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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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I also wanted to document the variety of signing that hypothetically originated at ENS in the 19th century and developed through the next 100 years of daily use among Deaf signers. An archived set of DVDs, accompanying transcriptions, and detailed metadata about the signers will never replace interactions among signers as sites of a living culture, but having records of LSM as it was signed at the turn of the 21st century by lifelong signers will provide historical and linguistic uses. Currently, the way that education for Deaf students is organized in Mexico limits routes of LSM transmission across generations. Few young Deaf children have access to native signers in any contexts; education is delivered primarily through spoken Spanish, and a high proportion of Deaf signers are very late learners of LSM. LSM materials are limited, and unlike in the United States, there are no large publishing companies that specialize in creating LSM materials, although there are a few individuals or small groups who publish materials. There is no evidence that LSM is either moribund or obsolete. Nonetheless, current circumstances do not favor vibrant language health, widespread transmission, or rich elaboration across the entire population of people who live their lives as signers. The videotaped life histories of the ENS signers will serve as a record of a variety of signing that may become very narrowly distributed as other varieties may arise.

It has been over 30 years since I began to learn ASL. I have spent those years working in deaf education settings in North America, conducting research on ASL in education, and on the sociocultural contexts in which ASL is used, transmitted, and commented upon. I began to learn LSM in 1996, and I started making regular trips to Mexico City in 1998.[5] My colleague in this research, Fabiola Ruiz Bedolla, has lived her entire life, more than 30 years, as a hearing child of Deaf Mexican parents. She is a native-born defeña,[6] a native speaker of Spanish, and a native signer of LSM. While she and her five siblings were growing up, her parents were active members of the ENS-affiliated social group of signers in Mexico City. She grew up with ENS signers as her godparents, her aunts and uncles, her parents, and her parents’ close friends, compadres and comadres. Fabiola and I have both read widely in the U.S.-dominated fields of deaf education and psychology. Each of us has crossed the border to experience the foreign country next door, and the Deaf people on the other side, and we have both traveled internationally to conferences where we have come into contact with Deaf people from other nations. Our shared sense is that even though the common experience of living as a signing Deaf person surrounded by hearing, nonsigning people shapes lives in powerful ways across the globe, the specific differences between nations and cultures also have an impact on the ways Deaf people organize their lives individually and in communities.

In telling the ENS signers’ life stories, I want to challenge readers to expand their assumptions about Deaf people’s lives. Through considering Deaf people in Mexico as Deaf and also Mexican and subject to the circumstances, culture, and values of Mexico, I urge readers to consider the ways that Deaf people in the U.S. are Deaf and also American. Living as a Deaf person cannot by itself override the other cultural and ethnic factors in one’s life, although it will color those factors. Further, living in a developing nation may make a Deaf person so different from one living in the industrialized world that the common experiences of Deaf life are no longer mutually intelligible. The Mexico City Deaf people are Deaf but they are also Mexican, primarily of mestizo (a blend of Southern European and New World native DNA, with a touch of African DNA) heritage, Roman Catholic, and residents of a nation that cannot manage to offer the obligatory nine years of schooling to its entire population, much less special education adequate to serve the needs of Deaf students. Not insignificantly, they are also close neighbors of the United States, a sometimes uneasy position to be in. A famous Mexican saying attributed to Porfirio Díaz goes, “Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States.” By relating the stories of Mexican Deaf people I hope not only to describe ways of life that contrast with those of U.S. Deaf people, but also to push readers to consider what it means to be both Deaf and American, Deaf and Canadian, or Deaf and Mexican. If we are to take culture as a rich and explanatory account of Deaf communities, then we cannot avoid taking culture as a rich and key account of the larger national communities of which Deaf communities are a part.


5. I funded some research expenses myself, however I received research support from several sources. They are the National Science Foundation, the Endangered Languages Documentation Project, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, the University of Nebraska Lincoln Research Council, the University of Nebraska Teachers College Dean’s Office, and the UCSD Committee on Research. Although these institutions funded my research, I am solely responsible for the work reported here, including the final translations of the ENS signers’ narratives, their interpretation and analysis, and conclusions based on them. The research was conducted with the approval of the Institutional Review Boards of both the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and University of California, San Diego.

6. A resident of Mexico DF, or el DF. The letter names for D and F are nominalized to create the noun defeño/a.


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