Spanish-born editor turned entrepreneur, Isidra Mencos, on living a #biculturallife

Isidra Mencos knows first hand what it’s like to emigrate to the U.S and leave everything she loves behind. Like me, she came to study, and like me, she never intended to stay, but life had other plans. Like me, she struggled to adjust and find a balance between the culture she left behind and the culture she was adopting. But she has no regrets. She is proud to belong to a community that is growing and thriving, culturally and economically.

Isidra holds a PhD in Spanish and Latin American Contemporary Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. For the last twenty years, she has created and edited content for US Hispanics in print and online. For four years, she served as Executive Editor of Baby Center en Español. Recently, Isidra launched her own business doing what she loves best: creative writing and editing. Her new company called Vida Now, also offers translating and coaching to writers and book authors.

Isidra and I met at #WeAllGrow Summit 2015 and we have been friends ever since. We also have one more thing in common: we are passionate about helping others and would do anything to ensure a friend’s success. When I asked Isidra to help me with the Spanish version of my book, Arroz con Pollo y Apple Pie, there was no hesitation. I am forever indebted to her! Here is my interview with this remarkable Latina! #SpotlightTuesday


MB: Where were you born?

IM: I was born in my grandfather’s home, Santa Margarita. It was his summerhouse, located about 50 miles from Barcelona. But I was raised in Barcelona, Spain.


MB: Were you raised bilingual, bicultural?

IM: In my home we spoke Spanish, but I grew up listening to a second language, Catalan, and I learned it just by talking with friends. I couldn’t study it formally until I was at the University and Franco, the dictator that had ruled Spain for almost 40 years, passed away. He had made Spanish the only official language in the whole country and forbid people from studying their other ancestral languages. Nowadays Spain has 4 official languages: Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician. Kids who grow up in Barcelona today go to Catalan-only schools and learn Spanish as a second language.


MB: When did you come to this country? Was it for work?

IM:   I came here in 1992 to study a PhD in Spanish and Latin American literature at UC Berkeley. I graduated in 1998. I wasn’t planning to stay, but I fell in love with a Latino (born and raised in San Francisco, but from Mexican-Venezuelan origin). Once we got married, it was a done deal that I would settle in California.


MB: Was it hard to adjust to this country? How did you find a balance?

IM: It was extremely hard the first year. Everything was so different… the language, the food, the culture, the values… For example, I couldn’t understand why people had to meet at times pre-arranged weeks in advance, or that parties were supposed to last only 2 or 3 hours. The concept of small talk was foreign to me. A party without music and dancing, to chitchat with strangers…where’s the fun in that?

Then I started making friends, and that helped a lot. I also loved my studies. Coming here ended up being the best decision I ever took. The bigger the risk, the bigger the gain!


MB: I believe you have a son. Was he born in the U.S. Was he raised bilingual and bicultural? Was that hard?

IM:I have a 15 year-old son. I’m sorry to say that he’s not fully bilingual. He understands Spanish very well, and he knows how to speak it, but not as fluently as I would like.

After he started pre-school he simply didn’t want to speak Spanish anymore. And my husband, even though he’s a Latino, is second generation and feels more comfortable speaking in English, so we speak a lot of English at home.

However, I do speak in Spanish to my son about 50% of the time, and I make a point to take him to Spain every year or every two years. Once there, he picks up fluency after the first week, but he has a bit of an accent. I also pushed for him taking Spanish classes in school. He’s now on his third year and I’ve seen a lot of improvement.

MB: Do you ever regret leaving your family behind?

IM: I miss them, of course. It was especially hard after having my son, because he’s an only child and so is my husband, so he’s the only kid in the family in the US. In Spain he had 14 cousins and I hated that he couldn’t grow up with them.


MB: You worked at Baby Center en Español for many years. How did that experience prepare you for what you are doing today?

IM: It was like a second PhD. First of all, I learned a lot about online publishing, social media, etc. I also learned how to be a leader. I got promoted from Executive Director to Editorial Director of the Americas, and I was managing teams in several countries. I also planned and launched a very successful blog platform, with the help of my right hand, Clarisse Céspedes. I recruited and personally trained over 30 bloggers and we surpassed one million readers per month very quickly.

And I had the amazing opportunity to serve millions of Spanish-speaking parents around the world and make their lives a little better, with great information about pregnancy and parenting. I’m very proud of my tenure at BabyCenter.


MB: Like many Latinas in their fifties, you have started a new business. Tell us about it.

IM: I missed having a more a flexible schedule, especially now that my son will be off to college in about 3 years. I also wanted to go back to my roots as a creative writer and teacher (I had taught language, literature and creative writing at UC Berkeley for a dozen years.)

So I took the plunge and launched Vida Now. In this new venture I help other people write their memoirs or other types of books, both in English and in Spanish. I also teach classes live and online. And I’m now preparing an online course about how to write memoir. I hope to launch it this next summer.

I also blog about writing, memoirs and leadership both in my personal blog and in Medium

And I’m writing my own memoir.


MB: Do you think that today’s Latina woman is more confident and believe more in themselves and what they can accomplish than past generations? Why is that?

IM: Absolutely. The State of Latino Entrepreneurship 2015 report revealed that between 2007 and 2012, there were nearly 1.5 million small businesses owned by Hispanic women, an 87% increase from 2007, with these businesses generating a total of $83.6 billion in that same period. I think there are several factors that explain this tremendous growth. There is a need, because the recession hit men harder than women, so Latinas had to take matters into their own hands and bring supplemental income, which sometimes was the only income. There are also more recognized role models of Latina trailblazers and more resources to tap into in terms of getting advice. Nowadays there are more women graduating from college than men, for example.


MB: In your opinion, do you think that today’s monolingual parents are more interested in raising bilingual children than they were 10 years ago?

IM: Yes, I think that’s the case. Older generations of Latinos feared that their children would be stigmatized if they had an accent, for example, so they would not encourage bilingualism. Today being Latino is cool and the advantages of being bilingual both for brain development and professional advancement have been researched and proven. Even Caucasian parents are claiming for more dual immersion schools!


MB: What kinds of things do you do at home to keep your culture alive? Do you travel to Spain often?

IM: We travel to Spain at least every two years, but sometimes yearly. We speak Spanish at home at least part of the time. We listen to Latin music constantly (my husband is a Latin music DJ and I’ve been a salsa fanatic for decades.) And we celebrate traditional holidays with Latin flavor. For example, we eat tamales for Christmas, honoring my husband’s Mexican heritage, and always have a gift for our son and a roscón de Reyes on January 6.


MB: Do you have a message for moms with older children? A tip, or a suggestion, that has worked for you?

IM: A key piece of advice is to let your children know that they can talk to you about everything, without fear of consequences. I not only talk to my son about school grades and entertainment, but also about sex, drugs, or anything else that may become a problem. And every single day I tell him that I love him. A combination of trust and love are key for him to also accept the rules and chores we impose.


MB: What is your message for parents raising bilingual and bicultural children in today’s world?

IM: Don’t pay attention when your kids say they don’t want to speak Spanish. Be firm. Keep imposing Spanish at home, and English in school. I didn’t do it enough, and now I regret it. I’m trying to keep the language alive the best I can for my son, and I see him making progress, but if I had been firmer when he was younger it would be easier now.

The culture, is a given. Ever since he was a little child I’ve always told him: “Hijo, you are half Spaniard, one quarter Mexican, one quarter Venezuelan and all American. But above all, you are a Latino and don’t you ever forget it!”


I say I can’t wait to read Isidra’s memoir! How about you?


Bai, bai,