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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Emergence of the Deaf Community in Nicaragua: “With Sign Language You Can Learn So Much”

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In 1968, when Natalia was born in Nicaragua, there was no deaf community nor any commonly accepted form of sign language used by groups of deaf persons in that country. Until she went to school, Natalia believed she was the only deaf person in the world, and the only one shut out from understanding the mouth movements that served her parents, relatives, and neighbors so well. The realization that first school day, that others like her existed, was so profound for her, that even twenty-five years later, as she told of starting school, the joy of her discovery was palpable.

Still, until she was a teenager, Natalia’s prognosis for participation in society depended on her ability to master oral communication—a skill with which she, like many other persons born with profound congenital hearing loss, has never had any success. In her teenage years, however, Natalia began to participate actively in what would become Nicaragua’s present deaf association, a group that used a language modality that was completely accessible to her—sign language.

Participation in the deaf community opened a new world for her—one of unhindered communication and full participation as a social actor. Today, Natalia at times helps to support her family by sewing in the assembly plants in the free trade zone.1 She lives with her husband, who is also deaf, and her two hearing daughters. Because she signed to her oldest daughter at the same time that the child learned spoken Spanish, Natalia is now able to attend Mass, and, with her daughter interpreting, understand what is happening. The ritual, she says, used to be a complete mystery to her. Natalia’s immediate family regularly participates in activities at ANSNIC, and maintains social contacts with other deaf families. Because her family has a refrigerator with a freezer compartment, she sells ice and popsicles to the neighbors to make a little extra money. The one bleak spot that Natalia mentions is that her own mother has refused to learn any sign language, so face-to-face communication with her parents is fragmentary and labored. We can see, then, that Natalia is an active social player in Nicaraguan society, just like any other thirty-year-old woman in that country. The only difference is that she prefers to participate using a non-oral language.

In 1968, there was no deaf community in Nicaragua; but in 1997, when I did my dissertation fieldwork, there was. The role of deaf persons in the greater Nicaraguan society started to change about sixty years ago, and it shifted dramatically in the past twenty-five years when a deaf community formed. This evolution took place within such recent memory that ethnographic and historical information about the period before the community existed can still be collected. The main actors involved in the community’s formation are still available to be interviewed. The Nicaraguan experience, then, offers a fascinating focus for examination of how deaf communities form, as well as a wonderful opportunity to think about why they form.

Human actors constantly produce and reproduce the structure we know as society. They do it by using language. Lack of access to a society’s language is a serious obstacle to social participation, and thus, to ever being an active member of society. Deafness has been an obstacle to this social agency, because language has historically been so closely tied to orality (the assumption that language, at its core, is produced by vocal means, and that communication via non-oral means is nonlinguistic). But, when other modalities can be tapped for language use, the range of possible social actors is widened.

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