After two intense hours on stage at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, a Santa Cruz, N.M., girl won the first National Spanish Spelling Bee.
Evelyn Juárez, a seventh-grader at Carlos F. Vigil Middle School, won by correctly spelling the word bizantinismo, which means excess luxury.
Juárez battled the runner-up Saturday morning for several rounds in a nail-biting matchup before taking the title.
The runner-up, Los Lunas Middle School graduate Germán Rojero, misspelled kanindeyuense, which refers to someone from the Canindeyú territory of Paraguay.
“I was very nervous. I know both of us are very good, and very good competitors,” Juárez said. “I feel very excited, very happy.”
Juárez and Rojero each spelled about 20 words correctly after prevailing over nine other students in prior rounds. The other students came to Albuquerque from as far as Portland, Ore., and San Antonio, Texas, although the majority were New Mexicans.
“They were toe to toe. I thought I was in a boxing ring,” organizer David Briseño said of Juárez and Rojero.
After the more-difficult words – some had as many as 15 letters – the crowd of about 50 could be heard gasping in relief. One could assume some parents had forgotten to breathe.
The girl and boy had different approaches to spelling. Rojero, who as the state champion was representing New Mexico, took minutes examining the white board on which he’d spell out the word before reciting it. On a few occasions, he erased the word and tried again. Juárez took less time, but always asked the judges to both define the words and use them in a sentence.
Juárez said she prepared for the spelling bee by practicing words daily with the help of her family.
Family time is one of the perks of the spelling bee, Briseño said. Briseño is the executive director of New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education, which organized the event with the Alliance for Multilingual Multicultural Education.
He said the spelling bee, which has been a state event since 1994 but has never reached the national level, helped parents spend more time with their children as the families prepared together.
Although Briseño had dreamed of the idea for years, the event almost never came to light, he said.
Then about two years ago, a woman from the cable television network ESPN called him to ask about the possibility of a national spelling bee in Spanish that could be broadcast like the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is a popular event for ESPN.
“That gave me the push to go ahead and start doing it,” Briseño said.
ESPN cameramen recorded Saturday’s competition, and footage was going to be shown to potential sponsors, Briseño said. The competition was not going to be aired publicly, but if it does well with sponsors, it could end up being televised next year.
That would be ideal for Briseño, who wants to attract more competitors from across the country for next year’s bee.
“We need to celebrate the diversity of where we are,” Briseño said. “Spanish is one of the major languages in the world.”