Pablo Herrera always knew he was good at math but the 11-year-old from Brentwood recently discovered a new talent: spelling words in Español.
Just three months ago, Pablo, a fifth-grader at Twin Pines Elementary School, had never participated in a spelling bee. Now, he's one of nine students who in mid-July shared the top spot at the ninth annual National Spanish Spelling Bee in Colorado.
To qualify for the event, Colombian-born Pablo first won the districtwide New York State Spanish Spelling Bee — beating 73 of his peers in grades four to eight — in June.
The event is open solely to students who attend elementary and middle schools in the Brentwood school district. Students in 13 schools, all part of the district's bilingual education program, are eligible to participate though organizers said they plan to one day expand the competition to include schools throughout the state.
"It was amazing to see Pablo spelling so many difficult Spanish words correctly and coming out on top even while competing with kids much older than him," said Wanda Ortiz-Rivera, the district's assistant superintendent of bilingual programs and student intake.
"But for me, the best part of it all was when I handed Pablito his first-place trophy and he excitedly asked me, 'Maestra, When is the next competition?' "
His wait was short.
A month later, Pablo, his father, Jair, his mother, Silvia Echeverria, and his little brother, Julian, 8, were going to the National Spanish Spelling Bee in Denver. His airfare, hotel stay and contest entry fee were paid by the Brentwood Alumni Student Association, a nonprofit that co-sponsors the New York spelling bee.
Billy Moss, co-founder of the Brentwood alumni group and state director of the New York Spanish Spelling Bee, accompanied the family to Colorado, where Pablo was one of 40 students from 15 states battling for first place.
"To have all eyes on me when I'm on stage, that's the hardest part of it," Pablo said in Spanish. "My hands start to sweat … When I study, I feel confident."
And study he did.
Pablo, with his father's help, studied palabras — from a list of 1,448 words that could be used in the competition — for three hours every day. Together, they came up with a system to rate words by difficulty level and tackle those he often misspelled.
By then, Jair, who at first hesitated to let Pablo participate in spelling competitions because of a speech impediment that makes it difficult for him to pronounce certain letters, had come around. And Jair entered coach mode.
"I'd say, 'the ones you consider hard, you're going to write those eight times'" said Jair, who recalls once having competed in a spelling bee in Colombia when he was around his son's age.
"For Pablo, it was a lot of writing and studying and repeating words. Remembering where the tildes [accents] go. It was hard. It took a lot from him. Some days he didn't want to do it … but in the end, he always did."
When Pablo and his father started studying, the list of words Pablo "got wrong" was at 300. By the day of the national competition, it had dwindled to two.
"At that point, we said 'Don't worry about it. You've got this. We're proud of you no matter what for being here,' " his father said. "In our hearts, you're already a champ."
Thirteen correctly spelled words and seven hours into the competition, Pablo was still on stage when during the final round David Briseño, a retired New Mexico educator who founded the National Spanish Spelling Bee, said those still there were declared first-place winners.
"The competition this year was stiff," Briseño said. "It took us about 35 minutes just to finish one round. We would've kept going if we could, but we were getting dirty looks from hotel staff who needed to prep the room for the next event so we decided to get creative."
The National Spanish Spelling Bee generally awards $1,000 for first place, $500 for second place and $250 for third place. This year, organizers combined all the prize money, and added $50, to divide the money evenly among the nine winners.
Pablo walked away with a smile from oreja to oreja and a $200 check.
And maybe with something even more valuable: "When I looked at the crowd and I saw my mom, dad and little brother screaming and jumping up and down," Pablo said, "I was just so excited. In that moment, when I won and saw their reaction I knew it was all worth it. It was worth it to compete. It felt nice to win. But to see them so excited meant everything."
So, does this mean the champ plans to share his award money?
"I would love to take my parents out and treat them. Maybe we can go to Splish Splash and I can pay," he said with a smile while looking at his parents.
"Aw, son that's sweet," said his mother, Silvia.
And then as if on cue, Pablo, who has been clamoring for his own cellphone, looked up and said, "But did I tell you that one of my favorite words to spell is 'iPhone'?"
How do you spell ganador? These 13 words spelled victory for contestants in this year's National Spanish Spelling Bee in Denver.