Toggling between two languages is not easy, but a young Latina in the national spotlight has a message: It can be an enriching vehicle for writing and poetry.
Alexandra Contreras-Montesano, 18, is one of five high school students nationwide selected as a literary ambassador for the National Student Poets Program, which was started by first lady Michelle Obama and the Presidential Arts Committee in 2011.
Each of the five students represents a different geographical region, and their role is to promote literacy and the arts throughout the country during their “year of service.” The selection is “the nation’s highest honor for youth poets,” according to the program’sdescription.
As the ambassador for the Northeast, she has led poetry workshops at schools in her own state of Vermont, as well as in New York, New Jersey and Maine.
Contreras-Montesano’s trajectory is an inspiration for children who grow up speaking other languages at home. She was born in Eugene, Oregon, but moved to Mexico, where her father lived, when she was two months old. A few years later, she moved a third time to Vermont, where she’s a senior at Burlington High School.
Contreras-Montesano told NBC News it wasn’t easy switching back and forth between English and Spanish when she was little. But that changed when she got a simple fourth grade language arts assignment: to write a poem about nature.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, no rules? I can just write however I want to and don’t have to worry about being grammatically correct?” Contreras-Montesano said. “It was a very freeing experience for me.”
After reading her poem, Contreras-Montesano’s teacher signed her up for the Young Writers Project, a Vermont-based educational organization that fosters a community of young writers and mentors through events and workshops. YWP also publishes an annual anthology called The Voice and hosts a website where writers can share their work with others.
The high school senior credits this initial encouragement from her teacher and her involvement with YWP with inspiring her to continue to write.
Contreras-Montesano’s first lesson for students is to break all their self-imposed rules of what poetry is.
“I try to introduce different poetic forms to get the kids excited about writing, so they don’t feel like they’re limited by it or forced to do it by school,” she said. “They’re not scared to share their writing, which I think is amazing at such a young age, to be able to fearlessly share your writing in front of the whole class and get excited about doing so … I think it’s a gift they should never lose.”