- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

HUNTINGBURG, Ind. (AP) - When Jaffet Cruz studies spelling words and vocabulary, it’s a lesson for both him and his parents.

Despite being born in the U.S. and growing up in Huntingburg, Cruz learned Spanish first because it was the native language for his Peruvian parents, who moved to the U.S. a year before Cruz was born. The now-14-year-old boy learned English in preschool - mainly, he said, because that’s what his friends and teachers spoke.

When he was in third grade, Cruz aced most of his spelling tests. That same year he beat a student two years older than him in the school’s spelling bee.

“I thought, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool,’” Cruz told the Evansville Courier & Press (https://bit.ly/1TZsXHK ) while sitting on a sofa in his family’s living room last week. That evening’s math homework was on his lap and a list of 400 words with definitions spread across the cushion next to him.

Cruz won the 2016 Tri-State Spelling Bee at Ivy Tech in February on the word “degradation” - a wearing down by erosion. He was the 2015 runner-up, and this year’s victory surprised him, especially since he didn’t study much until the day before the competition.

“It was exciting,” he said. “But kind of shocking to me.”

The win advanced him to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will take place next week in National Harbor, Maryland.

The written test is Tuesday, followed by live spelling in rounds two and three from 8-11:45 a.m. EDT and 1:15-4:45 p.m. EDT May 25. Those rounds will be streamed live on ESPN3. Finals start at 10 a.m. EDT May 26, and will be broadcast live on ESPN2. The final round continues at 8 p.m. EDT and will be broadcast live on ESPN.

This year, 285 spellers will battle for the championship. Cruz, sponsored by the Courier & Press, is Speller No. 76.

Fifteen years ago, Wences Cruz and Yessica Valencia left Peru in South America and moved to Huntingburg for medical reasons. Their eldest child, Fernanda Cruz, was born deaf and needed a cochlear implant. Wences Cruz said at that time, the surgery was not performed in Peru, so they applied for U.S. visas. The surgery was performed at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

“It was so difficult (to not) speak English at beginning, especially because I had to attend to several doctor visits due to my daughter’s condition,” Wences Cruz said. “Children growing (up) here help me a lot to improve the language.”

While Fernanda Cruz is still hard of hearing and an interpreter is often with her, the current Southridge High School junior is now fluent in Spanish, English and sign language.

“I wanted to learn sign language,” Jaffet Cruz said. “But she never had the patience to teach me. I guess I never had the patience, too.”

Cruz visited Peru when he was 10 and was able to meet many family members for the first time.

“It was kind of challenging because I didn’t know all of the (Spanish) words,” he said. “Talking to my relatives is different from talking to my mom and dad because if I don’t know a word, I can say it in English. But there, I wasn’t sure what to do.”

At home, the family speaks a combination of Spanish and English. Sometimes the kids will translate words or phrases for their parents.

Wences Cruz works at Leibering Dimension, Inc., a lumber yard. Yessica Valencia works at OFS, a furniture factory. Both parents quiz their son to help him study for spelling bees, which also expands their vocabulary.

“It was stressful for him,” Wences Cruz said of the Tri-State competition. “There were so many words.”

Valencia said she was “emotional” and “very proud” of her son for winning the local bee because the competition is hard.

Cruz is nervous for the national bee, but also excited.

“I need to study a lot because I’m a little bit behind,” he said. “But I think it helps when I cram it in because I know I have to do it in a certain amount of time. It’s kind of an incentive.”

Cruz said the connection between Spanish and English helps, especially with root words.

Cruz will finish his eighth-grade year at Southridge Middle School on Thursday, and two days later the family leaves for Washington, D.C.

“I feel so proud of him,” Wences Cruz said. “It’s a big challenge.”


Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, https://www.courierpress.com

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