Vibrant Paraguayan Wife, Husband Raise Young Girls
She is tall and striking, with cascading blond hair, brown eyes and a flair for international fashion. Her husband is also tall and the eye contact between them is electric. Their three daughters are all blond and fair-skinned. And their last name is Spalding. Where are they from—Germany, Scandinavia, Scotland, Australia? Not exactly. Try Paraguay.
Their heritage is not surprising for those who know that Paraguayans originated from a blend of Spaniards and Guaraníes, the native indigenous people of Paraguay. But after a devastating war that ended in 1870 known as “La Guerra de la Triple Alianza” (The War of the Triple Alliance), a large number of immigrants from Europe started to settle in the country. This immigration process continued between the two World Wars, producing an ethnically varied, yet homogenous society.
“In this way we are a little similar to your country—we’re also a melting pot,” said Cecilia Spalding, wife of Paraguayan Ambassador James Spalding. “My husband’s father is British and his mother’s family arrived to Paraguay almost 130 years ago after migrating to Paraguay from Germany and Denmark. I am all Paraguayan with a little European blood from a French great grandma,” she explained.
This diplomatic couple is refreshing. “This is our first post,” she said. “As with many ambassadors here, my husband is a political appointee, whose background is international trade negotiations and economic development. It was a big step for the family to move here, but we are enjoying this enriching multicultural city. Washington is not just American.”
Their three girls, 11-year-old twins Sophie and Astrid, along with 7-year-old Valerie, all attend Murch Elementary School. “We were very lucky to have such a good public school in our neighborhood,” Cecilia said. “In Paraguay, they went to a German school, but here they are already fluent in Spanish and English. At home, we speak to them in Spanish and they answer in English, but we’re not worried. We will go home to Paraguay one day and they will pick up Spanish immediately.”
Both husband and wife come from internationally savvy families. James’s older sister, who used to be a model in Europe, is now working in the Australian fashion scene designing handbags for the global market. Meanwhile, Cecilia’s younger sister is married with two boys and one girl and works here at the British Embassy. “Our children are about the same age and we love having family here. It is a blessing,” Cecilia noted.
Cecilia spends most of her time mothering three active girls but is fascinated with all the opportunities that the city has to offer. “You can study everything here,” she said. “And there are so many places to visit, so many museums and galleries. You can never be bored.
“I thought I might go back to school myself,” added this star chemistry student from Paraguay’s Universidad Nacional de Asunción, who studied food technology. “But then decided that if I did that now, I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my responsibilities as the wife of an ambassador. I can always do that later when the girls are a bit older.”
Meanwhile, as diplomatic chair of the Latino Student Fund’s 2008 Annual Gala, one thing that Cecilia has made time for in her life is service to the community. “In these years here, I have noticed such a high level of social responsibility in the community. Americans give so much of themselves to support these noble causes. Each year there are so many fundraisers and charitable events that it’s hard as diplomats not to get involved. It is an outstanding aspect of your culture which you should be very proud of.”
During her free time while the girls are in the classroom, Cecilia enjoys a variety of short courses such as beading at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, public speaking at the Capital Speakers Club of Washington, as well as parenting classes.
She also enjoys experimenting in the kitchen. “I like to venture and do experiments in fusion cuisine, taking our local cuisine and refining it to make upgraded versions of it. We don’t have any Paraguayan restaurants in the area, so if my family wants to taste our flavors, it needs to come from our own kitchen.”
In addition, Cecilia and the girls love to take advantage of the many family-friendly activities around the city—for instance, seeing what’s new at Baltimore’s Children’s Museum or taking day trips on the weekends with the ambassador to discover more about the area. “One of my favorite spots is Glen Echo Park. We go to the theater and I love the carousel myself. In the winters, we like to go skiing at Bryce Mountain [in Virginia], but I’m the worst skier in the family.
“We love making new friends, for the girls and for ourselves,” she continued. “And experiencing how different daily life here is in comparison to home…. Of course, we miss our families and friends in Paraguay. But the big difference is in daily lifestyle. We are used to organizing things at the last minute in Paraguay and we are always getting together with friends or extended family. We don’t plan holidays very far ahead of time or even dinners. I miss that spontaneity.”
Nevertheless, Washington comes with its own charms. “For our family, this experience has been very enriching. Living here has expanded the girls’ view of the world. They are interacting with other cultures and realizing that people are different in so many ways. They are learning to be tolerant and to respect other points of view, traditions and religions. But most of all, they are learning a very important skill in life, which is to adapt and fit in without losing their own identities and values.”
The girls also have parents whose love story sounds much like a romance novel. “It was summer and I was working on my thesis, staying at our summer place in San Bernardino, [Calif.],” Cecilia recalled of meeting her future husband. “James was visiting someone there and saw me at the yacht club pool. He said, ‘Wow, who is that gorgeous blonde!’ His friend introduced us. I also noticed him.
“When school started that fall, I left to study advanced English in Wichita, Kansas, taking advantage of the Partners of the Americas program for Paraguayan students. But before I left, my sister started dating James’s best friend. I told her to watch James and save him for me,” Cecilia joked. “My sister did a good job. Lots of girls came and went, but he always asked her about me. Finally, he wrote a letter for my birthday and we started exchanging letters.” Two years later in October 1995, they were married.
Ambassador Spalding holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a master’s degree, also in economics, from Rutgers. Before becoming Paraguay’s ambassador to the United States in March 2004, he previously served as co-founder and director of the Sustainable Development Advisory Group. During a decade of working in the public sector, Ambassador Spalding occupied key economic policy postings, including minister of finance, vice minister of commerce, and president of Paraguayan Petroleum. He has also served as governor of the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank Group and a top negotiator representing Paraguay in the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union.
“No matter what job you might have, it is always difficult to balance work and family, especially when you have children the age of our daughters who are reaching their teens very quickly,” said Ambassador Spalding. “As ambassador, I also have many events in the evenings and it is sometimes hard for our daughters to understand that we’re going out at night as part of work and not for fun. However, fortunately most of the receptions end early and this allows me to at least tuck them in bed, help them finish their homework, or tell them a story from my childhood.”
Needless to say, Cecilia is a key ingredient in making it all work. “Cecilia is a crucial part of my life, not only here as the wife of an ambassador, but throughout our 12 years of marriage. I have held several posts in the government that entailed traveling a lot or long hours in the office, and we make a great team in balancing our tasks. Now as diplomats, her role is fundamental in promoting our country and she enjoys it a lot.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.