Eight years ago, Simón Rafael Contreras-Velásquez had a brainstorm. A Spanish teacher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Contreras-Velásquez noticed that a number of his students were having trouble with the rolled “r” that is integral to proper Spanish pronunciation. Contreras-Velásquez decided to turn this linguistic challenge into a competition: the Spanish “R” Rolling Contest.
The first year, Contreras-Velásquez invited students from Washington-Lee’s Spanish classes to join in. The next year, he invited students from across the school system. The third year he opened the contest to anyone who wanted to participate. The most recent contest, held in February, attracted 26 contestants aged 5 to 62 and was televised live on local-access cable. For next February’s contest, Contreras-Velásquez has still bigger plans, with students from Pennsylvania and West Virginia slated to take part.
The contest’s all-time R-rolling record, set in 1998, is 42 secondsmuch better than the mere 12 seconds Contreras-Velásquez himself can muster. Somewhat surprisingly, Contreras-Velásquez says, native Spanish speakers do no better on average than contestants for whom English is the first language. “Swimmers do very well, because they’re used to holding their breath underwater,” Contreras-Velásquez says. “I think it also has to do with the mouththe way your tongue is.”
Contreras-Velásquez, 44, was born in Venezuela and came to Washington to study education at George Washington University. He worked in D.C. public schools for a few years before joining the Arlington school system in 1985. In 1994, he started a televised program designed to improve teachers’ Spanish skills. Now, Contreras-Velásquez has given up teaching to concentrate on his twice-weekly TV show, Spanish for Educators. Thanks to a five-year federal grant, Spanish for Educators is broadcast nationwide by satellite and is watched by subscribers as far away as New York, Georgia, and Wisconsin. (Locally, it’s aired on WNVT Mondays and Wednesdays at 2 p.m.)
Contreras-Velásquez is also a poetmostly in English, but also sometimes in Spanish. The Educational Travel Review, a Boston-based journal for educators who travel, this month publishes his poem “When in Rome,” based on the audience that he and his wife had in 1998 with Pope John Paul II. As a Catholic, “I cannot tell you how wonderful it was,” Contreras-Velásquez says. The pope, a noted linguist, conversed with Contreras-Velásquez in Spanish. Awed, Contreras-Velásquez didn’t ask how good the pope’s R-rolling skills are. Louis Jacobson