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Childhood Stories Turn into Winning National Poetry Contest Entry for WIU Student

April 17, 2017

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MACOMB, IL – When Western Illinois University senior law enforcement and justice administration major Jose E. Gutierrez reflects on his time as a small child in Chicago, he has distinct memories of his father telling him stories in an effort to ease the process of growing into adulthood.

While many parents tell similar stories to their children, Gutierrez took his collection and transitioned them into a poem, which recently won first place at the Symposium for Spanish as a Heritage Language, held this year at the University of California, Irvine, for his entry "Mi Padre Dijo." Gutierrez, who is pursuing minors in creative writing and English at Western, traveled California in March to accept his award and had an opportunity to network with a variety of people from all over the country, who attended the conference.

The contest included categories for high school and college students and received 15,000 total entries. Gutierrez won first place in the college poem division.

Gutierrez's poem was written in a blend of English and Spanish, called Spanglish.

"We could write about anything, but I chose to write about my dad's advice over the years, such as the importance of education; my dad is big on stories and sharing advice," said Gutierrez. "When I told my dad [about the contest win], he said 'you remembered' – that was an awesome moment."

Gutierrez said his father did not know he had written the poem or submitted it to a national competition. He initially wrote the entry at the suggestion of his Spanish teacher at Western, Foreign Language and Literatures Assistant Professor Munia Cabal-Jimenez. He said his win, which he learned about during Spring Break, came as a surprise to him and to his father.

"He was a bit surprised and there was definitely some emotion," said Gutierrez.

Cabal-Jimenez said the poem ties in with the class she taught last fall, Spanish for Heritage Speakers, designed for students who have learned and used Spanish and home and in their communities.

"One of the aspects that we discussed in class was how and why, as bilingual speakers, part of our identity is to interact with each other using the two languages we speak," said Cabal-Jimenez. "As Heritage Speakers of Spanish we do not know any separation between the use of the languages; we are not two monolinguals in one. We discussed how by being speakers of both English and Spanish we find always creative ways of communication, using both languages back and forth, so that we can convey different aspects of our hybrid identity."

Cabal-Jimenez said last fall she encouraged the students in this class to apply to the creative writing contest as a way to celebrate the linguistic practice of Spanglish.

"Each professor or instructor in each university or high school selects the best poem, short story or essay and submits the creative text to the Spanish as a Heritage Language Symposium Committee," she said. "This committee selects the national winners, who are announced during the opening night of the symposium."

Cabal-Jimenez said when Gutierrez showed her the first verses of his poem in October she realized it was something special.

"From the very moment I read the first verses I knew he had a very real possibility of winning, but I did not say anything to him at that moment," she said. "I encouraged him to finish it and submit it. He is a very talented person and has other artistic interests in store, not only poetry. At WIU, we should be very proud of his accomplishment and encourage our Latino students to keep participating in any artistic/humanities or scientific opportunity available to them."

For more information about the competition, or to read Gutierrez's entry, visit

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (
Office of University Communications & Marketing