The words felt untried on Melina Santiago Borroel’s tongue, despite being in a language she has spoken from the cradle.
Terms like “delegation,” “resources” and “refugees” sounded somehow unfamiliar in Spanish. The 14-year-old has always known Spanish as the comfy phrases exchanged at home, as the language of her mother and father.
But on Tuesday, Borroel put on a new outfit and pulled from a new pool of words, tackling a global issue in a language stripped of its familiar context.
Representing Burkina Faso, Borroel relied on Spanish to broker deals, form alliances and draft resolutions with students from around the metro at the state’s annual Spanish Model United Nations (U.N.) conference. Organizers say it is the only Model U.N. of its kind in the country, held entirely in Spanish.
In Model U.N., students represent an assigned country’s perspective on a particular issue and negotiate potential solutions with other countries. It was Borroel’s first time.
“At home, we use cozy Spanish,” said Borroel, who attends Highland Park Middle School in St. Paul. “Here, it’s professional and serious.”
The goal of the program, organizers and teachers say, is to help students like Borroel feel at home in both contexts. About 240 students from five schools attended this year’s conference, hosted at Cargill’s headquarters in Wayzata.
While most of the participants came from immersion schools in years past, this year’s conference marked a new focus on student groups with mostly Latino participants.
Organizers sought especially to reach first-generation students from low-income backgrounds, said Alejandra Roisen, of the United Nations Association of Minnesota. The conference will also be paired for the first time with community projects as well as a fútbol — or soccer — event later this year.
Model U.N. planners in Minnesota want to continue to diversify the program by reaching out to students with disabilities and possibly American Indian participants in future years, Roisen said.
“It’s empowerment for the kids that need it,” Roisen said.
Months of preparation and research led to Tuesday’s diplomatic jamboree, where students discussed the given topic of “refugees” from their designated country’s perspective. Wearing their Sunday best, students outlined their nation’s stance on the issue and navigated complex power dynamics — all in Spanish.
Macedonia appealed to larger nations for support. Saudi Arabia agreed to take refugees in exchange for resources from several European nations. In one room, there was a minor spat involving El Salvador.
For some, the conference marked a first, earnest foray into public speaking. For others, it represented a chance to elevate their native language in a new setting.
“It’s validating their home culture,” said Daniel Bettino, a Spanish immersion teacher at Highland.
“Model U.N. has always sort of been a privileged-track thing, but we want to make sure our students are getting access to the same resources.”
A new context
The conference has come a long way from the modest event that Martha Johnson and Liz Hathaway-Castelan, two teachers in St. Paul, helped get going in 2011.
“Even in English, Model U.N. is challenging,” Hathaway-Castelan said. “In Spanish, it’s all new vocabulary.”
Grismaldys Rodriguez, for instance, learned the verb “reubicar” — a fancy term for “relocate” — for the conference. It’s a word the Highland eighth-grader said she would never use at home with her Spanish-speaking parents, who are from the Dominican Republic but have always encouraged her to be bilingual.
“The language, Spanish, is part of who I am,” Rodriguez said.
It’s a language that Nic Figueroa felt a little self-conscious about speaking in front of peers; he would normally chat with them in English.
“I’ve never had a conversation on this topic in Spanish before,” said Figueroa, a student at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park.
For Borroel, the language she speaks at home has taken on new meaning. She said she never knew that Spanish, the crux of her family life, is also a global conduit of compromise. It’s one of six official languages of the United Nations.
And her favorite new word?
“La democracia,” she said, without pausing. Democracy.