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In ‘La Arepa’ Children’s Book, 2 Venezuelan Immigrants Bring Their Culture To Younger Generations

A Roscoe Village mom from Venezuela co-wrote the bilingual book about arepas to introduce her daughter to her parents' traditions. "I wanted her to have something that would connect her to Venezuela," Samantha Cornelelles said.

A page from "La Arepa," a bilingual storybook about Venezuelan arepas.
Provided/Samantha Cornelelles
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LAKEVIEW — When Samantha Cornelelles started looking for children’s books for her daughter, she hoped to find something to introduce her to Cornelelles’s native Venezuela.

Credit: Provided
Samantha Cornelelles, one of the co-authors of the bilingual children’s book “La Arepa” about one of her home country’s signature dishes.

But most Latino children’s stories she saw were only in Spanish or weren’t about Venezuelan traditions. So she teamed up with Giuliana Ippoliti, a Venezuelan who lives in Barcelona, Spain, to write “La Arepa,” a bilingual storybook about their country’s signature small cornmeal cake with various fillings. “La Arepa” was published in October 2021.

One of the goals, the authors said, was to give children of Venezuelan descent — who may or may not speak Spanish — a bridge between their two worlds while preserving the linguistics and culture of each country.

“I used to read to my daughter books in Spanish, but they were mostly about Mexican culture,” said Cornelelles, who lives in Roscoe Village. “There was one small book about tacos that I used to read to her, but I wanted her to have something that would connect her to Venezuela.”

Under various personalities representing different ways of making arepas across Venezuela, the arepitas (or little arepas) explain their origins and fillings to children. Each arepita has its own name, the one assigned by the Venezuelan streets: Reina Pepiada, La Sifrina, de Pabellón Criollo or the famous Tumbarrancho.

The book has the same explanation in both languages; each page includes a paragraph in Spanish followed by a paragraph in English along with illustrations representing the arepitas. 

Blending English and Spanish storytelling was critical, the authors said. Ippoliti wrote her first book, “Lucía y El Ávila,” in March 2020, a Spanish-language children’s story about a tiny flea that wants to reach a high mountain peak in Caracas, Venezuela.

After it was published, Ippoliti said she realized how immigration changed some Venezuelans’ cultural identity and many children did not speak Spanish as their parents did.

“Some people would reach out and tell me their kids did not speak Spanish anymore,” Ippoliti said. “They are children of Venezuelan parents, but they do not speak the language.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A tumbarrancho de mortadela arepa at Venezuelan restaurant Sabe a Zulia, 5306 W. Fullerton Ave., in Belmont Cragin.

That shift in language and culture also applies to Cornelelles’s daughter, who was born in the U.S. She is learning Spanish at home, but like for many children of immigrants in the U.S., her primary language is English, Cornelelles said.

“I knew the book had to be bilingual from the start,” Cornelelles said. “My daughter is not Venezuelan. She is an American with two Venezuelan immigrant parents.”

On the flip side, they said it was important not to try to swap an English word for arepa or arepita, so as to not strip cultural nuance. Idioms of different regions in Venezuela were kept in Spanish, like ¡Qué molleja! — a phrase typically used in the region of Maracaibo to express amazement.

Maria Morales-Salazar, a bilingual education teacher in Chicago, said maintaining the integrity of both languages in a bilingual book help maintain an author’s authentic representation of each community.

“In the past we had many books translated into Spanish and it is not the same thing,” she said. “They would not include culture; they would not include traditions. Students need culture and traditions to connect to their learning. To me, this book is special because it includes Spanish words. There are words in Spanish that you should not translate, like arepa. How would you translate arepa?” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Various arepas are served at Venezuelan restaurant Sabe a Zulia, 5306 W. Fullerton Ave., in Belmont Cragin on Jan. 28, 2022.

For Morales-Salazar, “La Arepa” also is a story that shines light an often overlooked part of Latin American diaspora and challenges stereotypes in a city where the predominant Latino communities are Mexican and Puerto Rican. It teaches children that even when people from most Latin American countries speak the same language, each country is distinct, she said.

“How I would present this story to teach my students since the majority of them are Mexican or Mexican American, [is] I would introduce it with gorditas,” she said. “I would compare the arepa with a gordita and talk about the different ways it is done. The arepa is not a gordita but it is similar.”

Patricia Giron Garcia, owner of Libreria Giron in Little Village, said there is a need for more bilingual books. She said she carries very few bilingual books in the store because there just aren’t many of them. Most book titles are available in English and Spanish, but in separate versions.

“We have books in Spanish and when they are translated to English, we also carry those copies. Some customers request bilingual books, but it is hard to find them” she said. “If there is a bilingual book that our customers want, we can do a custom order for them. But we don’t really carry it at the store.”

As of December 2021, 150 copies of “La Arepa” have been sold online and will be delivered across Chicago and Spain. In 2022, the authors plan to expand sales across the United States, the European Union and Australia, where Venezuelans have immigrated. 

For Ippoliti, she hopes the book is one small way to keep Venezuelan culture alive no matter how far people are from the country.

“My hope is that the book reaches many children around the world so they can learn about Venezuelan cuisine while learning about the regions in Venezuela where arepas are from and the jargon associated with them,” Ippoliti said. “And, that through this story, multiple generations will learn about these aspects of Venezuelan culture so that it is not lost. With so many Venezuelan immigrants around the world, there is a risk that future generations will not know about it.”

Credit: Provided/Samantha Cornelelles
A version of the cover of “La Arepa,” a bilingual storybook about Venezuelan arepas.

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