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.
There’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.
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.
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?
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.