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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Emergence of the Deaf Community in Nicaragua: “With Sign Language You Can Learn So Much”

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1. A free trade zone (Zona Franca) is an industrial park with multiple plants in which products are typically assembled from pieces manufactured elsewhere. Although some of the companies running plants in these zones are Nicaraguan, most have headquarters in other countries, such as China or South Korea. As the Internet website entitled Free Trade Zones explains: “According to the legally accepted definition, the free trade zones . . . are those parts of the [host country’s] territory that are managed according to special laws and bylaws and are excluded from the laws of the governing motherland. These zones are excluded from the domain of the custom authorities and enjoy the full freedom for the in and out flow of goods and commodities. Unique geographical locations, sufficiently developed infrastructure and the foreign investment incentives have provided ample opportunity for internal as well as foreign investment in the zones.” (, no date given for last update. Consulted on February 19, 2005). Since workers in the free trade zones are paid only the minimal wage of the host country, it is economically feasible to send components manufactured elsewhere for assemblage to a free trade zone in a country such as Nicaragua, and then return the product to other countries where it can be sold for a much higher price. Nicaragua is only one of many countries with this type of arrangement. The Internet website, EscapeArtist, for example, lists information about the free trade zones in 33 countries (, last updated in 2004, consulted on February 19, 2005). For many years, there was only one free trade zone in Nicaragua, in northeastern Managua, but more zones have been set up in Sébaco and Ciudad Sandino, and more are envisioned for other parts of the country in the future. In 2002, the Ministry of Labor signed an agreement that the minimum wage for workers in the free trade zones would be 730 córdobas (equal to US$52.00 at that time) per month (Castillo Zeas 2002).

2. This is a Nicaraguan affectionate term referring to small children, perhaps translatable as “The Kids.” The name of the association is significant in that it is definitely an association FOR disabled kids. The “kids” themselves have no voice in the organization’s agenda.

3. Unfortunately, he left Nicaragua during the 1979 revolution, and his present whereabouts, if he is still living, are unknown, so I was never able to interview him.

4. While denying vehemently that the membership list was “confidential” and or that the association had any policy against releasing this information, the president of the deaf association nonetheless took a long time to give me the membership list, which I finally obtained in May 1997 after several formal requests starting in February. (All requests were granted, the problem always consisted of finding a time convenient for the member in charge of the records to show me the files.) According to the then-vice president (who cared for the files), no master list existed. I was finally given access to two drawers, one containing the files for all the male members, and a separate one for the files for the female members. I read each file individually, copying by hand the name, birth date, and registration card number listed. Thus, all references to number of members of the deaf association are current only as of May 30, 1997. Obtaining access to this data was onerous and time-consuming. I have not had the opportunity to bring these numbers up to date in my subsequent visits to Nicaragua, which have all been shorter than the 1997 fieldwork. After organizing the information into a database, I gave the president of the deaf association copies of the list arranged by last names, first names, birthdates, and registration numbers. He appeared pleased with the lists, and at that point noted that it was a worthwhile task, and that the association would benefit from having a master list. He was not interested, however, in obtaining a copy of the database so that it could be kept current. From subsequent discussions with him from 1997 to 2003, I am led to believe that the rolls have not been updated regularly, or been made in any way comprehensive.

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