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The U.S. Constitution explained in Spanish

April 17, 2016

David Shestokas is the author of “Cápsulas Informativas Constitucionales,” the first book in Spanish devoted to America’s Founding Documents and Principles. It renews the tradition begun by the country’s Founders in September 1787, when one third of the copies of the proposed Constitution were printed in German. The Founders knew that people, even those who are multilingual, best understand crucial concepts in the language they are most familiar with.

At a time when more than 36,000,000 Americans are more comfortable with Spanish, it is critical that this information be made available. Shestokas and Dr. Berta Arias, a Cuban immigrant and Spanish linguist, spent nearly a year to develop an accurate translation of 18th Century English into 21st Century Spanish.

“Cápsulas Informativas Constitucionales” has had a favorable reception in major Hispanic media from Miami to Chicago to Los Angeles to New York.

We had a chat with David J. Shestokas. This is an excerpt of the interview.

Q. As a lawyer, How did your interest for the constitution and the Spanish speaking community develop?

A. My work as an attorney fostered my interest in Spanish. As a prosecutor and a defense attorney, I worked with Spanish speaking victims of crime and defendants. To help in my work I began to study Spanish to better communicate with people I encountered in court. The Constitution’s Bill of Rights contains many important rights, such as the right to remain silent, important in the criminal justice process. The first Spanish I learned enabled me to talk about these rights and assist Spanish speakers in the courtroom to understand important parts of the Constitution.

Q. Now that you are an author, was this something that you always wanted to accomplish or how did this come about?

A. For much of my life before I became a lawyer, I sold beer. So while I have legal training and experience, I think my time before being a lawyer was important in wanting to explain the Constitution and America’s Founding Principles more like friends talking about these ideas rather than a lawyer talking to other lawyers. The law, like any other work, has a language of its own that many people aren’t familiar with. I thought there was a need for a book about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution that explained these ideas clearly for people without a legal background.

Q. What inspired you to publish this Spanish edition?

A. I have been working with the Constitution for nearly 30 years, and writing about it since 2008. My courtroom experience with Spanish speakers taught me the need to share this information with Americans who are more comfortable in Spanish. About a year ago I started to look for constitutional materials in Spanish and I was surprised to find that there was nothing more than translations of the founding documents.

I called my longtime friend Dr. Berta Arias, past president of the Illinois Latino Council on Higher Education, and asked her if she knew of any material that explained these documents in Spanish. She did some research and assured me there was none. I asked if she would work with me to fill this void. She agreed and we spent the next year to accurately turn 18th Century English into 21st Century Spanish, and make this information available to the more than 36,000,000 Americans for whom Spanish is their first language.

Q. You mentioned in your book that through this Spanish version, new content was created that was not included in the other English volumes, Where and how did this exclusive information come from?

A. Before beginning the Spanish project I had written three short books, each focusing strictly on the ideas and principles of America’s Founding. The original English had little material that explained details of how the American government was organized: for example, numbers of senators, representatives, and Supreme Court Justices. I wanted to be sure that I covered those types of materials in the collected Spanish version and explain how those details were organized to protect the rights described in the Declaration of Independence.

Also in preparing the Spanish materials, I looked at the types of questions on the US citizenship examination so that the book would also be helpful for people preparing for that test. The final Spanish edition contains much more than the first three short English language books.

Q. What is your message to the Hispanic community about knowing the importance of the US constitution?

A. Dr. Arias and I worked carefully to convey in Spanish what the founders meant in 18th Century English. Many have come to the United States in pursuit of what has been described as the American Dream of opportunity, upward mobility and the desire to create a better life for one’s children. The principles in the Founding Documents are what make the American Dream possible. To fully realize the possibilities of America and to fully exercise one’s inalienable rights, a person needs to understand the source of those possibilities and rights. I believe they are best understood when explained in the language a person is most comfortable with.

Q. Do you recall the moment when you first realized there was a need that through your knowledge and expertise, you could potentially address?

A. As mentioned before, I saw the need for the Spanish materials in early 2015. As for the need to help people rediscover the importance of America’s founding principles, about eight years ago I was giving a Constitution Day talk to high school students. The questions they asked told me they had little knowledge of the ideas that had started the United States. As I thought about how divided the country often seemed, I realized that it was the lack of knowledge of our founding that allowed people seeking power to drive us apart. I thought it was important to do what I could to bring us together. That’s when I started my online writing, which became my own website, then a radio show, and now books in both Spanish and English.

Q. What do your plans consist of in 2016? Do you have any other books on the way or new projects?

A. We are working on audio versions of the books. There are also plans for a children’s book and for a special Latin American edition that connects American political leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to important Latin American leaders like Benito Juarez and Simon Bolivar.

There is also the expansion of our Spanish language website: De Los Estados Unidos. (delosestadosunidos.com).

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