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American Annals of the Deaf

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The People Who Spell: The Last Students from the Mexican National School for the Deaf
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Roman Catholic Deaf people viewed Deaf Protestants as markedly different, or, as one informant delicately commented, “I know who they are, but I don’t know them.” Others were particularly dismissive of Deaf people who affiliated with religions viewed as “not Mexican,” such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or evangelical Protestant Christians. Likewise, language attitudes were always on display. Although Lengua de Señas Mexicana (LSM) is used throughout the republic, Deaf people in Mexico City routinely commented on the difficulties of understanding the signing of Deaf people from other cities, and the problems understanding young Deaf signers in Mexico City, who operate with a different mind-set. Looking beyond Mexico’s borders, Deaf Mexican signers expressed their view that LSM was obviously and inherently beautiful, in contrast to the regrettable ugliness of American Sign Language (ASL) and especially ASL signers’ practice of excessive fingerspelling. Fingerspelling attracts the attention of the ENS signers. It marks a frontier between LSM and ASL, but among LSM signers it is also viewed as evidence of schooling, dignity, and good manners, quite distinct phenomena. As a result, el deletreo (fingerspelling) also distinguishes between intelligent signers, like the ENS signers themselves, and those who are not intelligent, primarily younger Deaf signers but also any unschooled Deaf person. Just as hearing parents, journalists, and medical doctors offered a tangled description of Deaf lives for public consumption, grasping the meaning of being a Deaf signer in Mexico City in the 20th century from a Deaf insider’s perspective proved to be a long and complicated task.

The Focus: Deaf Mexicans in Mexico City Who Attended ENS

Out of the many entwined groups and boundaries found among Deaf people in Mexico, for purposes of this book I focused on one place, Mexico City, and a specific kind of Deaf person—one who had either attended the ENS or was married to someone who attended. This made the group of people with whom I conducted fieldwork and from whom I elicited life stories an elderly group. This fact created some specific constraints to data collection but also offered the satisfaction of knowing that I was documenting both their life stories and their variety of signing, that the elderly Mexican signers’ legacy would be preserved. I was moved by Leah Cohen’s (1994) touching reflection on her grandfather Sam’s life and death. She wrote:

When I go looking for Sam, it seems I come up only with papers, sheaves of dry correspondence about him and for him but never by him… Sam’s own motions—the words of his hands, the path of his body as it worked the court[3]—are traceless; once realized and finished, they left no mark. (p. 82)
The ENS signers have left their mark in the life stories they narrated for this project, and I accepted the obligation to help them extend it to a broader audience.

The life stories range across many topics, but I focused the elicitation so that all participants described their early encounters with LSM, and their schooling, along with whatever they wished to tell about their lives. ENS opened in the 1860s and was closed in 1967 (although a further bureaucratic closing occurred in 1972) so the elderly signers whose lives I describe here truly are the remaining members of an undocumented ENS-rooted group of Deaf people in Mexico City that had a life span of about 100 years. Students who came from other parts of the country to attend ENS tended to remain in or near Mexico City, so it is likely that the group I describe in this book represents a portion of the last group of Deaf Mexicans who were educated with other Deaf signers in the school setting provided by ENS, and who had first contact with LSM from other Deaf signers in a school context. I have located few former ENS students in other regions of Mexico and the United States, although of course they exist.

My goal is to explore the lives of sordos mexicanos, people who are Deaf and Mexican, and to disseminate their life stories, their experiences, and the narratives constructed through their collective remembering to a broad audience. To be known to other people is the ENS signers’ aspiration as well, particularly to be known to other Deaf people, and especially Deaf people in the United States. My specific wish is that by reporting the ENS signers’ narratives I can highlight both their Mexican life ways, and the ways their lives have been Deaf, including the ways that their Mexicanness has undergone adaptations and adjustments to take account of their being Deaf signers.

The title of the book, The People Who Spell, comes from one of the key informants, María de los Ángeles Bedolla. Known as Gela, she was relating her views on a topic important to elderly Deaf signers, the current state of deaf education in Mexico. The primary point of first contact with LSM for her age cohort was ENS or students from ENS. Her opinion, which is shared by most of the other ENS signers, is that her cohort signs well and shows that they are both intelligent and bien educados, or well brought up, by employing fingerspelling of some Spanish words as part of LSM. They are esos sordos que deletrean, those Deaf people who spell. They are cultured and educated.

Doña Gela’s comment captures the elderly ENS signers’ view that the school provided learning, first access to LSM, and experiences and education that allowed them to take their places as dignified, proper Deaf Mexicans. However, in their account, life for Deaf people in Mexico has changed for the worse over their lifetimes, primarily because they, as a class, have been betrayed by the government, by doctors, and by the system of schooling. Their criticisms have a basis in reality. To the extent that schooling for Deaf children is available in Mexico, it cannot be assumed that it will use signing. It is very likely that Deaf students will be integrated with either hearing children in government-supported Secretaría de la Educación Pública (SEP) schools, or with children with other disabilities, in special education schools, Centros de la Atención Múltiple

3. Sam Cohen was a basketball player, and Cohen is referring here to the basketball court.
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