Today, it has become widely accepted that being deaf or hearing-impaired is not a disability and the Deaf-world is being recognized as a culture in its own right.
The new Dictionary of Cultural Literacy defines culture as: “The sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted, through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.”
This definition may need further clarification, however, when it comes to the Latino Deaf community, where the majority of Deaf Latinos communicate through one language, American Sign Language (ASL), while parents and other family members’ main language is Spanish. Can one use one culture’s language within another and still feel truly part of it?
For three Deaf students at the American School of the Deaf (ASD) in West Hartford, the answer is a resounding: yes! “I know no Spanish,” said Tony Medina, a 19-year –old from New York. “My family all are Hearing, and all Hispanic. I sign with my parents. My parents speak Spanish and English, they go back and forth. But I don’t feel like I’m not part of them [because of this]. I am definitely part of them.”
Eighteen-year-old Edmarie Burgos is Puerto Rican. Her parents speak Spanish, but English with her. In terms of feeling alienated, isolated, or like she is missing out on an important aspect of the Latino culture by not knowing Spanish, Burgos feels it has no impact. “In the world I feel fine,” she said. “I am who I am in the world.
There are other Deaf Hispanics who speak the same language (ASL). …that’s why I am here at ASD, you feel like you belong.” Jamal Aziz Jr., an 18-year-old at ASD, knows some Spanish, but says that communication with Spanish-speaking members of his family is still a challenge. “I talk to the part of my family that speaks English,” he said. “But when I meet part of the family who speaks Spanish I can’t talk with them. It’s hard.”
Medina agreed that there are frustrations when dealing with extended Hearing members of his family. “For me, my cousins don’t sign, and they don’t know English and I don’t know Spanish, so it’s like: how are we going to communicate with each other? So, I have to gesture. It’s tough. It’s frustrating. But I do my best. We are all learning together, but it can be frustrating.”
ASD has long been a beacon for the Deaf-world; its 200th anniversary is on the horizon. With an international reach, this ethnically diverse school nurtures its Latino students’ culture, while teaching them communication skills that will help them carve out their place in the world.
Executive Director of ASD, Jeffrey S. Bravin, said 90 percent of the children who attend ASD are born to Hearing parents, so communication is always a challenge regardless of the child’s ethnicity, and that what it comes down to is the individual child and the individual family.
With class sizes of six to eight students, ASD is able to create and carry through with individual education plans for each student in order to address the unique communication requirements of the student and the student’s family. Bravin noted that “one advantage of people that speak Spanish, Latinos, is they tend to gesture quite well. It is kind of a nature of the people, I believe. Communication seems to be easier with a Spanish speaking person–maybe it’s personality, I don’t know.”
However, Spanish families, he admitted, can be more of a challenge because the child has to essentially know four languages: sign Spanish, spoken Spanish, English, and American Sign Language. And while knowing all four would be ideal, this is often not the case.
This is why, Bravin, explained, outreach at ASD is huge. He said the school reaches out to parents and embraces them all like family, offering resources and opportunities for education–even to parents whose students do not attend ASD.
“As a boy growing up in New York City,” said Bravin, “you would go to the parks, to many different places and you would see large groups of Latinos coming together, because their values are very important to them and we get that here. …We work closely with the parents on a daily basis, we call the parents all the time, and have many parent activities, classes and events, and we also (through generous donations) provide transportation for the parents.
We also have an Advisory Committee for the school and on that board we make sure there is representation for the Latino community.” ASD also has a Latino club led by a Latino staff member. They have a variety of other non-Latino people in the Latino club simply to learn about the culture of Latino people. The club goes to the National Deaf Latino Conference every year, and they attend a weekend retreat.
“They definitely support the Latino culture,”Medina said of his experience at ASD. He added that although American Sign Language is their language, and not Spanish, they don’t think much of it because this is so common among Deaf Latinos, saying: “It’s common to us because we have a lot of Latino friends (at ASD).”
Of the 163 students attending ASD 51 are Latino (averaging 30 to 35), all of whom use ASL to communicate with each other. In a way, the school walls provide insulation for this subculture and creates unity, as well as acting as a permeating membrane whereas the Latino culture seeps through translated and interpreted so the students don’t miss a thing.
“Last year we were in the Latino club and we used the video phone to conference the deaf students in Puerto Rico,” explained Medina. “And I liked that. We met new friends, new people. I felt like [saying to them], ‘Come over, and be part of us here in America, on the homeland.’ I liked that because it felt the same, it was awesome having that connection.”
Aziz reminisced with Burgos and Medina, recalling how they talked a lot about food with the kids they video chatted with. “Oh yeah,” agreed Burgos. “I was just…whew, my culture! It’s hard to describe. We were just the same. Same culture, same traditions…same, same, same. “I am proud to be a Latino,” she added. “You’re Deaf but you’re also Hispanic.”