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The People Who Spell: The Last Students from the Mexican National School for the Deaf
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Fabiola Ruiz Bedolla and her mother María de los Ángeles Bedolla.

(CAMS). As a result, younger Deaf people, who have limited access to both schooling and to other Deaf people, are less likely to master LSM as it is used by the intelligent Deaf people, or to show abilities in Spanish, spelling, writing, or reading. From the vantage point of an elderly ENS signer, being a Deaf person who spells is only one of several important differences between the older generation of ENS signers and the younger generation of Deaf people, which has not received the attention it needed and deserved from the education system. The betrayal of the promise of deaf education in Mexico, a pledge that reaches back to the 19th century presidency of Benito Juárez, is a theme that weaves through the life stories of the ENS signers.

The Lure of Life Stories

When I began this project, I had already felt the pull of life stories. My final paper for my MA in linguistics from Gallaudet University in 1984 told the life story and post-retirement reflections of Henry Stack, a Deaf man from Vancouver, Washington, who was raised in Missouri in a large family of Deaf siblings, parents, aunts, and uncles. I was taken with Hank’s responses through his life as a Deaf American to the expectations generated by the American frontier myth of rugged individualism.[4] Hank’s narrative nudged me toward considering the reality that ASL signers in the United States are both culturally Deaf and culturally American. I began to think about American culture, a move that surprised me. Like many fish, it took me a long time to comprehend that swimming in an American Anglo-Saxon and Northern-European watery heritage was just as much a cultural phenomenon as being Japanese in Japanese water or French in French water. It was only a short step to speculate that Deaf people in other countries, who may or may not identify themselves as culturally Deaf, probably also share something with the other people of their nationality, even the hearing people. The ENS signers and their life stories offered me a chance to consider what it might mean to be both Deaf and Mexican.

However, the case of the ENS signers drew my attention for pressing reasons beyond my personal interests and personal connections to them. First, their lives span important changes in Mexico, from the massive 20th century migration from the provincias to Mexico City and that city’s expansion to one of the world’s most highly and densely populated cities, through the 1985 earthquake that destroyed parts of the city, through social shifts that have altered family life and introduced technologies that created new employment opportunities while eliminating other kinds of livelihoods, to the beginnings of changes in society’s response to deafness. The last brought to an end the French-influenced tradition of educating Deaf children in a special school where signing was tolerated and replaced it with a 20th century medical/rehabilitative oral emphasis that was very compatible with the late-century enthusiasm for “inclusion” of Deaf with non-Deaf students when that wave hit Mexican special education policy makers. The ENS signers are appalled witnesses to changes that have had an impact on Deaf Mexicans. Because of these changes, the many collectives of Deaf Mexican adults in Mexico City and in the Republic of Mexico are unlikely to be pulled together by schoolmates who have been signing since they were early adolescents in school, the typical way these groups were formed and maintained in the past. Accordingly, my first goal was to document the lives of this community, whose common experience of going to school together is a relatively rare possible life for today’s Deaf Mexicans.

4. I am grateful to Kelly Stack for introducing me to her curmudgeonly, entertaining father. Hank continued to teach ASL, host parties, surprise people and annoy them, and enjoy himself in Vancouver, WA, and Portland, OR, until his death at 84, in 2002.
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