Proudly bilingual, Araseli Rodriguez wants her students to feel the same way.
In McHenry School District 15, Rodriguez is known as the bilingual reading specialist. Throughout the country and even beyond – especially in educator circles – she’s become known as the author of the children’s book “Proudly Bilingual.”
It’s a book unlike any other about “how magical it can be” to grow up bilingual.
On her mind for years, Rodriguez, of Crystal Lake, wrote it during a planning period in 2020 just before the pandemic.
She learned how to self-publish, partnered with illustrator Alondra Arevalo and published it in the fall of 2020.
Since then, she’s sold thousands of copies. Available on Shopify at proudly-bilingual-books.myshopify.com, the book often is ordered in bulk for educator seminars and conferences.
“It always just brings me so much pride [that] this little town of McHenry and a teacher in my program is making such an impact throughout the country, and not just the country. She ships them throughout the world,” said Maureen Cassidy, executive director of English language learning for District 15.
Cassidy has worked with Rodriguez for 14 years. Rodriguez began teaching 17 years ago, eventually moving from kindergarten, first-grade and multi-age classrooms into her current position.
For me, my Spanish has been an emotional journey. When you’re a kid, you don’t realize how awesome it really is. As an adult, I know I wouldn’t be a teacher if it wasn’t for my Spanish. I wouldn’t have discovered this career.— McHenry teacher Araseli Rodriguez
She’s worked as the reading specialist for bilingual students for the past seven years.
“I just watched her throughout the years not only develop professionally into a passionate educator, I’ve seen her personally grow a lot,” Cassidy said. “She’s just a very dynamic person.”
Rodriguez never actually planned to be a teacher.
Her parents emigrated from Mexico, and her family moved quite a bit while she was growing up. She attended several high schools and remembers a high school counselor kind of discouraging her from doing much after graduating.
So she decided to become a high school counselor to do more for others.
While finishing college, she became a bilingual teacher to earn money.
“Once I stepped into the classroom, and the more I taught, the more I loved the kids,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is what I want to be. This is what I want to do.’ They are so funny, and they’re so creative. I just fell in love with it.
“I didn’t pick teaching. Teaching chose me.”
Both her son, who has special needs and struggles with language, and her students inspired her to become an author.
“Proudly Bilingual” tells the story of Emilia (Emi) and her “incredible ride that is the bilingual brain.” Rodriguez doesn’t want bilingual children to grow up feeling the way she felt at times.
One of the first in her family to speak English, she’d translate for her parents at doctor’s offices and school conferences. As a child only wanting to fit in, she sometimes felt embarrassed.
When a 6-year-old student once told her he didn’t want to speak Spanish because he liked a girl in class who only spoke English, she knew she had to write the book.
“Somehow this child, at 6 years old, had already received the message that English was the language of power and that Spanish held no value,” she said.
That broke her heart.
“I really wanted a book that speaks to my kids,” she said.
When she actually sat down to write the book, she said, it wrote itself.
“For me, my Spanish has been an emotional journey,” she said. “When you’re a kid, you don’t realize how awesome it really is. As an adult, I know I wouldn’t be a teacher if it wasn’t for my Spanish. I wouldn’t have discovered this career. Somehow, I ended up teaching, and I’m doing it in my native language – in both of my native languages. Being able to exercise both of them every day is amazing.
“It’s so validating to me as a Mexican American that both of them hold value.”
And that’s what the book is about. It’s for students who might doubt that value or have felt that somehow being bilingual might slow them down, said Rodriguez, who plans to write another book about being bicultural, or representing two cultures.
When she self-published, she thought she’d simply give the book to those around her, influencing her students, family and friends. But she’s reached so many more.
In many ways, the book sends another message, she said, to learn something new and to do something not thought possible.
As the daughter of immigrant parents who didn’t earn high school degrees, she said she never thought she’d be a published author. She had to put aside tons of self-doubt.
“To be able to come to this country, get an education, earn not only a high school degree – because that was huge – but to go on to college, get a master’s and publish a book … sometimes it seems surreal,” Rodriguez said.