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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Signing in Puerto Rican: A Hearing Son and His Deaf Family
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They threw their hands about, competing for the loudest laughs. Any exaggerated movement would do: fingers in acrobatic maneuvers, clownish faces, grunting noises. Standing and sitting, they were bunched together and making like they were trading signs. They pretended it was an inside joke, but they must’ve known my parents could see what was going on.

168th, 145th, 125th. The train raced downtown as the show continued. And in the audience I saw a variety of reactions: embarrassment, pity, and fear. I perceived varieties of anger as well. There was anger directed at the troublemakers. And there was another anger reserved for my parents, for starting the whole mess in the first place.

Up to now, I was a bystander, seated apart from them.

“Ahtay!” (I was known as “Andy” in the hearing world, but “Ahtay,” with the accent on “tay” is how it sounded in the Deaf world.) Pop waved at me to get my attention. He said for me to get the time from someone.

Of course, Pop knew the time. What he wanted was not the time but for everyone else to know that I was with him. I asked an elderly lady sitting across the aisle. I always preferred approaching older people. I signed the time to Pop; he told me to thank the elderly lady; she told me to tell Pop he’s welcome; Pop nodded his head at her, with the trademark grin that barely curled the corners of his mouth. He raised his hand in thanks and the lady smiled at me.

Then the passengers turned to me, interpreting the scene. The boy in the corner is with the deaf folks, but he can hear and speak. He’s been observing the whole scene, and maybe he’s been watching us too. Earlier Pop and Oliverio surprised the two men at the silver pole. And now the confusion deepened, the faces changed again, and I guessed at what they were thinking: “Hey, I don’t get this. Don’t deaf people have deaf children?” “Wow. What’s it like to be a child in that home?” “Did that kid learn to speak with his hands, before he learned to talk?” “So he can curse all he wants? Hey, that’s cool!”

I remember what went through my mind in these situations: “Sometimes hearing people, they get so stupid. Like the kids on this train, making fun of my parents with their phony sign language.”

Once, earlier, on another subway ride when people were staring at my parents, I felt so bad for them that I got up and screamed, “Hey, what’s the matter with you? You never saw deaf people before? They’re just regular people, you know!”

Man, that blew them away! You should’ve seen them when they realized I could hear and talk and sign. How quickly their faces changed. But I knew when it was all over, and they were home, they’d laugh themselves silly. To think they were fooled like that! So yelling or making a scene every time wasn’t worth the trouble. I learned that from Pop. He might give a dirty look, but that was about it. But that Friday night, when I was an eighth grader and the kids were mimicking my parents and their friends, something else happened.

The subway pulled out of the 125th Street station. The A train had one extended stretch of nonstop travel. By itself, the ride from 125th to 59th street was worth the price of admission. The train zipped by local stations so fast that you could barely identify them. Also, there was a forest of I-beams that cluttered the view as we raced along the middle tracks of the tunnel. It was an ear-busting sprint and I doubt any train in the entire system sped along like the A train on that stretch. And I doubt any of them gave you as bumpy a ride. At top speed it felt as if the train wheels weren’t made for those tracks, as if the manufacturers had miscalculated ever so slightly the proper circumference of the wheels. Each bounce and clash sent a charge up my spine. The clanging and pounding of steel on steel was so thunderous even Mom and Isaura, who were still sitting in the corner seats, covered their ears.

All that excitement just agitated the kids further, provoking them into kindergarten play: dancing fingers, twisted faces, animal voices. And worst of all, there was the laughing. My parents and Oliverio and Isaura looked away. The other passengers were upset and uneasy.

As the train screeched into 59th Street, where we would switch to the D line, we were ready to get off. Finally. On the way out, Mom poked at my shoulder: “Ahtay.”

She pointed to the kids so they could see her then she angrily signed to me what she wanted them to know. Then she crouched her short, chubby body in their direction, flashed a menacing look that left no doubt what she thought of them, and threw them the middle finger of her right hand.

The kids recoiled, giggled nervously, then stopped laughing.

Mom poked again at my shoulder, ordering me to translate.

I relayed her words. “She says God will punish you for making fun of us; she says your children will be born deaf.”


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