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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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When I asked Nicaraguans (both hearing and deaf) to remember deaf people in their neighborhoods from thirty to fifty years ago, many had difficulty. Typical Nicaraguans could not remember any, or at most, one or two. They were never identified by name, for no one could remember their names. They were simply identified in the neighborhood as “the deaf-mutes,” and no one could tell me any details about them other than perhaps the kind of work that they performed in relationship to a family business. None could remember any of them as married, having children, or even working at a job except under the supervision of family members. They did not have their own households.

The deaf persons remembered by typical Nicaraguans were isolated, language-less, and lived in lifelong dependence. In fact, my inquiries suggesting that a deaf person fifty years ago might have been a responsible parent or homeowner seemed ridiculous to most with whom I spoke. The one exception was a man, remembered by the last name of Perezalonzo, who came from a wealthy family, who sent him to Spain for education, and who, then, evidently helped him set up a business. When he was remembered, it was because he was such an incongruity—a person who was deaf and yet who earned a living independently.3

I had a little more luck when talking with the eight people I could find who had worked in education for deaf children during the 1946–1976 period. Considering that we are talking about a thirty-year time span, it is interesting that they, collectively, could come up with only about twenty names (often only the first names), and no one could tell me how to contact any of them. About half (usually those whose last names were remembered) were said to have emigrated at the time of the Sandinista Revolution. The others were lost to time, and my inquiries about how I might proceed to locate their past students were met with a simple “I have no idea.”

Emigration of important informants has been a serious difficulty for this research. Instability in the pre-revolutionary period (from 1977 to 1979) encouraged many Nicaraguans to leave the country and settle elsewhere. The drastic governmental changes resulting from the success of the Sandinista Revolution (in July 1979) meant a massive outflux of Nicaraguans in the early 1980s. The Contra War, which resulted in a universal military draft in Nicaragua, encouraged outflow during the rest of the decade. Today, the emigration trend continues, but for the past fifteen years, the major cause has been the poor state of the domestic economy. While there are pockets of emigrated Nicaraguans living in Canada, Europe, or South America, the vast majority have settled in the United States, especially in Florida and California. It seems that every Nicaraguan family has multiple members living abroad, and the resources they send back are an important source of income for many (Marenco 1997). Thus, various persons who were important actors in the history of education for deaf children or the formation of the Nicaraguan deaf community now live abroad, and, it is impossible to locate most of them with precision.

Several of the younger members of ANSNIC thought my question, about who the deaf members fifty years and older were, was ludicrous. Everybody knew that the oldest deaf persons who participated in ANSNIC events were a little over forty, so how could any older deaf person exist? When I asked them why they thought deafness had only begun to appear in Nicaragua around 1960, they admitted that there probably had been some deaf people born before that time, but they didn’t know any personally. The question, in fact, started them thinking and questioning: “If we are this many now, then there should have been a reasonable number fifty years ago. Why don’t we know who they are?”

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