to be repeated one last time.
Lola had studied lists of Spanish words for months and knew that typically her first thought was correct. She went with her gut and spelled the first word she wrote on her whiteboard, which incorrectly replaced the C in “Estatocisto” with an S.
“I was disappointed because I wanted to try and win,” Lola said. “But I was really proud and glad to have been there because I know a lot of kids don’t get the opportunity to be there. I was thankful that I did get to go.”
After correctly spelling “anaerobiosis,” Nuñez-Peña took home first place for the second year in a row and a prize of $500, according to NSSB
“I was proud of myself for getting that far. I wanted to get as far as I could in the competition but I was really just excited and happy,” said Lola who won second place and a prize of $300.
Lola found out about the National Spanish Spelling Bee after trying to compete in her school’s English competition.
“I wanted to do the English one but I didn’t make it to the school (competition) and then I figured out they had a Spanish one,” she said. “Since my parents are from Puerto Rico and they speak Spanish, I decided to study (Spanish) words.”
Determined to get to the highest level possible at the bee, Lola earned first place in the Madison Spanish Spelling Bee on May 18 hosted by the Madison School District’s Office of Multilingual and Global Education. Lola credits her mother, Nora Mendoza, with pushing her to learn Spanish.
Once she learned she was qualified for the national bee, she began studying up to two hours a night in preparation. She printed out word lists from all the previous competitions and her parents quizzed her on each.
Days before the big competition, her parents, gave her an incentive: For every 30 words she spelled correctly in practice she would receive a quarter. Lola worked her way up to spelling 180 correctly and consecutively while at the airport on her way to San Antonio. Ultimately, she earned $10 from her parents and bought a new book.
“This is not a competition for Spanish-speaking people; it’s a competition for everybody,” said Lola’s father, Antonio Hernandez. “It’s not about winning, it’s about learning.”
Lola’s parents raised more than $2,000 to send the family of three to the competition, including a $1,000 grant from Madison4Kids, a local charity that supports opportunities for Madison children.
“I feel that other languages are also important and people should be represented no matter what language they speak,” said Lola, adding that she hopes future winners at the local level find sponsors to help them compete at the national spelling bee.
“People who live here could see that I’m from somewhere that isn’t Spanish-speaking but I still was able to learn all these words and compete,” said Lola. “It’s showing what you can do even though people may think that you’re the underdog.”
Currently, Lola is deciding whether to spend her prize money on headphones, a new phone or a puppy. She hopes to keep competing for the national championship and plans to prepare by reading at least one page of the Spanish dictionary every night.