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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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The deaf association has a list of those who, over the years, have registered as members since the group was founded in 1986. By copying that list, transferring the information to a database, and ordering the list by birth date, Yolanda Mendieta and I had a record of the oldest registered deaf association members.4 It was excruciatingly rare that anyone born before 1960 attended deaf association events, and it was not common to see those born before 1970 there either. Yolanda and I set out to find their homes and interview as many of those born before 1965 as possible.5 These were the persons likely to have been present in the 1983–1989 period when the deaf association was being organized, and the ones likely to remember what life was like for deaf persons before the association existed.

One hundred and six registered members of the ANSNIC (30% of the total registered members) were born before 1966. Through sheer persistence, some amount of luck, and Yolanda’s connections, we were able to find and interview thirty-six of them (33% of the 106). The eldest subgroup consisted of the twenty-four registered members born before 1959 (6% of the total registered membership and 21% of our interview target group). We found eight of them (33%) and received information on the possible whereabouts of four others, but twelve of those twenty-four (50%) were impossible to trace. No one, deaf or hearing, knew where they might be. We also found approximately one-third of the registered members with birth years between 1959 and 1965, but we did get hints on the possible whereabouts of another 33% (but were unable to physically locate them, typically because they had left Nicaragua). For the whereabouts of this younger subgroup (birth years 1959–1965), only 33% were completely unknown.

I only interviewed two deaf persons not on the association’s rolls at all, but Yolanda and I heard references to more (but never with enough details to actually find them). We witnessed a definite linguistic divide between those who had either never had schooling or had left the educational system by 1972, and those who had continued or started their education after that year.

This book is based fundamentally upon interviews with these older members of the deaf association, hearing individuals who were involved in providing education to deaf children in the 1946–2003 period, hearing people who had deaf relatives, and the many members ranging from age fifteen to forty who participate in activities at the ANSNIC clubhouse in Managua, the capital. A list of those interviewed is included as an appendix, and I thank them all. In working on this topic from 1994 to 2004, I have been fortunate to be able to talk with hundreds of people, and many have become personal friends. I emphasize that the story gleaned from these many individuals is the basis for this work, because although I combed all the libraries and archives I could find, it has been most difficult to find contemporary written records to corroborate interviewees’ memories.

Nicaragua is a country that has destroyed or lost the archival portion of its collective memory more than once during this century. Devastating earthquakes in 1931 and again in 1972 destroyed all the country’s major libraries, so all repositories of governmental and institutional records were lost forever. Internal warfare played havoc with record-keeping early in the century, and had an even worse effect in the turmoil of the 1970s, which resulted in the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. Political bickering and machinations have meant that at each transition of government power (e.g., 1979, 1990, 1996), more records were destroyed or “lost” because each new government chose to begin with a clean slate. I searched as assiduously as I could, but many documents that would be most helpful to substantiate the history this book recounts simply no longer exist or are unofficially stored where I could not reach them.6 I was unable, for example, to find any of the pre-revolutionary planning documents or reports from the Junta Nacional de Asistencia y Prevención Social (JNAPS) about the administration of the Centro Nacional de Educación Especial (the special education school in Managua now renamed the Centro de Educación Especial Melania Morales), and likewise, the post-revolutionary official special education pupil counts prior to 1988 have been “lost.”

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