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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The People Who Spell: The Last Students from the Mexican National School for the Deaf

Claire L. Ramsey

Chapter One
Somos Sordos Mexicanos: We Are Deaf Mexicans

In December 2007, a group of about 80 Deaf and hearing Mexican signers of Lengua de Señas Mexicana (LSM) met in Mexico City. The purpose of this small conference was to disseminate the outcomes of several investigations of LSM to the key informants who had provided the raw data for the research. A second purpose was to hold a discussion of topics that the Deaf signers identified as high priority for future linguistic and sociolinguistic work in Mexico. This day-long conference was the first time any researchers of LSM had returned to report their work to LSM signers. Fabiola Ruiz Bedolla made a progress report on the project reported in this book, the life stories of a group of elderly signers, and their recollections of their time at the Escuela Nacional para Sordomudos (ENS), in Mexico City. She and I also gave each participant a copy of a book, Memorias de los ex-alumnos de la Escuela Nacional para Sordomudos. The book is a Spanish-language collection of remembrances of the former students of the National School for the Deaf, containing each of the life histories of the project participants. Alexis Martinez described the systematic structure of LSM numeral signs. David Quinto-Pozos gave a talk on his research about LSM/ASL contact at the U.S./Mexico border in Texas, and Sergio Peña compared the signs of LSM with the conventional gestures that hearing Mexicans make. Two other researchers, Dr. Antoinette Hawayek and Ms. Shelley Dufoe, attended the conference but did not present their work. Dr. Hawayek has been studying acquisition of LSM in Mexico, and Ms. Dufoe is a field linguist from the Summer Institute of Linguistics who has lived in Mexico for over 15 years, working on a grammar of LSM and documenting its lexicon. During coffee breaks, lunch, and two sessions set aside for conversation, the group raised numerous topics of concern focused primarily on critiques of deaf education in Mexico. Their commentaries criticized the separation of Deaf children from each other, and their integration with hearing students, the invention and use of signed Spanish, and the absence of LSM in classrooms. The future of LSM itself was discussed.

Toward the end of the afternoon, after many of the elderly attendees had tired and left for home, Luis Sanabria, a well-regarded ENS classmate of many of the elderly signers, went to the front of the room and commented on the importance of research about LSM and Deaf signers in Mexico, and the many topics related to LSM and Deaf signers in Mexico we do not know about. For example, he asked the group, “Are we Deaf Mexicans? Or Mexican Deaf people?” That is, are we Mexican first (mexicanos sordos) or are we Deaf first (sordos mexicanos)? Luis holds unique status among Mexico City Deaf signers because his Deaf family extends back at least two generations, and forward one generation. He has the distinction of being a descendant of one of the first students to attend ENS in the 19th century. One of Luis’s Deaf sons lives in the United States, and Luis appears in Muciño-Adams’s (2006) video, Lives of Deaf Mexicans: Struggles and Success. Luis’s oration invokes culture and community themes familiar to U.S. signers but relatively unfamiliar to Mexican signers.[1] Thus, it was intriguing to follow the conversation he initiated, first because few of the elderly signers in the group had adopted the terminology of culture and community to describe themselves, and second because there was little consensus about whether they should identify themselves as Deaf people from Mexico or Mexicans who were also Deaf. The discussion included arguments in favor of each perspective; most made appeals to nuestros raices or “our roots” and where their authentic roots rested. Following the discussion, the participants put it to a vote. Only Deaf people were permitted to vote, and not all of them were willing to. However in the end, with 22 voters, sordo mexicano carried the day, with 17 votes. In the end, “Deaf Mexican” was the preferred term.

How Should Deaf Mexicans Live?

As in any society, many explanations about Deaf people’s lives, education, language, and roles in society are available to those who want to seek them. Over my years of fieldwork among Deaf signers in Mexico City, I observed a variety of portrayals of Deaf people. I ran into many Deaf vendors similar to those sometimes seen in the United States selling sewing kits, key chains, or alphabet cards explaining, “Disculpe la molestia. No oigo. No hablo. Vendo este artículo para poder mantener a mí familia. Precio $10.00 Gracias por su compra.”[2] These vendors provide a view of Deaf life that is the only version thousands of hearing Mexicans experience firsthand. Deaf vendors came up early in my fieldwork, in 1997, when a friend showed me an article in Proceso, the national news weekly. This piece (Ortiz Pardo, 1997) offered a Mexican


1. Many of the signers in this video comment on the Mexican government’s lack of recognition of LSM, however LSM was officially recognized and added to the list of Mexican national languages in 2004 (Insituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas, 2008.

2. “Excuse me for bothering you. I do not hear. I do not speak. I am selling this object to support my family. Price ten pesos. Thank you for your purchase.”