I love this book. It’s a simple story, written in both English and Spanish, but I won’t spoil it for you by giving anything away here. Anyway, it’s not the story that won me over, or the pictures. It’s the book as a whole, what it represents and the different ways it’s cropped up during my years as a teacher.
I first came across Lima’s Red Hot Chilli about 5 years ago when I was sorting through the resources cupboard in the languages department of the school where I worked at the time. That cupboard was a kind of linguistic and cultural Aladdin’s Cave, telling a story all of its own. It charted the history of immigration to the UK from the perspective of a London school, how our approach to multilingual children has changed over the last 50 years. On the bottom shelf were the oldest books, dusty guides to English grammar, still crisp and unused under their faded blue or green covers. Next came a shelf of TEFL course books, accompanied by a mountain of meticulously labelled cassette tapes. Then there were three shelves of more miscellaneous items – I can still clearly picture the cactus in a jar, the wooden map of Africa and the plastic model of the human body with removal internal organs which jostled for space with picture dictionaries and blank vocab books. But the most recent addition was a small collection of bilingual story books, and that was where I discovered Lima’s Red Hot Chilli.
I’ve used the book myself with newly arrived Spanish speakers. Hearing them read in their own language shows me they already have established literacy skills, and it shows them I’m aware they’re not a blank slate just because they’re new to English. However, the best story I’ve heard about this book came second-, or perhaps third-hand. A good friend of mine was doing some outreach work with families in an inner London primary school. She was concerned about one child in particular, let’s call him Carlos, who was becoming increasingly isolated. His family had recently arrived from Spain, and he was making good progress with English at school. Surprisingly, it was his Spanish which was the cause for concern. Carlos had left Spain before getting a chance to develop a firm foundation for literacy in Spanish. Now he found himself excelling in the English-speaking environment of the school, and was increasingly reticent about using Spanish at home. The parents felt they were losing their son to a language they didn’t speak, while he felt hurt at their resentment, and communication was the casualty. We’re so used to using the term ‘mother tongue’ that it’s easy to overlook how many assumptions lie behind it. Carlos felt more comfortable in English than the language he’d learned from his mother.
Happily, this is not the end of the story. The reason my friend told me about it was because she’d recommended the school get hold of Lima’s Red Hot Chilli, and other bilingual books, for Carlos to read with his family. The result was nothing short of a transformation. When Carlos took the books home, a bridge was built across the confusing chasm which had opened up in the family. He met his parents on this bridge, and they read together. I don’t know exactly how this went, who read what, in which language, how many times, but my friend did tell me about what happened next. Not only did Carlos start speaking Spanish again with his parents, but they also came into the school and signed up for English lessons. Like I said, it’s not just the story I love, it’s the book, and all the other stories it’s helped to write.