10 Tips for Going to the Movies with a Deaf Teenager

I was taken aback when I learned that a favorite pastime of the Deaf community in Moyobamba is going to the movies. There are no subtitles, which wouldn’t make any difference considering none of the deaf people I know can read Spanish fluently. Instead, they rely on the images on the screen to tell the story.

Being the only hearing person accompanying a person who’s deaf to the movies can be an intimidating thing. Here are a few tips I would’ve given myself in hindsight, or what I’ll have to remember the next time I find myself in this situation.

  1. Know your audience.

In this case, you’re going to the movies with 15-year-old Abigail. On Tuesdays and Fridays she’s your student, and on Mondays and Thursdays you’re hers. She’s a hopeless romantic. She’s intelligent, thoughtful, kind, and beautiful, much like the main character of the film you’re about to see. She’s also one of the best dancers you’ve met in Peru, proving you don’t need to hear the music to be an incredible dancer. Though her parents are overprotective, she loves them dearly.

On the day we were planning to see the movie, she came into the office crying and gasping for breath. As she’d been walking to work she was attacked and bitten several times by the neighbor’s dog. Her arm and side were punctured several times. Her parents were with her; we pleaded with them to take her to the doctor, but she also happens to have a heart condition. They were convinced new medicine for dog bites would only further damage her heart. She didn’t go to school the next day or work the following day, and your concern for her grows exponentially. You visit her home two nights after the original incident to check in and speak with her parents. She smiles when she sees you, runs to you and gives you a huge hug. She’s in a tank and sweatpants with her hair in a tight bun on top of her head. The swelling has gone down and she looks visibly better. You ask if she’d feel up for seeing the movie, and a huge grin spreads across her face. She asks what time it starts: 13 minutes, and it’s across town. Naturally, she sprints into her room and starts changing. She lets her hair down, puts in the bow she wears everyday, and changes into a fancy black dress. We hop in a mototaxi and head across town to the theater – we get there in the knick of time.

2. Know the movie.

Especially since Spanish is your second language and Peruvian Sign Language your third, it would be helpful to see this movie in advance. When you watch it the first time around, if you’re able to follow the Spanish, it might be helpful to go ahead and start thinking about how you would sign certain scenes. Since your sign language is still basic, you need to boil down each scene with dialogue to its essence. You have a significant advantage here because you already happen to know 80% of the lines of this film and 100% of the songs.

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I’d say I’m already pretty familiar.

3. Be open to learning new signs on the go.

You don’t know all the signs, and so you sometimes try to make things up as you go along. Every once in a while this means you’ll get signs totally wrong. For example, you spent the first several scenes translating beast as cow. This explains why Abigail looked confused anytime you tried explaining what the Beast had said; there are approximately zero cows in this film (although to be honest I’m super curious about Beauty and the Cow).

4. You might be quizzed.

Abigail is your student some days, co-worker other days, and friend every day, but she’s also your teacher. When animals (not cows) show up in the film, you may be given an impromptu test. For example, an owl appears a third of the way through the film, and she’ll make sure you know how to sign it before she lets you get back to translating the actual plot.

5. Learn the names for the characters.

Some of the signs are obvious, and she’ll sign many of the names for you first:

Belle – use the sign for “beautiful.”

Gaston – “bad” and “man.”

Lumière – “light.”

Cogsworth (Tingtong in the Spanish version) – “time”.

Lefou – “fat.” (I had some qualms about using this, but Peruvians calling someone gordo is exceptionally common. Especially if you’re deaf, descriptions of what you can see are all the more important.)

Beast – “beast” (take your index fingers and thumbs and trace where the beast’s horns would be on your head. Definitely don’t make the sign for cow)

6. Watch for reactions.

This is where the “know your audience” piece becomes important. You were nervous about how she might respond to the scene where Belle is attacked by wolves, especially considering what had just happened to her two days ago. This ends up not being a problem; in fact, it’s one of the most surprising moments of the movie. When the Beast roars at the wolves the final time, look over and you’ll see her eyes wide, mouth hanging open. She could feel her seat shaking from the vibration of the roar.

7. Songs are hardest to translate, but you don’t need to translate word for word.

Here’s how to translate “Belle”: The beautiful girl says: “I like to read! This town is boring.” The town says: “The beautiful girl likes to read? She’s pretty, but weird.”

You can sum up the song “Gaston” by signing: “Everyone in the whole community likes the bad man.”

“Be Our Guest” is tough since you don’t know the sign for guest. Instead you can just sign – “everyone says welcome.” What’s happening on screen is even more fun than the specific words, anyway.

The Mob Song – “Kill the beast” (pretty straightforward).

8. Some scenes need no translation – and be wary of over-translating.

You don’t need to sign anything for “Beauty and the Beast.” She’s a total hopeless romantic, so when you look over at her during the ballroom dance, you see her clutching her chest, eyes welling up with tears. The power of this scene is beyond language for her.

Sometimes you don’t need to translate, even though she’s asking you to. For example, during the film’s climax, she asked what Belle, the Beast, and Gaston are all saying to each other. While you were translating, *26-year-old spoiler alert* Gaston shoots the Beast, and she missed it because she’d been watching you translate instead of the screen. Since you knew what was coming, that would’ve been a good time to re-direct her back to the screen instead of trying to translate everything you could.

9. Allow for interruptions.

She’ll interrupt your translations to tell you about where she sees herself in the film. She feels a lot like Belle – an outcast, loves to learn, and very intelligent. As a true teenager, she’s also tells you about how she views the boy she has a crush on as the beast. She signs the name of her crush during the ballroom dance, and you know this has to be part of the reason she’s crying. Oh to be 15 again…

10. She’ll talk about it for weeks.

After the movie ends, you take a picture in the front of the theater. When she looks at the picture, she zooms in on herself and signs, “I’m beautiful!” Later she’ll ask if you put the picture on Facebook. You say no, only Instagram. But her crush is on Facebook, and she wants him to see how beautiful she looks. So I share the picture on Facebook and he not only sees it – he likes it.

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For the next several weeks she’ll tell you over and over, whether you’re in the office together or at school, how much she loved going to the movies with you. Sometimes you’ll catch her pretending to ballroom dance, reaching out into an invisible partner, grinning from ear to ear.

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A few days ago, she asked me if I’d seen the movie about a girl with long hair. I needed a little more clarification, so she kept describing the movie – she has a pig and a chicken, and loves to sail boats on the ocean. I pull up a picture of Moana on my phone and she nods excitedly. This is what she wants to watch next – hopefully I’ll be able to remember a few of these tips, though I probably need to learn how to sign “island,” “explore,” and “you’re welcome” first.

Peace,

Emily

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Updates and Diving Deeper

It’s been so long and my life is so full I hardly know where to start. Since you last heard from me, I’ve changed host families, joined a cycling club, participated in a peace march, traveled to rural communities to visit deaf students’ families, been to a funeral, read twelve books, began a weekly “Cine en Casa” group with friends, hiked to six waterfalls in the Amazon, been on a retreat in Lima, and hiked the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu with a dear friend from the United States.

 

 

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ACNF4829 (1).jpgThere’s so much to tell I’ve started writing nine separate blog posts, but with so much to process I can barely find the words to finish one post. It’s been seven months since I arrived in Moyobamba and I still feel like my heart is bursting at the seems. My joys and pain are more acute; my highs are higher and my lows are lower. Every week feels like a month, every month feels like a year, and I can hardly believe we’re only halfway through.

There’s so much I want you to know about my life here, but first I’ll dive more deeply into what weighs most heavily on my heart: the Deaf community in San Martín.

I’m starting to finally feel grounded in Sign Language (more so than Spanish, actually). With my feet more firmly planted, I have the opportunity to more deeply understand the primary problems the community faces and even some of the root causes.

Access to Education:

Our School for the Deaf with Paz y Esperanza shouldn’t technically exist. In 2007, a new law required every student to be integrated into mainstream education programs. This means that the majority of deaf students are in hearing schools without interpreters or language access. There was even a congress session that included the discussion of using sign language in deaf education.

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Somehow, this led to the government’s move toward adopting an oralist philosophy in education, discouraging sign language in schools, and the attempt to mainstream all children who are deaf. Many deaf students who attend hearing school are not even listed as deaf in official records. They are invisible to the State. The government believes that mainstream education is sufficient, endlessly touting its “inclusivity.” In reality, the deaf students sit in class, not understanding a word, completely bored.

For the past few weeks, we’ve traveled to rural communities and met deaf children, teenagers, mothers, and older adults, many of whom never learned a single word of any language. We visited their homes and the niños sordos who have participated in our program for years explained why we’d love for them to join us. Most live in rural communities and are the children of farmers. Most face a lifetime of working on their family’s chacra, unable to communicate with anyone except through the rudimentary signs they use with their families.

 

 

 

Some of our students live so far away that they have to begin their journey to school the night before. Some walk for two hours along a dirt path to a bus stop just to ride for another hour. These students, some of whom aren’t even teenagers yet, make this journey to school alone.

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They’re willing to make the journey because without this school, they’d live in complete isolation, even from other people who are deaf. If there aren’t schools specifically for people who can’t hear, how will they possibly ever learn to communicate in any meaningful way?

*By the way, the United States has this same debate about “mainstreaming” deaf children in hearing schools. The debate is complicated by the use of cochlear implants, which is out of the question for people in this context. I’m pretty convicted by the fact that I know more about the Deaf community in Peru than I do about the Deaf community in my own country. I have a lot of learning to do when I go home.

Job Opportunities:

Alay is one of our adult students. He only began learning sign language a few years ago, spending the first twenty-five years of his life totally language deprived. That means he never had access to language (much less an education) until he was my age.

He’s also the sole provider of income for his family. He sells products in the street outside of a market in Moyobamba. His father is an alcoholic and can’t be relied upon to help provide for the family. Alay brings home just three soles a day, about 87 cents. This is meant to provide for himself, his mom, his sister, and her two daughters.

A few weeks ago, the municipalidad warned street vendors that selling their products in the street outside of the mercado was prohibited. Evidently they attempted to explain this to him several times, but he couldn’t understand their warnings.

Everything was taken. Even though he was doing honest work the best way that he knew how, the municipalidad confiscated all of his products and his family’s only source of income. Their claim, they say, is simply to apply the law, regardless of context. That he happened to be deaf was irrelevant, as the officer who confiscated his belongings later said in an interview.

Of course it’s relevant. The State is punishing him for their own failure to provide him an education. The Deaf community wants to be productive members of society, but how is that possible if there’s no access to education or work?

Language Deprivation: 

In the United States, if a child doesn’t have access to language by the time they’re three, it’s considered abuse. With this metric, practically every single one of the 10,000 people who are deaf in San Martín experiences the abuse of language deprivation.

In a child development psychology class in college, I learned the story about a girl named Genie, who was trapped in a closet by foster parents every day for the majority of her first thirteen years of life. After she was rescued, scientists attempted to teach her language, but she was ultimately unable to learn. Her story was instrumental in discovering that people who pass a certain age deprived of language will likely never be able to learn beyond a certain point.

I think about this story every Wednesday, when we’re with the adults who are deaf. Paz y Esperanza’s school has only existed for four or five years, meaning many of the adults are learning how to communicate for the first time. Only a limited amount of progress is possible. I struggle to decipher the meaning of the rudimentary signs they use.

A heartbreaking example: one woman, when you ask about who she lives with, will make a motion like she’s swatting something away and then hold up the number three. I learned later she was trying to say that her husband had been killed – he was shot three times. Can you imagine going through this trauma and having no way of even communicating what had happened to you? This is why people who are deaf are at much greater risk for sexual abuse: they’re trapped without any the ability to express their experience in a way that others can possibly understand.

The reality is most of the 10,000 people who are deaf in San Martín will never have access to language, much less education. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be productive members of society. They want to learn, they want to work, but what can they do without access to language or an education?

****

Some of my closest friends in Peru this year are deaf. They don’t want to be viewed as pobrecitos or objects of pity. They want to be seen in the fullness of their humanity. They want the right to study, to learn, to work. They want the right to connect. They want the right to language. They want the right to be human.

Living in a society deeply affected by capitalism, we confer value to lives based on what they can produce. If a person is considered unable to contribute to the economy, their “value” in society is diminished. What would happen if people’s worth were not dependent upon what they could do or what they could produce, but for who they are? For simply being? For existing? We might see that everyone has worth and deserves love and respect. It also means that every last person has a right to be fully human – to be honored as such.

But what does it mean to be human? I believe at least in part, it means to be in relationship with other humans and the world, and language is fundamental to being in relationship. Dehumanization, treating someone as if they’re less than human, in this context happens when people who are deaf are systematically denied access to a language they can understand.

Can you imagine a life without access to language? Can you imagine having no means of expressing yourself or connecting with anyone? Can you imagine the isolation and the loneliness? Language and connection with others is fundamental to the human experience; language deprivation is literally inhumane, perhaps the most fundamental of injustices.

Three new students joined us last week. Two are siblings (ages 11 and 6) and one is a cousin living next door (age 5). We had visited their home the day before and let them know how much we would love for them to join us. The next morning, we practically jumped with excitement when they appeared with their fathers at the colectivo the next day for our commute to the school. The new children watched the others with a fierce intensity, trying to make sense of the rapid sign language. I climbed into the combi right next to them and they shyly smiled up at me. I pointed to their dad and showed them the sign for papá: I curved my index and middle fingers into the shape of a p, touched my index finger to my cheek, and shook my hand twice. I asked them to try, but they continued to smile shyly. The eleven-year-old, looking straight ahead, quickly shaped his fingers into a p and shook his hand twice. He glanced over furtively to see if I’d been watching. I had, and was practically bouncing in my seat out of excitement for him. He’d learned his first sign! His first word! He beamed with pride and quickly began helping his little sister and cousin form a p with their fingers and teaching them how to make the sign as well. The entire rest of the hour-long ride, they kept pointing to whatever they could see – a backpack, a journal, a boy, a girl, a gas station, a car, a moto, trees, flowers, a water bottle; anything that was in or out of the car, they wanted to know the sign. They were hungry to learn, to know that everything has a name, and to know that meaningful communication for them too is possible. Soon, they’ll even know their names.

Paz y Esperanza’s work in teaching language to those who’ve lived their whole lives without is the first step in rehumanizing those who have been systematically stripped of their fundamental right to be human. Where there would be isolation and loneliness, this program creates community in a space where students literally name each other. I’m so grateful to bear witness to the transformation that comes from being known in a community.

Peace,

Emily

Storytelling, Deaf Culture, and Disney

Storytelling is an art, but I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun telling stories as I do with the Deaf community. Without spoken words, you have to rely entirely on your body to convey meaning.

And it’s not just body language and facial expressions; there’s a theatricality behind the signs you use. For example, when I was first taught the word in sign language for abeja (bee), I was told to put my index finger and thumb together, act like my hand was flying around my head, tap my cheek with my fingers, then slap my cheek in the same place. This, by itself, is the sign for bee.

But Clara acted out an entire story: she was walking through a forest when she saw a beehive. Mmmm, the honey inside is so sweet! She wants it! So she takes out her bow and arrow and shoots the beehive, which falls to the ground. A million bees fly out and sting her everywhere! Ouch, it hurts!

This was how I learned the word for bee (as well as forest, trees, sweet, pain, etc.)

In the same way, I didn’t just learn the word for policía. I had to act out a thief robbing a purse from an unsuspecting woman, the woman crying, the police officer chasing the thief, putting the thief behind bars, angry that he’d been caught.

At first I didn’t like this technique. I just wanted to know the sign for the word, nada más. But I’ve started to understand the importance of storytelling in this community. With only your hands and face at your disposal for communicating with others, theatricality is necessary.

On my very first day in charge of class at the school, I decided to use a story as the basis for my lesson plan. And if you know me at all, you probably know that I really love Disney. So, here’s what we did:

I recommend watching it without the sound, so you can see what it’s like to understand the story as someone who’s deaf. 

I showed this video clip to the students several times (the two fifteen-year old girls cried every time) so they could get the plot down. Then each student acted it out.

Here’s a video of Jhon Alex, one of the younger students, doing a great job telling the story in sign language:

 

After students told the story in their own words, we practiced writing in Spanish. This is to practice Spanish literacy; they already know the words in sign language. The words you can see on the whiteboard behind Jhon Alex in the video are the vocabulary words needed to tell this particular story. There’s avion (airplane), papel (paper), volar (to fly), hombre (man), mujer (woman), encontrar (to meet), etc. They wrote the words in the journal, then each student came to the front to spell the words in sign language from memory in front of the class.

Because paper airplanes are central to the story, after we finished writing and spelling, we made paper airplanes and flew them outside!

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I asked them to color or draw on both sides of the paper. Many of the students wanted to draw the lipstick smacked on the paper, just like in the video! 

This class was such a blast that it’s going to be the basis for many of my classes when I’m teaching on my own! Erika, my supervisor, asked me to find 20 videos, preferably between 5 and 10 minutes, with minimal or no dialogue. I’ve found several Pixar and old Disney clips (ie Silly Symphonies) that I can use, but I would love suggestions! If you know of any clips from movies or come across anything on the internet, please send it my way!

Thanks, everyone!

Peace,

Emily

mi perrito, campeón (my dog, champion)

I’ve always been a dog person. My family in the States sends me more pictures of our dog, Junebug, than the humans in the family. I’ve always been around dogs that were loved unconditionally, like a sibling or a child. This is why the most intense culture shock I experienced upon arrival in Peru was witnessing the ubiquitous malnourished street dogs.

They’re everywhere. With exposed ribcages and various skin diseases, they wander the streets and weave in and out of traffic. They spend the day alternating between sleeping on the sidewalk and scavenging trash heaps in pursuit of food. Street dogs have become in my mind a piece of the landscape of Peru. From the cities to the pueblitos to the roads that connect them, street dogs are there, suffering and surviving.

….

I’d been sitting in the office all day. Desperately needing to stretch my legs I decided to go on an extended walk. Listening to a podcast, admiring Moyobamba’s early evening sky, I was perfectly content. After only fifteen minutes, a perrito began trailing me. He sidled up to me on my left and walked alongside. I turned a corner, he turned a corner, I crossed a street, he crossed a street, I stopped, he stopped. This was unprecedented; in my experience, you ignore street dogs and they ignore you in return. I did nothing to encourage him except occasionally look down at him, but eye contact was all the encouragement this perrito needed. With an exposed ribcage, a waspish waist my hands could wrap around, and a persistent twitch of his right paw, he remained stubbornly by my side for over an hour.

Our walk was not without incident. Twice he meandered directly in front of me, causing me to stop suddenly and lose my balance. As I struggled to regain composure, the perrito saw my flailing arms and misinterpreted my clumsiness as aggression. He froze, tail between his legs, and crouched in terror. He was clearly expecting a kick. When none came, he rushed back to my left side and we resumed our stroll.

Someone else tried to kick him, though. I saw a parent narrowly miss the perrito with his foot in an attempt to keep the dog away from his child. Later, a street vendor threw water on him when he wandered too close to her food. He’d been a few feet behind me, so he dodged the water and quickly took his place once again by my side.

We’d been walking for nearly an hour. Finally, about two blocks from my house, something across the street distracted him. As he ran to investigate, I marched onward. I cast a furtive glance behind me, and perrito was gone. Assuming he’d lost interest in me, I sat down in the main plaza about a block away from my home to write for a while. Sure enough, minutes later, perrito had tracked me down and ran towards me. He plopped down next to my bench and raised his head, gazing at me expectantly.

What could I do? How could I help? I couldn’t give him shelter. I couldn’t feed him for more than an evening. Not seeing any other choice, I’d resolved to leave him. To go home a block away, and if he followed me, to close the door behind him.  We sat together for ten minutes as I tried to work up the conviction to follow through with my plan. An older Peruvian couple approached us.

“Is this your dog?” they asked.

“No, he’s been following me all afternoon,” I answered in faltering Spanish.

“He’s sick! He’s so, so skinny. And his right arm is twitching. Why don’t you take him to the vet?”

“There’s a veterinarian here? Where?”

They attempted to describe the location, but I was unable to repeat the directions back to them. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to find the office on my own, so they offered to accompany me there. The perrito followed me, following them. They told me about their rescued pit bulls, their new puppies, their love for their pit bull family, and how pit bulls remain unfairly stigmatized.

The three of us, perrito by my side, stood in line. I told them I’m a volunteer, I’ll be in Moyobamba until July, I’m living with a host family, I can’t take this dog home. We could ask the veterinarian to treat perrito for tonight, but I couldn’t provide any kind of long term care.

Normally I dislike people blatantly listening in on conversations, but amazingly, the woman standing in front of us in line turned around and said, “I know someone who takes in dogs from the street! I’ll give him a call and see if he can take your dog.”

And just like that, every piece was falling into place. This caring, dog-loving couple happened to be walking past right as I was considering leaving the perrito, they were kind enough to offer to walk me to the veterinarian, this woman (Deisy) happened to be in front of us in line, listening to our conversation, and knew someone who could provide long-term shelter. It was like the universe was conspiring to save this perrito.

Our turn to see the veterinarian finally arrived. The perrito was terrified to enter, so I carried him. The couple accompanied me inside as I plopped him down on the metal table. The vet looked him over and launched into rapid-fire, medical jargon that I definitely never learned in any Spanish class. I was totally lost. I looked back at the man and woman, who nodded at me reassuringly. Finally they translated the most important piece; the perrito needed medicine and it would cost 12 soles. Okay, not a problem. But I’d have to go to the pharmacy and bring it back, and the vet’s office was closing in 10 minutes. I didn’t know where the pharmacy was. The man offered to run there and pick up the prescription while I waited with his wife and the perrito.

He closed his doors minutes before the man returned with the prescription. The vet, who was about to hop on his moto and drive away, saw us and agreed to open his doors back up just for me and perrito. The vet gave him his shot (while I was holding perrito in a death grip) and gave me enough dog food to last the night.

Again, the pieces were falling into place and the universe was conspiring to make sure this dog would be safe, healthy, and loved. An entire community of strangers was rallying around perrito, whom I decided to name Campeón (Champion in Spanish. Not only the name of a three-legged rescue dog on my favorite television show, but also an appropriate name for any dog who has experienced the trauma and abuse that he’s survived).

Deisy came back with the news. Her friend could take the dog, but only at 10am the following morning. It was currently 7pm. Knowing there was a home waiting for him, I resolved to beg my host mom to allow me to keep him in my room for the night.

Deisy generously gave me a leash to bring him home. But this rope utterly horrified Campeón. He was squirming and squealing and struggling until finally, I took off the leash. I handed it back to Deisy, thanked her for everything, and began walking home with Campeón. Happy to be leash-less once again, he was practically prancing by my side.

I poked my head in the door of my house. I didn’t want to go inside; Campeón would follow me and I knew I needed permission before a stray dog came inside the home. I shouted my host mom’s name over and over, but my abuelita came instead. When she saw Campeón by my side, she immediately shouted at him, clapped in his face, and shooed him away. Campeón looked like he was about to flee and I panicked for a second, but I managed to calm him down. This thoroughly confused abuelita. My host mom appeared and I explained the situation. He would only be here for a night, he’d have a home at 10am the following morning, I just needed to keep him safe until then, I’d keep him on the roof or in my room, somewhere out of the way, and I’d stay with him the whole time. My host mom looked less than pleased. “They’re dirty,” she said. “They have diseases. I don’t think this is a good idea, but if this is what you want to do, you can. Keep an eye on him.”

After thanking her profusely, I brought him (carried him) up to the roof and we sat together as he slept and I read a book. Sitting there, under the clearest and starriest night sky I’ve seen in Peru, I considered the options for the night. I didn’t want to sleep on the roof and I knew I would need to accompany him during the night. So I crept back to my bedroom to prepare the space for a stray dog. I could hear Campeón whining from the roof, certain that I’d abandoned him. As soon as the space was ready, I carried him into my room. It was 10pm and we were both exhausted. Campeón curled up under my bed and was still all night.

He rose at precisely 6am, tail wagging furiously, ready to face the world. I grabbed a jacket, shoes, and keys and we were off. I carried him through the house as fast as I could, put him down to open the door, turned back around, and… Campeón was peeing in the entrance hallway of the house. To make matters worse, my host family’s house is also a bakery. The first room you walk through is actually the space where all the customers sit to eat. THIS is where Campeón peed.

Grateful that no one else had yet woken, I rushed Campeón outside, he pooped (beyond grateful that didn’t happen in the bakery) and we briskly walked around the block. As frustrated as I was with Campeón in this moment, I noticed that he carried himself with an entirely new demeanor. The day before, his tail was between his legs, his head always slightly bowed, and he had a fearful and submissive expression. Now his tail was wagging, he was running ahead of me, and waiting eagerly for me to catch up. He looked visibly happier.

When we arrived back in front of my home, I faced a dilemma. I needed to clean before anyone in my family woke up. But if Campeón came back inside with me, he’d trot right through and track his mess everywhere in the house. I decided to take a chance; I would close the door on him so he couldn’t come inside, mop up the mess, then find him again outside. So, that’s what I did. He whined for only the first few moments after I shut the door. I grabbed the mop, cleaned up his mess, grabbed the dog food the vet had given me, and stepped outside. I assumed since he hadn’t left my side for the last twelve hours, he would stay close to the house.

I was wrong. He wasn’t anywhere. I ran around the block. Up and down the street. I sat in the plaza to see if he’d wander through. Nothing.

It was 6:30am at this point. I had three and a half hours to find him before he was supposed to be off with his new family. I still had time.

I decided to retrace my steps from the day before, on the path I’d first encountered him. My hope was that he’d returned to whatever corner of the street he was on the day before. It was an hour-long route. Nothing.

With each step, I sank into deeper and deeper guilt. I thought of how the universe had conspired to make sure Campeón would be safe, healthy, and loved, and how I had thrown this all away with my terrible choice to close the door on him. Of course he would think I had abandoned him. How could I have been so cruel? How was I supposed to tell Deisy and her friend that I’d lost him because of my careless decision? It would be my fault that this dog, who’d been hours away from having a home, would once again become an unloved street dog, tearing through trash on the curb for food, shivering curled up on the sidewalk in the rain, enduring kicks from strangers who would never see him as more than a potential vector of disease. I was heartbroken and losing hope.

It was 7:30am. I’d already cried, immersed myself in guilt, and walked a few miles, which is a lot more than I usually accomplish by that point in the morning. I decided I needed to rest. I’d regroup and set off again right after. I sat down to have breakfast with my host family.

“Where’s the dog?” my host mom asked me.

“He left,” I answered, a guilty knot forming in my stomach.

They all agreed they were very impressed that he hadn’t barked or made any noise the night before.

“That’s because Campeón’s the best dog ever,” I thought to myself, tears once again filling my eyes. I had to find him. I just had to. My terrible mistake of closing the door on him could not be the reason he wouldn’t have a home.

It was 8am. I had two hours to go.

Filled with new resolve, I embarked once again on my quest to remedy my potentially tragic error. As I walked with purpose in the opposite direction, the dogs in my path increased exponentially.

Of course! The market! What better place for a dog to find some breakfast than some local street vendors frying up some breakfast?

I wound my way through the streets, pausing when my eyes fell upon a dog that looked remarkably like Campeón. Every time the process was the same: I approached the dog, I’d notice some incongruity in appearance. At the same moment I’d conclude the dog before me wasn’t Campeón, the perrito would see me and scamper away.

“Campeón wouldn’t run away from me,” I told myself. Once he saw me, we’d be inseparable again. It was just a matter of finding him. With earnest determination, I marched on.

And then, just like that, in the distance I saw…was that him? It looked like him, but I’ve been wrong before… no, it had to be him! At that moment, he looked at me.

Yes! It was him!!

Then, he ran away.

…What? Wait, wasn’t this him? I could’ve sworn…

I began to follow him. He was weaving through the market, taking an odd route for a human, but I doggedly stayed the course. I stared and stared…same ears, same eyes, same tail, same exposed ribcage, same mange… this had to be him. Why doesn’t he recognize me?

Just then, a few feet ahead, I saw a street vendor shout and throw something at him. He dodged, turned his head back around, and saw that I was still following him. He jumped and darted forward.

His mannerisms were identical to the night before. Tail between his legs, crouching submissively, and head bowed as he walked crookedly on. His twitching right leg prevented him from walking in a perfectly straight line.

I knew it was him. I continued the pursuit for several blocks. My eyes welled with tears again as I understood the significance of what was happening; in a true reversal of roles from the night before, I was following him, refusing to let him out of my sight.

I could feel the eyes of some nearby police officers on me, wondering what this gringa could want with a street dog. I didn’t care.

At last, Campeón sat next to a car. Here was my chance! I squat down on the opposite side and waddled my way to the front of the car. I poked my head around the corner, slowly showed myself to him, and extended my arm.

He stared for a few seconds. If he doesn’t recognize me now, in the stillness of this moment, a few feet away from each other, then we’re both lost.

Then, at last, recognition!

I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed or experienced such pure, unadulterated joy as Campeón jumping into my arms, knocking me over, barking, and tail wagging ferociously. We sat on that sidewalk for five minutes, overjoyed to have found each other. I kept shouting “Campeón! Campeón!” over and over, and he couldn’t stop moving. The police officers from earlier were definitely still watching, but again, I didn’t care.

It was 9am. We had a whole hour to spare! We walked back to the plaza, inseparable once again. Every once in a while, so ridiculously happy to have him by my side once again, I’d bend down and pet him. Another man who had been observing us approached and asked incredulously if this was my dog. Campeón looks just like every other despised street dog so I knew I’d be in for a lecture about how dangerous stray dogs are and how I need to stay away.

“Yes,” I answered. “He’s mine.”

We sat down on a bench and I plopped the plastic bag full of dog food down in front of him. I’d been carrying this bag around with me since 6:30am. He hardly touched it. I’d feed him a piece at a time out of my hands, but otherwise he wouldn’t eat. A woman passing by saw me doing this and felt compelled to offer her opinion. “He wants trash,” she informed me. “He’s a street dog.” I pretended like I couldn’t speak Spanish.

I continued sitting with him as he slept on the sidewalk. Lying on his left side, I could see his right paw twitching worse than ever. I just sat with him, so grateful to have found him, grateful for the couple from the night before who accompanied us to the vet, grateful for Deisy, grateful for her friend willing to care for Campeón, and grateful my mistake hadn’t been stronger than the conspiracy of the universe to keep this perrito safe, healthy, and loved.

Deisy, my friend from the night before, arrived at the plaza and told me we needed to stop at the veterinarian’s office to pick up food to bring to Campeón’s new home. She purchased forty soles worth of dog food. When I tried to pay her back, she said it was a gift. Again with the gratitude.

We hopped in a mototaxi and began our journey to Campeón’s new home. On the way, I asked Deisy how many dogs her friend cares for. “Twenty,” she replied.

We finally arrived at the house, a surprisingly long way outside of Moyobamba. The home had a simple, but large, painting of a dog and cat on the front. We knocked on the door, inciting twenty dogs to raise the alarm. Over the barks I heard someone shout to pick up Campeón. I scooped him into my arms as the door cracked open and I inched my way inside. Curious dogs crowded all around, some with waists even smaller than Campeón’s, some who could hardly walk, some with half their fur missing. As the dogs became acquainted, I learned that this is actually a refugio, or a shelter, thought it looks like a typical Peruvian home from the outside. They take in rescued street dogs of Moyobamba, usually the most extreme cases. From what I can tell, it’s entirely volunteer-run with a veterinarian they call in case of emergencies. Once the dogs are nursed back to health and stable, they can be adopted. There were a few aspects I still didn’t understand because the explanation was all in Spanish, but from what I could tell it seemed like an incredible organization (here’s the Facebook page). I said goodbye, grateful to be leaving him in their hands.

I visited him a few days later to ensure he was safe, healthy, and loved. He totally was. Apparently he hasn’t stopped eating since his arrival. His twitch didn’t appear to be as strong as it used to be either. I’ve decided I’m going to try to visit Campeón in his new home once a week and volunteer however they might need me.

The prevailing attitude among many Peruvians toward street dogs echoes what I encountered that morning; they’re dangerous, dirty, and diseased. This is why I am so overwhelmed with gratitude to have found Deisy and the couple from the night before. It was incredible that I met these three people, each with a deep (and counter-cultural) love of dogs. Without them, I wouldn’t have known what to do with Campeón and would’ve left him in the street, not knowing I had other options. They’re the heroes (or dare I say champions?) of this story.

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the new love of my life

May you find love in unexpected places

and allow yourself to be loved unconditionally

May you forgive yourself when you make mistakes

and allow yourself to experience grace,

remembering that all things work together for good.

Peace,

Emily

thoughts on traveling and how everything is problematic

As I slowly stretched my arms into the darkness, I discovered with a shock that my hand was no longer visible. The four of us, my fellow YAVs and our tour guide, stood silently in the night and listened to life teeming around us. We’d already seen scorpions, spiders, and alligators. We filled our lungs with aire puro, partly to calm ourselves, but also knowing that one fifth of all the oxygen in the world comes from the very jungle where we found ourselves. For several silent moments, we stood in the darkness, listening to unseen life. My eyes would never adjust. Perhaps there is a darkness in which our eyes were never meant to adjust.

Over the course of this week, we held tarantulas, hugged sloths, trekked through the Amazon at night, transformed our bodies into a jungle gym for a woolly monkey named Martina, fished for (and caught!) piranhas in the Amazon River, and ate worms found inside a fruit. It was a blast. After spending just a few days deep in the rainforest, I’m reminded of my own smallness. There are entire ecosystems operating entirely outside of my awareness. Organisms, plants, and animals have developed symbiotic relationships over the course of millions of years. Even in my ignorance of the mechanics of this mutual interdependence, nothing nourishes the spirit like feet planted in the earth, lungs filled with the world’s purest air.

 

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As literally refreshing as our Amazon adventure was, I couldn’t turn off my highly critical brain. My fellow YAVs and I joked about how everything (and everyone) is problematic in some way. We were all social science majors in college, conscious of our many privileges and how much space we occupy. In a context where I often feel like my very presence in this country is problematic, this feeling increased exponentially when traveling outside of the community I’ve come to know.

For example, it was difficult not to imagine ourselves through our tour guide’s eyes. Despite speaking perfect English and having a German name (Geyner), he had never left the Amazon. He told us his ancestors had lived in the jungle as well, meaning his family had likely suffered from the rubber boom when Europeans exploited indigenous workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And now here he is, guiding clueless Westerners around the rainforest, enduring our endless selfies and attempts to capture our “exotic” trip to the Amazon. There’s nothing exotic about this land to him, though; his deep familiarity in the jungle is an intimacy I’ll never know with any land. His knowledge is the sum of hundreds of generations.

I’ve spent the past week wrestling with another aspect of our vacation. On my first day in Iquitos I saw more white people wandering the streets than I’ve seen throughout the entirety of my time in Moyobamba. Western travelers, donning their distinctive aesthetic, discussed their recent journeys to Machu Picchu, how long they’ve been in Peru, what country they’ll be visiting next, natural medicines, and how they’ve found themselves through traveling.

Before I go on, allow me to say I’m aware of my own hypocrisy. I travel, clearly. I’m hiking to Machu Picchu in March. I’m hoping to travel more at the end of this YAV year. I’m a living contradiction. But, here it goes.

We have to spurn this delusional, however hypnotic, notion that traveling brings enlightenment. I am no more enlightened than Geyner, who’s never left the Amazon, for having seen more of his own country. Even if “the world is a book and those who don’t travel read only a page,” a page is all most can afford. Enlightenment is not limited only to those who can afford the whole book. I imagine nothing sets the native heart raging like a real, live spoiled-rotten Westerner displaying a full array of underserved privileges and unacknowledged entitlements. This is to pour salt in colonial wounds. Many of the travel agencies we encountered in Iquitos offered to take us to see native tribes “perform a tribal dance” for us, or to participate in an ancient shamanic ritual involving a hallucinogen called Ayahuasca (it’s fitting that the first article I saw when I opened Facebook upon returning was this Onion article). This is openly exploitative. In a world where imperialism still thrives, to wallow in my own pleasure while most I’m working with this year will live and die without seeing their country’s “highlights” feels despicable.

Yet here I am, in Peru, helpless to my own wanderlust, wanting to grasp every opportunity to explore, to learn, to soak in every last new experience. Maybe it isn’t traveling in and of itself that I’ve come to despise, but the unacknowledged privileged narrative that accompanies it. This is why I’m grateful for the YAV program. I’ve experienced cultural exchanges everyday (minus some of those, you know, antisocial days). Sure, my presence here is probably problematic. Maybe I’m participating in the legacy of colonialism, or maybe I’m here only because of my own white guilt, paying penance for my unearned fortune. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I strive for intentionality in the way I’m present here. At the threshold of an unpredictable administration on the verge of seizing power, it is more important than ever to listen, and to listen well.

Stories change us. Connection changes us. Relationships change us. Changing geographical locations does not.

On our first day in Iquitos, I experienced a moment only made possible by the four months I’ve been in Moyobamba with Paz y Esperanza. Catherine and I were sitting on a boardwalk overlooking a river when a woman with a clipboard approached us. The paper read, in English and Spanish, that she was deaf and raising money for a school for deaf children in the region. I set the clipboard down and began signing with her. Her eyes lit up and we began communicating. I asked her what her name is (her hands moved in a quick blur, but I think she spelled Clita) and she asked mine. We taught each other our signed names. I told her I’m a teacher at a school for children who are deaf in San Martín. Clita told me they’re trying to create one in Iquitos. This is an incredible concept to me; there might be a thousand people who are deaf in Iquitos alone, but if no one knows sign language, there’s no community. They remain in isolation, using rudimentary signs with their families.

After we parted ways, we began speaking with two local teenagers from Iquitos for over an hour. They told us most foreigners they encounter can’t sustain a conversation in Spanish with them. After I told them about my work in Moyobamba, they said they’d seen me signing with the woman who was deaf earlier. They’d seen her asking for money in the past, but assumed that she was lying about being deaf to garner pity. They trust her story now and were willing to help her.

This isn’t meant to be a diatribe against traveling as much as it is a call to consciousness, for myself included. There were a few moments in Iquitos I realized too late that I cared more about having a new experience than the harmful consequences left in my wake. If you travel, please do so intentionally. Also know that stories of indescribable beauty, pain, heartbreak, and joy can be found anywhere, whether you’re in Little Rock, Arkansas or Moyobamba, Peru.

Peace,

Emily

Tea, Squat Racks, and Star Wars: Things I’m Grateful For

As we leave the table after every meal, we say gracias. We’re not thanking each other for the food (though of course I’m very grateful to be eating so well here), but to thank people for sharing their presence during the meal. It’s a practice that encourages gratitude for others and recognizes the power in simple presence. As difficult and sometimes lonely my life here can be, I have so many people and moments to be thankful for. Here are a few of them…

 

For “Libre Soy”

Marmi is a thirteen-year-old who lived and worked full-time in my host family’s house. Her parents are farmers who live near Tarapoto, around two hours from Moyobamba. She was working full-time in order to attend school next semester. Every once in a while I’d hear her humming the melody to “Let it Go” from Frozen under her breath. I found the Spanish version, “Libre Soy” (or “I’m Free”) and played it for her. Every time she happened to catch me alone, she’d ask if we could listen to it again. She then asked if I could write out the lyrics so she could practice singing it when I’m not around. Then when she discovered I had the version in English, she asked if I could write out those lyrics as well. In the following weeks I’d listened to the song enough to make it my most played song on my phone. We’d jam together and sing it dramatically on the roof of the house or when no one else was around. We saw the new Disney movie, Moana, on her birthday. Unfortunately I could only find “How Far I’ll Go” in English, but she asked for the lyrics anyway. Marmi left a few weeks ago and as far as I know will be heading back to school in March when summer vacation is over. I like to imagine she’s no longer practicing under her breath, but belting like a true Disney princess would.

 

For abuelitas

For a long time, my abuelita rarely understood anything I said. My Spanish was faltering and my accent was (and still is) terrible. Even when I think I nail the vocabulary and grammar, she turns to someone else in the room to say exactly what I’d said but with a better accent. She couldn’t understand me at all and was convinced I knew nothing. Whenever she spoke to me she’d yell one word at a time. Most of the time she was saying it so slowly and loudly I couldn’t understand her at all, which just reinforced her idea that I knew no Spanish. One lunch however, I was telling my host family about Hurricane Matthew and the damage my hometown in South Carolina suffered. She interrupted, totally shocked, and exclaimed, “You can speak Spanish!” I’m now proud to report that she speaks to me in full sentences and she only occasionally has to ask others to translate my terrible accent.

 

For Kristen and Catherine

We had our first retreat in November in Kristen’s home city for the year, Huánuco. I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear their experiences, their struggles, and their joys. I needed to remember that I’m not alone in this experience. Through hearing their stories I came to understand my own a little more. Though we live across the country for each other, I’m grateful to have this community who get it. I’m also grateful for Jenny and Jed and their wisdom, support, and insight.

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For Peruvian friends

I’ve made some really wonderful friends here in Moyobamba. They’ve made me feel loved, welcomed, and have taught me so much about life here. They have unbelievable patience with me as I ask them to repeat themselves four or five times. They’ve invited me on adventures, like hiking to the third tallest waterfall in the world or meeting coffee farmers in the Amazon and listening to the stories of the farmers’ families. They also invite me to do random things around the city, like going to what was basically a Spanish version of Avenue Q one night and a wrestling match another. They encourage me to explore, to practice my Spanish, and broaden my horizons. They also set awesome examples; I’ve gotten to witness one of my friends shutting down racism and another shutting down machismo (aimed at me). They aren’t afraid to call people out and help me understand some of the injustices I’ve witnessed but don’t know how to process. I’ve learned so much having woke friends from a different culture. They help me further understand how sexism, racism, and ableism operate in this particular context, with this particular cultural history.

 

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My friend Leydi, her four-year-old son Diego, and I on a hike to the third tallest waterfall in the world!

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My friend Lily teaching me how to harvest coffee!

For mothers who learn sign language

Every Monday and Thursday at Paz y Esperanza, we offer sign language classes for the community. With the exception of one father, everyone who attends is either the mother or grandmother of the deaf students. A few weeks ago, we had an end of the year celebration where everyone chose a story (like Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, or The Three Little Pigs) and told the story on a stage in Peruvian Sign Language. Several of the participants even brought props to tell their story. One especially quiet abuelita even dressed up as the Pied Piper, brought a flute, and danced around onstage.

One terrified mother was visibly shaking as she was telling the story. As soon as she finished, she flew outside and began sobbing. “I left out so much of the story, and I couldn’t remember the sign for ‘animal,’ and…” She was speaking through tears, so I missed a lot. In the lulls I’d try to repeat back what she said to make sure I understood. She would repeat herself more slowly, and I’d repeat what I thought she said back. Sometimes what I repeated back was just so incorrect that she starting laughing and trying to explain it another way. After months of feeling useless with my Spanish, it was the first time I felt like my lack of Spanish was useful. I was so impressed with her going through with the performance despite this evident fear. This is one of the most dedicated group of women I’ve ever known, and their dedication is rooted in learning their children’s language, illustrating to them that they are worthy of connection.

 

For maduros and the people who sell them

Maduros are fried plantains you can buy on the street for about thirty cents. They’re cut through the middle like a hot dog bun and can be stuffed with queso or crema de mani (literally peanut cream, like less sugary peanut butter). There’s one woman I especially love buying them from. Jovana works in a store across the street from the office, is the caretaker of a mentally and physically handicapped child of the storeowner, and grills maduros every weekday around six, when I get off work. I go almost every day and she always gives me the biggest one. We laugh, we joke, I tell her about my work, and she tries to set me up with her nephew. We have a great time.

 

For host moms who know what tea will cure stomach problems

I’ve had a few bouts of stomach issues since I’ve been here, sometimes with very embarrassing results (I may have once pooped my pants on the walk home from the gym). The first time I was sick, I figured I’d wait it out. It lasted six days and I was starting to feel consistently nauseous and dehydrated. I finally told my host mom, and she gave me an extra helping of rice and anis tea and I was cured! It was a beautiful reminder that I don’t need to be alone in my pain, especially when I’m physically ill.

 

For women who use the squat rack

I love lifting weights. In the States, I was frequently the only woman in the weight room. I felt uncomfortable dealing with the stares, the unsolicited advice, and the general hyper-masculinity. I quit the gym in Little Rock because of this. But here in Peru, I was once at the gym for an hour and watched woman after woman in a continuous line using the squat rack. Women were just as interested in heavy lifting as men and nothing was unusual about this. It was so refreshing to see literally powerful women becoming more powerful. I was so pleasantly shocked to see the hyper-masculinity I’ve usually encountered in spaces like these comparatively non-existent to its counterpart in the States. Basically, I’m grateful for powerful women.

 

For seeing Star Wars with four deaf women

One characteristic of privilege is not realizing that you have it. I’ve never thought about what life as someone who is deaf might be like before this year, like what activities are or aren’t accessible. I’ve also discovered several assumptions I’ve made about Deaf culture. For example, two of my deaf friends happen to be the best dancers I’ve met in Peru. They’ve watched movies and television, and can bust a move better than anyone I know.

My deaf friends and co-workers also love going to the movies. There aren’t any subtitles, so I assumed they wouldn’t want to go. We just need to see movies with plenty of action, or at least physical humor. For example, Doctor Strange has a simple plot and lots of action. There was only one scene that needed to be translated into sign language. Last Friday, four deaf co-workers and I saw Rogue One, which also had lots of action but considerably more plot. I was the only person who could hear present, though of course my Spanish still isn’t great. Star Wars can be confusing in English as well, but there were a few times I understood enough of the Spanish to be able to translate it into sign language. I felt for the first time in a while that I’m actually making progress with learning languages. I’m also grateful for a growing awareness of inclusivity and the mental shift required to notice your privilege.

For Christmas in the Jungle

Christmas is here just as “summer” break is finally upon us. We have two months with no school, and then back to Nueva Cajamarca in late February. We finished the year on Thursday with a huge performance at the local government office. Each class performed a skit related to Christmas, including the Nativity Story. The event was called “Bienvenidos a Navidad en la Selva” or “Welcome to Christmas in the Jungle.” We’d been working on the skits and decorations since October

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Christmas in Moyobamba, but there are Christmas decorations everywhere! In the main plaza, the main nativity scene includes a 20-foot fake tree on one side and a waterfall with a jungle backdrop on the other. There are llamas in attendance at the birth of Jesus and, inexplicably, a polar bear.

Honestly, I have a lot to be thankful for. My life here feels very full and everyday I feel like I have so many new experiences to process. I’ll leave you with a song that was stuck in my head in English for a year and is now there once again, but in Spanish:

 

Libre soy, libre soy

Sugiré como el despertar

Libre soy, libre soy,

Se fue la chica ideal.

Firme así, a la luz del sol

Gran tormenta habrá

El frío es parte también de mi

Happy Holidays, y’all!

A Day in the Moyobambina Life

At 8am, I step onto the sidewalk in front of my house and squint into the sunshine. Mototaxis rush by, humming their familiar tune. Cars are rarely used in Moyobamba. The tiendas on either side of my home are already filled with customers bargaining for a better price. There’s a breeze cool enough for a jacket, though the city will warm another twenty degrees throughout the day.

I walk down the street and take a left at the Plaza de Armas. I see mountains in the distance, covered in an abundant deep green. After a few minutes I reach my destination: a station for combis, or glorified minivans with limited seating that serve as the primary public transportation between towns.

I find my people, the other students and teachers who are deaf. I greet each individually by signing buenos días and leaning in for a kiss on the cheek.

I greet Talita, 9 years old. She tugs at her ears and points at mine. I’ve forgotten to put on earrings again. She narrows her eyes with the gravest of expressions.

“I forgot,” I sign.

“You forget everyday!” She makes the sign for angry and puts her hands on her hips. My morning routine now includes asking myself whether I’ll see Talita and choose jewelry accordingly. I must’ve forgotten this morning though, because here I am, earringless. On days that I remember to wear them, she tells me she’s proud of me.

I greet Luz Clarita. She smiles when she sees me, but she quickly raises her eyebrows. She’s about to sass me. I smile back in anticipation and surrender to the moment. A few weeks ago she pulled on my blonde arm hair, a puzzled expression on her face. Blonde hair is a curiosity here (I’ve seen on other blonde in Moyobamba in the six weeks I’ve been here). She then made the sign for monkey. But even if she thinks I look like a blonde monkey, I know she trusts me. She turned 19 last week and has a 4-year-old daughter who is blind: a deaf mother raising a blind daughter. On the day her father had beaten her mother again, she leaned her head on my shoulder and cried. I don’t mind the sass.

There’s Gerson, about 15, who has already ridden on a horse for an hour through the mountains and taken a taxi just to get to Moyobamba. Somehow he still arrives at the station before me, the person who lives less than a quarter mile away.

I greet Victoria, who screamed the first time she ever saw me on my first day (because of my nose piercing). Needless to say, I’m still working on connecting with her.

I greet Jhaenina, who along with Luz Clarita is a teacher on Tuesdays and Fridays for the younger children and a student with the other adult students who are deaf on Wednesdays. She recently told me that her boyfriend, in his mid-20s, died a few months ago from an aneurysm. The continued grief is palpable in my interactions with her.

There’s Abigael, about 16 years old. I’m especially excited to see her today. On days when she’s absent from school, she’s in the hospital because of a heart condition, so I always feel relieved when I see her.

I greet Clara and Erika, my supervisors. Clara is deaf and the primary teacher at the school. Erika is with all of us at the station, but she won’t come to the school with us. She’ll probably spend the day at a regional government office, advocating for the right to an education and money to build a school for the 10,000 people who are deaf in the region of San Martin (a disproportionately high number of the population here is deaf, though no one tells me why).

We pile into a combi. We leave Moyobamba for the 50-minute drive to Nueva Cajamarca, where we currently meet for school. When we reach the highway, we pass moto after moto after mototaxi at what feels like reckless speeds. Here, it doesn’t matter if someone is driving toward us in the opposite lane. The combi driver will honk to signal the person in front of us that he’s planning on passing. The driver in front and the driver on the opposite side of the road will veer to the right while we straddle the middle line to pass. My heart used to stop a dozen times during this journey, but I’m either learning to trust the drivers or I’m becoming desensitized to the danger. Probably both.

The students take the last few rows of the combi, signing animatedly with each other. Unless their parents know sign language (many don’t), there are no other spaces where they can communicate in their own language. Clara lies down on someone’s lap while they pluck the gray hair from her head. Sometimes I chat with Jessy, my best friend in Peru and one of the teachers, in Spanish during the ride. Sometimes I write. Or sleep. Or try to guess what the students are signing to each other. Or take pictures. Or simply marvel at the fauna of the jungle, the people working on the rice farms, the small towns we pass by on the highway, the homes constructed with boards and tin roofs painted with the logo for their preferred presidential candidate, and the clouds hovering between the mountains’ base and summit.

We arrive at the school (San Juan Bautisto Colegio) around 9:15. We walk through the gate, passing many of the beautiful and clean classrooms filled with uniformed students (all of whom can hear) chattering excitedly with each other.

We finally reach the two classrooms for the students who are deaf. Our classrooms, constructed with cracked and dilapidated boards, was once San Juan Bautisto’s shed. We don’t have lights, which only becomes a problem when the sky darkens during the daily thunderstorm. The rooms are small and insufficient, yet the walls are covered in materials the teachers made at Paz y Esperanza. We use donated materials for our books and posters, made to teach Spanish, which we appropriate to teach sign language. Everyone has learned to make do with what’s available.

We greet the people who live closer to Nueva Cajamarca than Moyobamba who have already arrived. This school is open to anyone in the Alto Mayo region, which means some of the students might live hours away from each other.

I greet Jannet, another teacher at the school. My interactions with her almost always involves her correcting a sign I’ve made. When I ask another teacher, they tell me she was wrong. Her frequent confusion of signs reminds me that this program has only existed for a few years. Most of the adults are still learning as well.

I greet Jhon, who taught me how to sign Pokemon, Ben 10, and the Avengers. He asks me if I’m friends with Spiderman in the United States.

There’s Ian, one of the happiest kids I’ve ever met. He has an infectious laugh and loves copying my actions or sneaking up behind me to try to scare me. He’s usually successful.

There’s Jhosselyn, who is the youngest at the school at about 6 or 7 and hasn’t learned many signs yet. She screams and screams and screams to get attention. This method gets her attention from people who can hear and has been reinforced her entire life. I’m told to ignore her cries. I cringe from her piercing shrieks at least once a day. I thought working at a school for people who are deaf would be fairly silent: one of many false assumptions I brought with me into this year.

(Note: never use the term “deaf-mute.” Most people who are deaf can still vocalize but choose not to because speaking is not their method of communication. It’s a choice not to vocalize and it doesn’t mean they can’t)

There’s Isaias, a 17-year-old who’s just entered the program a few months ago. When I first met him he was moving his hands rapidly, so I assumed he’d been in the program for a while and was already fluent. He makes up all of these signs. This is common; before people who are deaf discover this program or if they don’t have access to an education in sign language, they make up rudimentary signs to use with their family. They can communicate with their family, but no one else. Part of our work is to help new students unlearn the signs they’ve created with their family and learn to use official sign language so they can participate and be integrated in the larger deaf community. The hope is that family members will learn as well, either from their deaf family members or the classes Paz y Esperanza offers for people in the community who want to learn on Mondays or Thursdays. I work one on one with Isaias on the alphabet, colors, and animals. Every time he successfully signs a handful of letters or spells the name of an animal, he signs, “I understand! I’m learning! I’m smart!”

Then there’s José Luis, also a teenager I work with individually, who doesn’t learn as quickly despite repeating the colors over and over and over all morning. Part of me worries that we’ll be working on colors all year.

Alay, another one of the adults, is also still learning sign language. When he greets me, he gives me a huge hug and starts recounting the story of a little rat that found an egg and embarked on a search for its mother. We covered this story during our last class and he is eager to show off what he remembers. He draws, colors, cuts, and glues in his journal very carefully and deliberately. Once, I cut a paper hastily, and he told me it was ugly and wouldn’t put it in his journal. His art is careful and exacting, showing me the many beautiful drawings of words he’s learning to read and write.

When I step outside, I noticed the mountains in the distance are hazy.

“Is that a cloud?” I ask Jessy.

“No,” she replies, “It’s smoke. The jungle is burning.”

We can see the destruction of the rainforest from work.

I’ve been researching games that are inclusive for people who are deaf and compiling a list to use as a resource. The games themselves are inclusive, but I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to actually teach the games in a language I barely know. I charade the games with the occasional sign. I try to teach capture the flag, sharks and minnows, elbow tag, and rock, paper, scissors with varying levels of success. In the end though, they find a soccer ball and play for an hour. No game I teach them will be as fun as fútbol.

Around 2pm, it’s time for the afternoon lessons to begin. Four students come with me to work on math. One of them is Teilor, about fifteen years old whose parents are farmers and lives in an extremely rural community. He knows signs, but doesn’t change his expression when he uses them. Facial expressions are crucial to understanding meaning; your face is your third hand.

However, he’s brilliant at math. The four students and I begin to work on a worksheet. I’m explaining how to calculate 2 + __ = 7. The other students all guess 9. By the time I finish explaining how to get the correct answer, Teilor has already finished the worksheet. I turn his paper over and write 14 + 39. He’s got the answer in a few seconds. I write 649 + 818. He’s got it again. I write bigger and bigger numbers, then use the same numbers for subtraction, and he answers every one. When I finally begin throwing multiplication at him, he’s unfazed. Eventually I give him 875 x 294. It takes him a bit longer, he makes a few errors, but he eventually gets it.

Teilor makes me wonder what he and all the students at this school would be capable of if they’d had access to an education from the beginning. If he’d been able to learn his own language and learn in his own language. I wonder what opportunities will be available to him beyond this school. Will he be able to go to a university? Another adult deaf student, Liliana, goes to a university and just received her teaching certificate, but she can’t read Spanish and doesn’t know numbers. When her professors learned that she’s deaf they immediately lowered their standards. They let her pass class after class despite not understanding anything. They aren’t doing her any favors, sending her out into the workforce totally unprepared. She is capable of learning and doesn’t need people’s pity to be successful. But she needs to learn in different conditions.

Teilor is the same. He could excel if he wasn’t trapped in a context where he can’t learn in his own language. How many scientists, engineers, poets, or artists are trapped in a context that can’t provide them an adequate education? I know he is capable of so much, but doesn’t have access to the education he deserves. Many of the students at this school sit in a classroom the other days of the week with students who can hear. Teachers talk at them all day, and the students who are deaf sit in silence, learning nothing.

The amount that I can challenge students like Teilor is severely limited. I remember nearly nothing of the math I learned in high school. The efforts of individuals can only go so far. How can we work toward a society that reflects every person’s right to an education, despite disability or language differences?

It’s time to leave. The bus has forgotten us again. We wait for twenty minutes while Jessy calls bus companies to come pick us up.

The days are long. There’s so much to unpack and process. I witness so many new things everyday that lift me up, tear me apart, confuse me, frighten me, and fill me with joy. Every day I leave the school feeling both full and empty, and I haven’t quite figured out how that’s possible. That’s the paradox of my work I’m learning to live into. My hope is that one day I will, as my site coordinator Jenny recently told me, learn how to “love others in response to their context. This means that in order to love a person I need to first understand their reality.” There is so much about the context of this community that I don’t understand. My heart is breaking open, and I can only hope that love and light will fill the empty space.

May we learn to pay attention to our context, immerse ourselves in the reality of our neighbors, and allow ourselves to be transformed by grace in love.

Peace,

Emily