Spanish teacher Marisol Perez’s passion for learning about other cultures jumps right off the wall, literally.
When you walk into her classroom, the first thing you notice is the poster of “East Side Sushi” describing a movie that involves the breaking down of race barriers. Then there are posters discussing the life stories of influential Latin American artists such as Julie Alvarez.
“As a young woman, those [film, music, art, literature] were my outlets for expressing my feelings; for creativity, I identified with characters in books, with singers, and so I became very interested in pursuing the arts,” Perez said.
Perez wants to instill her love of learning about other cultures in her students by allowing them to delve into cultural projects that help them learn about what life is like in a Spanish-speaking country. She is open to teaching her students in any way that they find fun and enjoyable.
“I remember one time we had to finish this big project, and when we heard about it, we all sighed. We asked her if we could make a recipe instead and bring in our dish, and she said ‘yes.’ This made the project more interesting because it let us do what we wanted to do, while still allowing us to get the assignment done,” Sierra Canyon junior Parker Gelfuso said.
Another inescapable fact if you ever have Perez — the majority of the class is taught in Spanish. She expects for students to be able to ask and answer questions almost entirely in Spanish.
“I teach my classes about 85 percent in Spanish and 15 percent in English —though I always aim for as much Spanish as possible. The more that you hear the language the more opportunity you have to learn vocabulary, learn the accent, and assimilate the structure, which in turn, makes it so that you are more likely to produce that.” Perez said.
Before she was born, her parents immigrated from Mexico to San Jose, Calif., and because of her immigrant upbringing, her parents were able to raise her with very specific values of hard work and respect. Now, being a Mom to her 4-year-old son Ferran, Perez teaches him Spanish as his first language so that she can be the cultural bridge between two generations.
“When we went to visit my dad who lives in Mexico now, it was a really wonderful thing that Ferran could speak Spanish with my dad, and I knew that my dad felt really proud that the next generation in our family was still able to speak Spanish. I felt really proud that we could go to a Spanish-speaking country and my son would be able to communicate with the people there,” Perez said.
After living in San Jose with her parents, Perez attended Westmont College where she majored in psychology and Latin American literature. Before going to graduate school, Perez took two years off to ensure she wanted to pursue teaching. She attended UCLA for graduate school.
During her time off, Perez worked as a teaching assistant at an elementary school in Santa Barbara, where she was later offered a full-time position as an art teacher.
“I could have easily [been an art teacher], but I missed the intellectual challenge of reading literature and studying” Perez said.
After graduating from UCLA, Perez taught at UC Mexico City in 2007.
“We also invited students from the premier university in Mexico called the UNAM. The course was on transnational Mexican culture and writers. So, I had Mexicans from the United States alongside Mexican nationals discussing what it meant to be Mexican and studying different works where Mexican identity was represented,” Perez said
After working for UC Mexico City, Perez would work for a company called Green Dot, which helped to bring college preparatory education to inner city communities, and establish her own tutoring company called Sol Tutoring Services, before deciding to work at Sierra Canyon.
“When I came to [Sierra Canyon], they were looking for someone who had the entrepreneurial spirit to develop the foreign language program, and I very much fit that. I had just engaged in an entrepreneurial endeavor, and I had a very good base of knowledge about Spanish language curriculums,” Perez said.
It is important to Perez that she is able to live her life in the moment. Whether that means being able to speak the language of a foreign country, or teaching her son how to speak Spanish, she never wants to visit another culture and feel like a tourist.
“So much about culture is linked to language that we lose truly connecting to people. We also lose the ability to be fully present in the culture, which means if you don’t speak the language you’ll be experiencing the culture from the peripheries of culture, jokes, celebrations, and stories which we all share through language,” Perez said.
As a teacher, Perez’s goal is to give her students the opportunity to truly learn the language and truly assimilate to the culture.
“I want [my students] to be engaged and interested, and I want them to feel like they are learning something of value and they’re having fun at the same time. I want my students to be able to go to a Spanish-speaking country and not feel like outsiders,” Perez said.