A Love story about Reclaiming and maintaining our Bilingualism
One of the questions we get asked most frequently is, so where does the name “Lelu” come from? And, What does “Lelu” mean?
Being a language program and all, folks always wonder if “Lelu” means something in Spanish or in another language, but I’ll tell you right out the gates: Lelu (pronounced Leh-lou not Lee-lou) is a made-up word, and there is a reason why that is so meaningful.
In this post, I’ll first share why it’s meaningful that Lelu is a made-up word and then I’ll share why we chose this particular made-up word. You’ll want to read until the end– the second part includes a sweet love story.
Why a made-up word?
One thing I love about languages is that they are constantly changing. As societies use and adapt them, new words emerge, grammar rules change, etc. The fact that languages are constantly changing is a reminder that we can be part of the evolution of languages.
I founded Lelu for other parents like me. Lelu is for parents who feel ties to a non-English language; for parents with whom ni de aquí, ni de allá resonates; for parents who find themselves “in between” two cultures, languages, identities and thereby end up creating a whole new way of being; for parents who are part of the evolution of languages.
Let me explain. Growing up with Mexican and Nicaraguan parents in the U.S., people often asked me what “type of Spanish” I spoke. I spent lots more time in Mexico than in Nicaragua as a young person so I developed more of a Mexican accent. So, when asked this question, I’d usually respond that I spoke “Mexican Spanish.” But now I know better. If someone asked me today I might respond: I speak my own type of Spanish that’s influenced primarily by Mexican and Nicaraguan Spanish, but also other variations since I grew up in the United States. I think this is more truthful and also better encapsulates how I believe we should see ourselves as bilingual Americans. My kids are 4th generation Americans who will grow up with English and Spanish fluency– their Spanish is American Spanish just like their English is American English.
Spanish is the official language of 20 countries and is spoken in many more countries, including in the U.S. There is a particular Spanish that is, should be, unique to us. U.S. Spanish. Our Spanish. We aren’t importing a precious good (Spanish belonging to another country), we are making a precious good: preserved, multi-generational, U.S.-based Spanish.
I’ll repeat that: bilinguals aren’t importing a precious good (a language belonging to another country), we are making a precious good: preserved, multi-generational, U.S.-based bilingualism.
This Lelu ethos doesn’t just belong to Spanish bilinguals. Lelu is about supporting thriving bilingualism in the U.S., a place historically seen as a language graveyard. That’s why I love that Lelu isn’t a Spanish word, or an English word, it’s a new, made-up word. A word that is striving to belong in as many different languages as possible. Lelu is about celebrating the creation of this precious good: preserved, multi-generational, U.S.-based bilingualism. Let’s goooo!!!
We are creating preserved, multi-generational, U.S.-based bilingualism. Lelu is a made-up word because it’s forward-looking, and part of the future.
Why this made-up word?
In short, Lelu is a portmanteau, a union of two nicknames that my husband and I have for one another. So here comes our little love story:
My husband and I are college sweethearts. I still remember the first day I met him like it was yesterday. I had arrived at Princeton, my dream school, the Ivy League. I was one of only a few first-generation-to-college, low-income students to have beaten the odds and taken that next step of charting a new future for me and my family.
It was my first full day on campus and up until that point I'd never met anybody who shared the same background as me. My dad is Nicaraguan, my mom is Mexican and so I’m Mexican-Nicaraguan-American and, growing up, that was a super rare combination. Everyone I met was either fully Mexican or fully Nicaraguan, or some other beautiful Latin flavor. I’d never met anyone (beside my brothers) who was Mexican-Nicaraguan-American like me.
And I definitely didn’t expect to suddenly meet someone who was Mexican-Nicaraguan-American in the Ivy League. I knew going into Princeton that Latino students like me were few and far between. (Latinos make up only 7.2% of the student body at Princeton).
I hope you can appreciate the absolute delight I felt when I met David. Not only was he another Mexican-Nicaraguan-American at Princeton (WHAT?!?!), he was also first-gen, low-income, super sweet, incredibly smart, hard-working, thoughtful and we even had a shared Christian faith. Even so, believe it or not, it wasn't love at first sight! I was awestruck to meet someone like David, but it was just an amazing fun-fact. We became really good friends and we didn’t start dating until our Senior year. (The why here is a whole other story for another day…)
Eventually we did fall in love. And bilingualism has always been a special part of our relationship.
David and I share a Mexican-Nicaraguan-American identity, but we are different generations. I’m second-generation and grew up in a Spanish-speaking home, and he is third-generation and grew up in an English-speaking home. David’s grandparents had immigrated to the country and his parents had been raised in LA at a time when it was really discouraged to keep speaking Spanish. So, although David’s grandparents only spoke Spanish, he didn’t grow up with Spanish and once we got married David had all these extra reasons to reclaim his Spanish– my parents and I only ever communicate in Spanish and my extended family favors Spanish as well, so David began improving his Spanish when we started dating.
When we had kids, that choice to reclaim the language was amplified. We were suddenly faced with a decision– would our own home, family language continue to be English or would it be Spanish? We thought about it for half a second before deciding we would make the effort to switch our home, family language to Spanish (David didn’t want our kids to miss out like he had, and I couldn’t imagine not sharing bilingualism with my kids. My bilingualism had shaped every part of me. I loved it. How could I not give my kids one of the best parts of me?)
But, boy, was it challenging. There was such a lack of bilingual resources to support our journey and commitment to bilingualism! We started coming up with all of these tools that we needed. One of the first things that we made was an alphabet poster that we still sell on our website (yes, my amazingly talented husband illustrated all of those animals!). We started writing our own books. We started making our own games. We started doing all these things that led me back to Stanford, and which eventually led to the founding of Lelu.
The nickname that my husband calls me is Lulu, because my middle name is Guadalupe. He has called me that from the early days of our romantic relationship at Princeton and so I started calling him Lele early on, too, because I wanted to call him something similar to Lulu.
When you put Lulu and Lele together, you get Lelu. Lelu is the love story we’re writing together. Lelu is our multi-generational, immigrant-identifying, bilingualism journey. Lelu is about beating the odds. All the statistics say that my kids are not going to be bilingual. Lelu exists to make sure that's not the case. Lelu exists so that my kids (and your kids) can grow up as thriving bilinguals.
Our family journey of heritage language loss, recovery and maintenance is reflected all over the U.S. Staying bilingual in this country is rare. It’s a challenging, exhilarating journey. It requires commitment and love. It’s a love story that millions of Americans can identify with.
Lelu is falling in love with our bilingualism, committing to it, and succeeding in it. It turns out it’s also just a really fun word– playful, inviting, short and sweet. I have come to love this name, and the mission being this business and all that it represents. I hope you will join us on this amazing adventure.