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Sistema de Información Científica
Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y el Caribe, España y Portugal
I was once asked to address a class
given by Professor Ana Celia Zentella of the Black and Puerto Rican Studies
Department of Hunter College. I knew Ana Celia through our mutual involvement
in the political movements of the day. She was a co-founder of The Third World
Women’s Alliance Triple Jeopardy, and I was an organizer of the Puerto Rican
Socialist Party, U.S. Branch (La Seccional).
Professor Zentella’s training was in linguistics, and she was conducting research
in Puerto Rican bilingualism in El Barrio, Manhattan.
I was invited to share
stories about my family background, my youth, and my evolution as a political
activist. In effect, I was being asked to describe my journey of identity formation.
After a brief narrative and reflection, the session was opened to dialogue.
The discussion ranged far and wide as the students peppered me with questions.
Do you consider yourself American or Puerto Rican? You were born and raised in
this city, so how did you become so immersed in the movement for Puerto Rican
independence? How did you, never having lived on the island, maintain a fluency
in Spanish, when so many others of our generation have lost it?
Then came an exchange that momentarily diverted us from the presumed theme
of the occasion. It went something like this:
“So, what was your first language?”
“My first language?”
“Yes, your first language?”
“Well, actually, my first language is sign language.”
A pause.
“What do you mean?”
“Yes. Sign language. My parents were both born deaf,
. They each
came from large Puerto Rican families, and there are deaf siblings on each side.
I have quite a few deaf relatives along with hearing relatives. When we all gather,
we have three things going on: Spanish, English, and Sign. For the first few years of
life most of my communication was with my parents, and that was in sign language.
It’s pretty unusual, I grant you, but that’s a whole other story….”
[ 86 ]
“(There is a) relatively high incidence
of hereditary deafness among Puerto Ricans.”
— CHANDER 2006 —
I. Familia Ayala.
Growing up on an eastern corner of the island, Bienvenida (Benita) Ayala,
my mother, thought there were only three people in the world like her.
These were her older sisters, Pancha, Diosa, and Carmela. The four comprised the
, girls who were born deaf. They were joined by eleven hearing siblings,
and three others who did not survive infancy. My grandparents Catalino and
Eufrasia, following the tradition of other rural families throughout history, must have
believed in the strength-in-numbers path to social betterment. The Ayalas of Las
Piedras were a veritable
Benita envied the others, who could talk to each other so easily, without the dancing
hands and exaggerated facial movements that they used in addressing the mudas.
The others could communicate without even seeing each other face-to-face. Not the
mudas. They learned to “speak” by lip-reading the oral movements of their hearing
brothers and sisters. If a stranger addressed them they should point to their throat
and mimic the yelp of the cow: mooo. That was supposed to mean “muda,” mute.
Worse still, Benita couldn’t attend school those early years in Las Piedras.
Every day she noticed her brothers going off for a few hours, returning in the
afternoon. They must be doing something important, Benita thought, and it wasn’t
fair that she couldn’t go too. Once, when she was twelve, she insisted to her mother
that she accompany César, a younger brother, to school. Eufrasia wasn’t excited
with the idea but relented.
Entering the schoolhouse, Benita was amazed to see so many children sitting
attentively in wooden chairs. She had never seen anything like this: a lady in front
of the classroom and the respectful children penciling entries onto sheets of paper.
One student was called up front by the lady and vocalized something to everyone,
and the audience recited something back in unison. It was a blur of sights and
sounds to Benita, but this was exciting and, more than anything, it seemed
important! She realized at this moment that she had been left out of something
big, and she was angry.
Apparently, word got around that a deaf child was in the school. Before long
a suited man appeared in the classroom, took a seat, and began observing the
uninvited guest. Benita felt awkward under the man’s gaze but was used to that
look. Besides it was better to be noticed—even under these circumstances—than
to be ignored. Perhaps the man would take pity and do something for her.
She would do anything to come to school everyday, even if it meant sitting
with children much younger than her.
A few days later, the suited man visited the farm. The official glanced at her
intermittently as he conversed with the parents. Benita could guess that they were
discussing her situation. But nothing came of the talks. She never attended school
during her early years in Puerto Rico.
That was the time of the Great Depression, years that ravaged the island’s
economy and families. Their fortunes faltering, the Ayalas decided to uproot
[ 87 ]
themselves and try their chances “en el Norte,” where some of the older children
had already moved years earlier. In 1937 Catalino and Eufrasia left by boat for
New York City, with six children in tow. Among the six Ayala children who
settled in El Barrio, in a five-story walk-up on Madison Avenue and 103rd Street,
were the four mudas.
II. Familia Torres
My paternal grandfather, Ramón “Moncho” Torres, was almost twice the age of my
grandmother Amelia when they married in 1911. At thirty-one he had a reputation
for being
, a ladies’ man, but as soon as he married, he settled down and
became a family man.
The first years were filled with unexpected setbacks. One after another,
their children were born deaf; four of the first five. And there were the financial
had no special skills. He hired himself out as a field laborer,
and picked up occasional odd jobs in the town of San Germán. Making matters
worse, by the time he was in his mid-forties Ramón suffered from a weak heart
and declining vision.
Uppermost in Amelia’s mind was accessing education for her deaf offspring.
She had been told of a special school for the deaf in Santurce, and got her children
enrolled. St. Gabriel’s was operated by a religious order of nuns based in Baltimore,
Maryland, and was the only place in Puerto Rico where deaf children could get a
legitimate education. The nuns taught using Signed English and some American
Sign Language. For the Puerto Rican students it was a de facto immersion program
in a new language (oral and signed) since the nuns were English-speaking, and only
later acquired some Spanish. St. Gabriel’s took in the Torres children as boarders,
in exchange for their labor as a maintenance worker (my father) and as needle
workers (my aunts). After a few years, Amelia convinced the nuns to send Andrés
abroad on a scholarship to St. Rita’s School for the Deaf.
This is how my father
ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio, of all places, the first one in the family to touch the
U.S. mainland (and probably the first Puerto Rican to become a rabid fan of the
Cincinnati Reds).
In 1934 Andrés returned from Cincinnati, having spent seven years without
seeing his family. By then the Torres family had moved from San Germán to
[ 88 ]
Santurce so that everyone could be close to San Gabriel’s. By the early forties
plans were under way to migrate to New York, where so many other Puerto
Ricans were going. The family left in waves, over a four-year period, and settled
in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Of the original eight Torres children, all
of them left the island except for one hearing son, Miguel, an Army veteran who
married and stayed behind.
Settling In
Growing up in Puerto Rico, my mother and her sisters were completely isolated from
any other deaf people. As far as they knew, they were the only ones not in the hearing
world. New York City changed all of that. One day, shortly after the Ayalas settled
in El Barrio, my mother’s sister Carmela returned from the bodega with startling
news. She described seeing several young people in the store who were talking with
their hands. Her excitement gave way to caution for she noticed immediately that the
symbols they were using were much more elaborate than the signs she made.
Carmela approached the group and introduced herself, drawing a look of
surprise from the deaf kids. After a few awkward moments of trying to understand
each other, she deciphered that they wanted to know why she didn’t talk the same
sign language they did.
She explained that she had just come from Puerto Rico where she did not attend
school. That’s strange, they countered, because that’s where they were from and
that’s where they learned to sign. In a school in Santurce run by nuns.
The mudas were in shock when Carmela described the encounter. Soon after,
Pancha, my mother’s oldest deaf sister, confirmed the discovery when she later
met the same group of the deaf. She was very upset, realizing that others had
learned to “speak” with elegant motions while she was confined to loud vocalizing,
lip-reading, and a few made-up hand signs.
My mother had a vivid recollection of that day in the Ayala living room, when
Pancha exploded at Catalino and Eufrasia. It was an outburst releasing years of
frustration, a violent moment of anger and weeping. To see her lashing out at the
elders like that—arms flying, fist crashing down on the sofa, unintelligible wailing—
was an unforgettable scene. Never had Benita seen anyone challenge the
that. And she wondered quietly, why didn’t her parents send her and her sisters to
[ 89 ]
A gathering of the Torres family’s
deaf friends in Manhattan, during
the mid-1940s. All photographs
are courtesy of Andrés Torres, and
are reprinted, by permission, from
Andrés Torres.
[ 90 ]
the school run by the nuns? Didn’t they realize what they were doing, keeping the
mudas from going to school? Why did they have to have so many children, when they
could have done better with a smaller family?
Catalino was astonished at Pancha’s outburst. His still, somber face recognized
the daughter’s deep resentment, but there was nothing he could say or do to change
what had happened those years back in Las Piedras. As for Pancha, in her early
twenties, it was too late for her to make up for lost time, to attain the schooling
her new friends had. My aunt Pancha, for as long as I knew her, had a very limited
command of Sign and was always the most passive one in family gatherings.
The preceding pages relate a few vignettes from my parents’ family history up to
the mid-1940s. They met in 1946 at a social function of the deaf, married, and soon
after I came along. By the time I entered my teenage years in 1960, there were about
fifty Puerto Rican and Latino deaf families within my parents’ network of friends
and relations in New York City. There were at least another hundred families from
other ethnic groups that were socially connected. These were European immigrants,
African Americans, and non-Hispanic Caribbeans. Most of those who were not recent
immigrants had gone to two local schools: the Lexington School for the Deaf and the
Puerto Rican deaf students and friends posing in front of the New York School for the Deaf (White Plains, NY), in the early
Also known as “Fanwood”, the NYSD is a residential school and is the second oldest school for deaf education in the
United States.
[ 91 ]
New York School for the Deaf. In the following sections I reflect on various aspects of
the Puerto Rican deaf community of which I was an insider-outsider. They present a
view from the borderland, if you will, rendered by a hearing son of deaf culture.
La familia Torres
Within the Torres side of my family lineage there was a quite extraordinary level of
interaction between the deaf and hearing. This was in sharp contrast to most other
deaf families I knew. Growing up,
the siblings spoke in sign, using “home signs”
developed on their own, then later, using Signed English, which was acquired at St.
Gabriel’s by the deaf children. They also spoke Spanish, which the deaf verbalized
and learned by copying the lip movements of their parents and hearing siblings.
My paternal grandparents, Ramón and Amelia, never learned how to speak in
Signed English, only the home signs devised on their own.
As noted earlier, four of the first five Torres children were born deaf. As the
next group of children came along, all of whom were hearing, the elder deaf siblings
were already in a position of authority. My aunt Olga, who was the third deaf child,
assumed the role of the teacher, instructing everyone in Signed English, which she
was learning at St. Gabriel’s.
Why she was the one to do so is not clear. Her older
deaf siblings, my aunt Isaura and my father Andrés, also were instructed in Sign,
but it was primarily Olga who took on this responsibility within the family.
Household gender composition provides another clue to the relatively successful
integration of the deaf into Torres family life. Of the eight children only two were
male, and my grandfather Ramón was already of failing health in his late-forties.
The six sisters, hearing and deaf, were an extremely tight unit, differences in age
and personality notwithstanding. Also, because of their age, the Torres deaf girls
were not subordinated to the hearing ones. The two males, Andrés (deaf) and
Miguel (hearing), were separated by ten years besides their difference in disability
status. Andrés was sent to Cincinnati before Miguel was born and came of age
apart from his younger brother.
Teaching Sign within the family became an integral part of the process by which
the deaf and hearing worlds were melded. Before the Torres deaf children were
enrolled in San Gabriel’s, where they boarded, communication was based on a
system of gestures and vocalizations,
in Spanish
, that were unique to the Torres
household. This system was unique because the Torres household, like other rural
families with deafness during the time, was isolated and had no other templates
to work with. Examples of these “home signs” are given in the case of the Ayala
household, described below.
Olga’s method of teaching, in the San Germán home,
in effect consisted of replacing the various words that had been used in the Torres
household home signs with the “correct” words she learned at San Gabriel. The
sequence of instructing her hearing sisters was from Spanish home signs to Signed
English. She was simultaneously crossing the borders between the hearing and deaf
worlds, and between the Spanish and English languages.
The signed English symbol for “milk,” for example, was the rubbing together
of two fists up and down, simulating the gesture of milking a cow. This is the
sign that Olga learned at St. Gabriel’s, where only signed English and some ASL
was taught. In teaching this sign to her hearing sister Mariamelia, who only knew
Spanish, Olga went through two steps: first, mentally translating “milk” to “leche”;
then, second, showing her sister the English sign for milk (two fists rubbing
together). Though not naturally an English-speaker, Mariamelia was learning
Signed English.
Again, what facilitated this language transmission was Olga’s seniority vis-à-vis
the hearing siblings, and the authority vested in her by their parents, who instructed
the hearing children to accept Olga as their teacher. Since they themselves never
learned Sign, they needed their hearing children to serve as interpreters of the
deaf within the household. In my interaction with deaf families, I have never come
across a situation in which hearing persons learned functional Sign Language from
a deaf sibling who was
. A hearing child or young adult who learns Sign is
implicitly accepting the role of interpreter and advocate. Reason suggests that an
older sibling might resist this responsibility.
Both of these factors—the birth order within a female-dominated family and the
intense interaction required by language transmission—seem to account for the high
degree of communication between deaf and hearing in the Torres household.
La familia Ayala
Unlike the Torres deaf, the Ayala mudas never attended deaf schools during
childhood in Puerto Rico. The Ayalas were Protestants and farm people,
ensconced in the hills of Las Piedras. They never knew of Saint Gabriel’s School for
the Deaf. Not until they arrived in New York did my mother and her sisters learn
Signed English or even the A, B, Cs of the manual alphabet. Even then, for the older
ones, like Pancha and Diosa, it was too late, and they never really acquired functional
literacy in Signed English. They spoke a version of home sign in English and Spanish.
The Ayala mudas were four of fifteen siblings in a male-dominated family;
they were younger than the rest, and they carried little weight in family
matters. Their hearing siblings spoke only the home signs that they developed
in Las Piedras. This family-created system had a vocabulary that reflected the
daily routines and conversations of farm life. The Ayala equivalent of “
véte y
chequéa los huevos de la gallina
” was to position a fist under the outstretched
palm of the other hand, then drop the fist: the image of an egg falling from a
chicken. That was my grandmother Eufrasia’s motion for my mother to check
the chickens. Midday, when she went to the fields to bring her brothers coffee
and bread, they welcomed her with a swipe along the forehead. They were
letting her know—whether their brow was sweating or not—that they were
trabajando duro
” (working hard).
[ 92 ]
There were scores and perhaps hundreds of such home signs, but this system
was not nearly as robust and precise as the system, based in Signed English, that
was evolving in San Germán and Santurce within the Torres household. Not until
they arrived in New York did the Ayala deaf sisters begin approximating a true
Sign Language, when they were already teenagers. Catalino and Eufrasia Ayala,
my maternal
, were loving parents, and they commanded the hearing Ayala
children to protect and shelter the deaf ones. But compared to the Torres family,
las mudas
Ayalas were not as integrated into the household and family relations.
Patterns in New York: the Torres Side
Once the Torres family settled in New York, and the children of Amelia and
Ramón married and had children, a new stage of language instruction occurred.
The women, hearing and deaf, left the world of paid work once they had their
first child. They all lived within a few blocks’ radius in the Highbridge section of
Washington Heights, and they became the center of family life. The Torres women
ensured the integration of hearing and deaf members into a whole, teaching Sign
even to the children of hearing siblings. My Torres cousins, all of whom are hearing,
were each expected to learn Sign Language, whether their parents were deaf or not.
My aunts Isaura and Olga were the primary teachers.
By the time my generation came along, our family was conversing in three
official languages (Sign, Spanish, and English) and two invented codes (home sign
in Spanish and home sign in English). The specific language spoken in any given
interaction was conditioned by generational and disability status.
The move to New York increased the forms of dialogue within the family.
My grandparents Amelia and Ramón spoke in Spanish to the hearing children,
[ 93 ]
In the center is the author’s aunt, Olga, in conversation with friends at a social event of the Society, in the mid-1980s.
She is asking someone “who?”
Nereida, Mariamelia, and Blanca. Communication with their deaf offspring—
Isaura, Andrés Ismael, Olga, and Magdalena—was conducted in a Spanish
“home sign” that abuelo and
had themselves developed with the kids in
Puerto Rico. In New York City the younger hearing girls—Mariamelia and
Blanca—were rapidly picking up English and even began evolving an English
“home sign” with some of the deaf siblings.
Among themselves the deaf used the official Sign Language they had been
taught in the deaf schools of St. Gabriel and St. Rita. Often the Sign Language was
combined with vocabulary elements of the home sign (Spanish or English) they
grew up with in Puerto Rico or later acquired in the United States. A final wrinkle
to this densely textured array of languages was the fact that my hearing aunts
exhibited varying degrees of bilingualism, the oldest one (Nereida) spoke English
with an accent, the younger ones (Mariamelia and Blanca) were perfectly bilingual.
At the time it never occurred to my cousins and me on the Torres side that this
multitude of sounds and signs was out of the ordinary. We were too busy growing up.
On the Ayala side, I have already described the factors that seemed to
undermine the intensity of interaction between deaf and hearing. Another key
element, once the
settlement process
was under way in
New York, was
the geographic
dispersion of the
four mudas. They
ended up living in
Brooklyn, Queens,
and Manhattan.
Without telephones,
was restricted to
occasional reunions
of Ayala family
members in the
South Bronx and the
social functions of
the deaf societies.
It was a taboo subject, and raising the question was cause for discomfort. Why did
deafness permeate our family? I interrogated my hearing aunts, whom I assumed
would have received the authoritative explanation from my grandmother Amelia.
They offered various versions over the years, but the central thread focused on my
grandfather Ramón.
“Moncho,” as he was known, had had many women in his youth. When he finally
settled down and married my grandmother, he was her senior by fourteen years.
From the day they wed, so the story went, he was a model of sobriety and loyalty.
Unfortunately, the years of womanizing left him carrying a sexually transmitted
disease, which led to four of his first five children being born deaf. This was Amelia’s
account of how deafness had entered the family. Consciously or subconsciously it
[ 94 ]
The author’s father, Andrés I. Torres, giving a report to the Puerto Rican Society for the
Catholic Deaf (PRSCD) in 1959.
He is signing the word “letter”.
Looking on is Juana Falú.
as also my grandmother’s cautionary tale to her daughters about the importance of
finding the right husband.
The explanation was given further legitimacy some years after the family arrived
in New York City. My aunt Mariamelia read an Ann Landers column linking
childhood deafness to parental promiscuity. The columnist said that a woman
infected with syphilis during pregnancy can end up with a deaf baby. Mariamelia
could not recall whether it was Ann Landers or the inquiring letter-writer who
made this connection. She did remember though, her mother saying something
about being “sick” during the time she gave birth to her deaf children. She received
treatments of some kind in each instance.
Out of this jumble of innuendo and hazy recollections was fashioned the
idea that my grandfather Don Ramón “Moncho” Torres had caused four of
his eight children to be born deaf. The sense of shame attached to deafness
apparently motivated the family to blame my grandfather for introducing
the disability. This was a less painful way to deal with the problem then to
acknowledge that it was possibly a hereditary condition. There was greater
stigma attached to the idea that deafness “ran in the family” than to the
notion of a father’s flawed character.
Among those born deaf, it was not uncommon to deny the congenital origins
of their condition; both because of the status factor, and because of the fear of
discrimination in the hearing world. To outsiders, my father claimed he was born
hearing and became deaf at four. He pointed to a nasty protrusion of scar tissue
on his forehead as collateral damage from the fall. A small, permanent mound
on the surface, like a mosquito bite that never went away, was the evidence of a
misfortune visited upon him at youth.
“Tell him I fell from a tall palm tree I was climbing back in Puerto Rico.”
That was the answer he told me to give the Prudential Insurance salesman when
he applied for life insurance. And when examined by medical people, he instructed
me to give the same account of his handicap. Otherwise, he feared his request for
service would be treated with less respect.
There was a religious dimension to this narrative, held to by my deaf relatives.
The deaf that I knew commonly believed that they, like Jesus, are bearers of a cross,
and that they are sent by God to redeem the transgressions of their ancestors or
[ 95 ]
of the hearing world in general. Their presence is a reminder of God’s implacable
judgment. In return, if they bear the burden with patience and dignity, the deaf are
showered with God’s special affection and are promised entry into heaven.
If the unfairness of their lot ever led them to doubt their faith, I never sensed
this. This was certainly my father’s attitude and philosophy of life. He never
wavered in his religious devotion. At his most despairing moments he would
simply say to me, “It doesn’t matter…, it doesn’t help to be angry at God.” He
was anchored in a deep faith and sustained by a hope for redress in a future life.
Though I didn’t accept his explanation I understood his feelings.
The stigma that accompanied deafness was experienced with different intensity
within the deaf circles that I was familiar with. Some of this had to do with the
subtle variations in social status that arose from the origin of hearing loss in
individual lives. There were those who were born deaf, as those in my family.
Then there were those who were born hearing, and subsequently became deaf
through an accident during infancy, for example, or through an illness such as
meningitis. If the onset of deafness came later in childhood, after having attained
the rudiments of speaking and writing, these deaf were more likely to oralize
and lip-read well. If they still relied on Sign to communicate (some successfully
“crossed over” into the hearing world), they generally dominated conversation
among the deaf, and communicated more easily with hearing people, compared to
those who were born deaf. These advantages enhanced their social status within
the deaf community. Even among the “profoundly deaf” (those born deaf or at a
very early age) sign language ability varied considerably, depending on exposure to
formal education. My Ayala aunts, and my mother, were very self-conscious about
their sign language communication skills, even within family circles.
[ 96 ]
Early members of the PRSCD, 1959.
Identifiable are (from left to right): Isaura Torres Grondin (second), Félix de Jesús
(fourth), Olga Torres Joseph, William Fishbach, Vilma Rosario;
Andrés I. Torres (second from right) and Jaime Gómez
(third from right).
Later in life, in my thirties, I began to question the family’s religious view of
why we had so many deaf. During routine medical examinations, when the
physician asked about my family history, I mentioned the prevalence of deafness.
I inquired about the scientific explanations, and invariably I was asked the
question: does your family history include marriage among first or second cousins?
On another occasion my wife and I participated in a medical research project
after losing a child at birth. The project involved a genealogical study of our
families. I watched in fascination as the researcher, with charts and computerized
diagrams, traced my family tree back to the late 1800s. She interviewed me
rigorously about the medical history of each of my ancestors. The young scientist
was looking for a possible explanation of the failed birth and could not determine a
cause in hereditary traits. However, she did point out that there was a fair amount
of inter-marriage within the family and guessed this might have something to do
with the deafness.
She explained that the condition usually has to do with the recurrence of a gene
that is linked to deafness. A lack of diversity within the gene pool—caused, for
example, by inter-marriage among kin—raises the probability of deafness occurring.
So this was the explanation. Somewhere along the ancestral lineage of both the
Torres and Ayala families, intermarriage of cousins had created a precarious level
of recessive genes, leading to hearing loss. My grandparents on the Ayala side,
Catalino and Eufrasia, were first cousins. With fifteen offspring it was practically
inevitable that they would give birth to children with some handicap.
As to my father’s side, no one could ever tell me if there was a blood relation-
ship between Amelia and Ramón, but there were other instances of cousins
marrying cousins within my grandmother’s paternal line, the Quiñones.
My great-grandfather Andrés Quiñones had married Ramona Ramos after his
first wife Isabel Ramos had died. Ramona and Isabel were sisters. Several of
had intermarried: Nereida, Mariamelia, Charley, and Saturno.
These were my
. They shared the same grandfather, and their
grandmothers were sisters. And I knew of at least one other distant cousin among
the Quiñones who was deaf. In the hinterlands of San Germán and Las Piedras,
families were close knit to a fault, forming clustered and self-contained societies.
Over the years, my Ayala relatives have come to accept the scientific
explanation. Not so with the Torreses. And long after her passing, my abuela
Amelia’s account of why there were so many deaf Torres children still holds sway.
[ 97 ]
In many respects my family’s deaf networks meet the sociologists’ definition of
“community.” Certainly they had characteristics that qualify them as more than
just a random grouping of individuals who shared a disability. They were united by
language, special customs, attitudes toward the hearing world, and social networks,
just like deaf communities everywhere. Ethnic and religious loyalties also played a
part in their lives.
The principal coalescent was sign language. Sign bonded them internally and
demarcated them from the hearing. There were varied forms of Sign used among
them: Spanish Home Sign, English Home Sign, Signed English, and eventually
American Sign Language. And despite the potentially confusing forms of
conversation, they always preferred interacting with each other than with hearing
people. Communication was punctuated with physical warmth and contact.
In private company, away from hearing people, there was much pointing, fingering,
poking, grabbing, laughing, and yelling. Over time they increasingly dared to be
themselves in public, and hearing people found these scenes less discomforting.
This change in public attitude was yet another legacy of the great Civil Rights
Movement that was later extended to disability issues. But not until after the
1970s, did awareness and sensitivity among the hearing become more generalized.
Until then, deaf people harbored much skepticism toward the hearing, coupled
with a sense of amusement and chagrin at their patronizing attitudes.
These feelings were still very evident to me when I was coming of age.
And only in 1990 did Congress pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Among the customs prevalent within our families was the giving of “name signs”
to children. Parents invented names for the little ones. One basic technique was
to construct a sign working with the first letter of the official birth name, which
was then displayed in some relation to part of the body. My cousin Jimmy’s name
sign was the letter “J” swinging back and forth from the wrist. “Mary” was the
“M” poking at the chin. My name sign was “A” (closed fist, outstretched thumb)
tapping twice on the other fisted hand. Sometimes, if the person had a short name
it was simply finger-spelled. If a newcomer joined a deaf social network and had
a name sign that already duplicated someone else’s name sign, he was given a new
name by an authority figure in the network. That’s how my father’s friend acquired
the name “Carlos Blue Eyes” (the letter “C” pounded lightly on the chest,
followed by the Sign for “blue,” then pointing to the eyes). That Carlos was
a black man made his name sign all the more memorable.
As with the assigning of names, other unique behaviors had to do with parent-
child relationships and roles. The teaching of sign language, “translating” of
media, and communicating with doctors, teachers, policemen, and salesmen
and other authority figures in the hearing world were necessary skills to acquire.
Often, translation (we children never thought of ourselves as “interpreters”)
turned into arguing on behalf of our parents (neither were we familiar with the
term “advocate,” but that’s what we were).
Among the scores of cousins my Torres and Ayala relatives gave me, there were
twelve of us who were children of the mudos and mudas. We sensed a bond among
ourselves, and you might think, given the unique childhood we experienced,
that we would have spent hours upon hours comparing notes and analyzing our
special circumstances. But this never happened. Not until adulthood did we
become introspective about our unusual circumstance.
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Social networks were important too. My family’s social life was centered in
the Puerto Rican Society for the Catholic Deaf (PRSCD). For years after coming
to New York, my father had maintained a long-distance membership in a deaf
organization based in San Juan, which he had co-founded with his boyhood friend
Félix de Jesús. By the late 1950s a group of New York Puerto Ricans decided to
form their own group. Along with his sisters Isaura and Olga, and Olga’s
husband Seymour, they promoted the idea among their many friends. In 1959
they approached the Archdiocese of New York for recognition as an autonomous
group within the National Catholic Deaf Association.
At the time the Catholic Church in New York City had priests who ministered
to the deaf. Among them were Monsignor Walter D’Arcy and Father James Lynch,
who were well known to the Puerto Ricans. Competent signers both, they gave
Mass in Signed English and performed the sacraments for all the deaf throughout
the city. Fr. Lynch presided over the weddings of my family, including my parents.
He baptized me and most of my cousins. Msgr. D’Arcy agreed to serve as chaplain
to the PRSCD. My father was elected president, and my uncle Seymour elected as
treasurer. Elected vice president was William Fischbach, a native of Vieques.
Some fifty individuals joined the association in the first year. For their meetings
the Archdiocese lent them the use of an office space on 29½ East 50th Street,
in Rockefeller Center. A Constitution was adopted defining the objective of the
group, which was to promote
…the voluntary moral, physical, industrial, and philanthropic benefits, and progress
of the Catholic deaf; the spread of literature having special reference to the deaf;
to be of assistance to its members in time of sickness, disability, and death, and to
provide a place or places for the carrying on and furtherance of such objectives.
Every other Friday evening, the PRSCD met at 50th Street. There they
conducted the normal business of mutual aid societies: sharing news about deaf
families, planning social activities, collecting dues and holding raffles for the
Benefit Fund, and ending with refreshments and entertainment. Since many of the
deaf lived in isolation, and none of them had telephones, the meetings became the
essential mode for keeping in touch with each other. These Fridays offered them a
rare occasion to be their normal selves, without the discomfort of drawing gawking
eyes from the hearing world.
Once the business portion of the meeting ended, the adults turned to socializing
and entertainment. Bingo was ideal because it didn’t rely on verbal communication.
Standing in front of the crowd, someone signed the letter-number combinations
in succession until a winner was determined. As in the non-deaf world, there were
[ 99 ]
always participants who didn’t catch the correct “pronunciation” and insisted,
sometimes belligerently, on having the combination repeated. This happened not
once, but every time a combination was read. This irritated the others to no end,
having to slow down the action for the benefit of the stragglers.
Often the Society arranged to have a projector brought in for a film showing.
Even though the movies were captioned, the adults preferred action-packed
westerns and comedies to dramas. The latter were difficult to follow for the
less literate deaf and for those who were more “fluent” in Spanish than English.
Nothing too risqué, though, since the films were provided by the Church.
Unlike the others, my father didn’t care for slapstick. He said the “dummy”
roles played by the likes of the Three Stooges reminded him of hearing people
making fun of the deaf. “Dummy” was a common insult used to ridicule deaf
people. For the same reason he disliked the films of Laurel and Hardy,
Abbot and Costello, and Red Skelton. His tastes weren’t shared by the others,
though; they loved the physical comedy of these performers.
The meetings served as my window into the wider deaf world, outside
the immediate family. I watched intently as they went about their activities,
carefully noting new signs. At home I asked my father about the unfamiliar signs
and added them to my vocabulary.
Another group of Puerto Rican and Caribbean deaf was active in the Brooklyn
Archdiocese. It included the families of my mother’s three deaf sisters: Pancha,
Diosa, and Carmela. Christmas parties were held, drawing deaf families from all
over the city, including those based in Manhattan and the Bronx. It wasn’t an
exclusively Puerto Rican crowd, but the Puerto Ricans seemed to predominate.
The deaf Puerto Rican world was doubly separated: from the hearing world and
from the larger Puerto Rican community. The very features that bonded them
—language, customs, rituals, organizational networks—separated them from
my parents’ ethnic community. My parents and deaf relatives took pride in the
symbols and celebrities of their co-ethnics. The Feast of San Juan Bautista and
Three Kings Day were important days on the religious calendar and public figures
such as José Ferrer, Rita Moreno, and Roberto Clemente gave them much to brag
about. So did Muñoz Marín, Governor of Puerto Rico, and Herman Badillo when
he ran for Mayor of New York City in 1968.
[ 100 ]
But they were cut off from the Spanish-language media and from Hispanic
institutions and culture in the City. They didn’t listen to Radio WADO or read
El Diario-La Prensa
, as did my hearing relatives. Neither did they watch Spanish-
language TV programs. During the 1960s, when Puerto Rican community
organizations and political clubs emerged as a serious force, the Puerto Rican
deaf were invisible, as participants and as a group in need.
Closer ties would have required the existence of a corps of professional Sign
Language interpreters in the Puerto Rican community, but this did not exist.
Not until the national movement for Disability Rights achieved some victories
did some of these services trickle down to the Puerto Rican and Latino deaf.
And even then, the Puerto Rican social agencies were stretched thin attending to
the general population, one-third of which was mired in poverty, and unable to
deliver specialized services to the deaf. As a consequence, the connection of the
Puerto Rican deaf to its hearing population was quite tenuous.
With loose roots in their ethnic origins, the Puerto Rican deaf encountered
the Catholic Church as the most important social institution in their lives.
The Archdioceses of New York and Brooklyn each had missions for the deaf.
There were clergy, including brothers and nuns, who were trained in Signed English
and masses and sacraments were offered for the deaf. The Puerto Rican and
Hispanic deaf participated in these services. My father had told me he wanted his
deaf organization to have a Puerto Rican name so they could have their own identity.
But beyond the title there was no reference in the by-laws to the ethnic aspect.
It lacked language extolling the members to promote Puerto Rican culture or
other ethnic-specific activities. The by-laws read as a boilerplate document
applicable to any collection of Church members. My father insisted on this
identifier, but it was a symbolic, not substantive, statement. And yet symbols can
be powerful statements, for the organization continued to retain its name long
after the original leadership group passed away.
During the time covered in
this article, from the 1940s to
the 1970s, the Puerto Rican
deaf population in New York
City was not large, perhaps no
more than two thousand.
would partially account for the
invisibility of this subgroup vis-
à-vis the hearing Puerto Rican
community. It was a situation
not unlike that faced by the
deaf population in general.
Furthermore, the efficacy of
change was attenuated by deeper factors within the very nature of deafness
and its transmission. Unlike in other affinity-based communities, among deaf
networks, continuity from one generation to the next is not bolstered by kinship
or ethnic networks. Each age cohort of deaf is an “in-between” generation: ninety
percent of their parents are hearing, and more than ninety percent of their
children are hearing (Prickett 2000: 27).
[ 101 ]
In May of 2009 the Puerto Rican Society for the Catholic Deaf
celebrated its 50th Anniversary and was recognized with a
proclamation from the New York City Council.
Here members
celebrate, and on the right appears the sign for “I love you”.
None of my Torres or Ayala cousins are deaf, and none of our children are
deaf. Deaf family “bloodlines” were interrupted, and so the community could
reproduce itself only through social interaction and extra-familial contacts.
Each generation would have to reconstitute its social networks without the
benefit of family continuity. These processes affect the U.S. deaf population in
general, today numbering anywhere from a quarter to a half million people.
Increasingly scholars are paying attention to the issues affecting the lives of deaf
Latinas and Latinos. As the general population diversified ethnically, so has the deaf
population. Puerto Ricans are not as predominant among Latino deaf as they once
were. From the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other countries we have seen a
continuing influx into the New York area. At P.S. 47 in Manhattan and the
Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, for example, some 40 percent of students
are Hispanics. Nationally, Hispanics are the fastest-growing group among the deaf
school-age population, and close to a quarter of school-age deaf are of Latino heritage.
Studies are examining how disability and racial and ethnic identity shape their
educational development and their access to the spectrum of services and programs that
non-minority deaf students are typically offered. Of particular concern is the situation
faced by deaf Latinas/os from migrant and immigrant families and the challenges they
encounter interfacing with school systems in their new communities. Given the lack of
adequately trained professionals and educators, especially those having the necessary
cultural sensibilities and those equipped with trilingual capacities, many specialists fear
that deaf Hispanics are being short-changed by local school districts.
Another line of research deals with the intersection of disability and ethnic
identity. Which dimension weighs heavier on individual development and self-identity?
An incident during student protests at the Lexington School for the Deaf during 1994
is illustrative. An African-American deaf high school student was asked by a reporter
if she demonstrated also for the civil rights of black people. She responded, “I’m too
busy being Deaf right now. My two older brothers aren’t Deaf, so they’re taking care of
being black. Maybe if I have time I’ll get to that later” (Solomon 1994: 40).
Is it more
accurate to speak of deaf Hispanics or of the Hispanic Deaf?
There is additional interest in the family’s role in relation to deaf youths’ immigrant
adaptation, since hearing parents must deal with two new languages (i.e., English and
American Sign Language). Other work looks at the ways in which the triple condition
of youthfulness, disability, and minority status impact on the performance
of Latina/o deaf students.
[ 102 ]
There are other issues in the forefront of
deaf community concerns. One is the effect
of technological change on deaf culture.
Innovations such as closed captions, cochlear
implants, advanced hearing aids, and the
internet, all have the capacity to increase access
of the deaf to the hearing world. Improved
instructional aides make it easier for deaf
children to benefit from mainstreaming
programs within the regular school system,
where eighty-five percent of them are enrolled.
These innovations have not been welcomed
uncritically by all deaf. Among significant
sectors there is the fear that they undermine
deaf culture and will lead to the eventual
disappearance of American Sign Language,
a reminder of the “old days” when deaf
education was provided through oral
communication and teachers would slap
students’ hands if they signed in school.
Those days are unlikely to return, but the
presumption that Sign is an inferior language that should be used privately among
the deaf has been hard to eradicate among hearing people.
Ironically underlying this wariness toward the new technology is a fiercely
positive, and modern, attitude of pride, similar to the racial and ethnic pride
engendered by other movements of the civil rights era. From this perspective,
deafness is promulgated as an identity not a disability, as an asset not a defect
(Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan 1996: Chapters 13–15; Schemo 2006: A9).
In the strongholds of the deaf community such as Gallaudet University and
other educational centers for the deaf, there is vigorous debate about whether
the deaf will ever realize full social inclusion in the hearing world and whether
they should even aspire to immersion. This is a far cry from the perspective that
prevailed during my parents’ time.
A counter view has emerged among some circles that the Deaf Rights
movement has overstretched its case. Deaf people are not a “minority” in the
sense that racialized groups are. They are a community of interest, united by
a unique language and vibrant culture, but the barriers between them and the
hearing are eroding because of the reasons described above: technological
change, the lack of generational thickness, and educational mainstreaming.
Divisions are eroding also because the trend toward multicultural awareness
in the United States disposes hearing people toward a greater sensitivity and
awareness of the challenges faced by the deaf.
How these controversies are being assessed and interpreted within
the minority deaf communities has not been systematically researched.
Perhaps this is because they may seem too abstract to deaf people of color.
Perhaps minority deaf are too busy being minority deaf. And with good reason.
As in the hearing world, there are severe gaps in educational attainment between
African American/Latino deaf students and deaf students who are white, whether
we are looking at measures such as dropout rates, literacy rates,
Veteran PRSCD members cutting the cake at the
organization’s 50th anniversary celebration (May
7, 2009). From left to right: Rhadamés Torruellas,
Isaura Quiñones and Alex Taccogna.
[ 103 ]
or SAT scores. Deaf students of color are underrepresented in graduate study
and as professionals in the field of deaf education. Contributing to this problem
is the resistance in both the hearing community and the deaf community to
acknowledging the special case of the minority deaf. The bonds that unite all
deaf are powerful, yet the bigotry and prejudice in the general population has
its reflection among the deaf as well (Lang et al. 2007).
Testimony to the endurance of ethnic identity within the deaf community
is offered by the case of the Puerto Rican Society of Catholic Deaf. On May
7, 2009 the society celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and was recognized with
a proclamation from the New York City Council. A half-century’s continued
existence is a significant threshold for any organization.
[ 104 ]
I greatly appreciate Andrew Luecke’s research and editing assistance. I am grateful to
family members who shared recollections that have been included in this essay: my aunt
Blanca, my uncle César, and my cousin Mary. I also remember in gratitude conversations
with deceased aunts and uncles who helped inform this work: Olga, Mariamelia,
Magdalena, Carmela and Celestino (Chelo). I dedicate this article in memory to my late
parents Andrés Ismael and Bienvenida. Portions of this article will appear in Torres (2009).
Much of this work ultimately found its way into her book (Zentella 1997).
The Lexington, which taught grade school and which my mother attended a few years,
stood on 68th Street, on Manhattan’s East Side, and the New York School for the Deaf
(also called the Fanwood School) was in White Plains. The Lexington was situated where
Hunter College’s West Building is presently, and in the 1960s was relocated to Queens.
Signed English was the common form of sign in U.S. schools for the deaf and at St.
Gabriel’s. It predates, and is distinct from, American Sign Language (ASL). In 1965
Dr. William C. Stokoe, who had been chairman of the English Department at Gallaudet
University, published
A Dictionary of American Sign Language
. For background on the
history and evolution of ASL, see Walker (1994) and Padden and Humphries (1988).
For more on home signs see Fox (2007) and Lane et al. (1996: 39–40).
There was also a prior step, that of replacing the original home sign (in Spanish) for
“leche” (milk). But what that original sign was is lost, for I was never able to recover the
trove of these signs from the Torres relatives whom I interviewed. (It should also be
noted that many of the earlier words in Signed English, such as those taught in U.S. deaf
schools and in St. Gabriel’s, have evolved over time. For example the modern sign for
“milk” involves clutching just one hand.) From the Ayala side, I was able to reconstruct
their Puerto Rican home signs through conversations with my Mother.
Since I knew he had three deaf sisters, I was an accessory to this untruth. None of my
aunts, as far as I was aware, was given to climbing palm trees in their San Germán childhood.
A family’s hereditary deafness can shape perceptions of their hearing children. I recall
several instances of being interrogated by the mother of a girlfriend or a date. They wondered
out loud, to my chagrin, what was the likelihood of deafness “skipping a generation.”
There is a vibrant literature affirming deaf culture and sign language (Lane et al. 1996;
Lane 1999; Padden and Humphries 1995; Baynton, Gannon and Lindquist Bergery 2007).
Discussions of the evolving relations and tensions between hearing and non-hearing
appear in Anderson and Miller (2004), Davis (2007), Jacobs (1989) and Sacks (1989).
This is my conservative estimate based on the incidence of profound deafness in the
general population, which is one-tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) (Saks 1989: 7 and Van
Cleve 1987: Vol. 2, 102). By 1970 the Puerto Rican population in the N.Y.C. metropolitan
area was close to one million. Taking into account the greater degree of poverty and health
problems among the population and that deaf Puerto Ricans (all Puerto Ricans are U.S.
citizens) were migrating to New York City from the island for health and educational
needs, it is reasonable to assume that there were well more than a thousand deaf Puerto
Ricans in the local area. Other factors that would increase this figure are (1) a spike in
rubella cases in New York City’s poor communities during the early 1960s and (2) the
greater incidence of deafness in Puerto Rico (3.6 percent) compared to the United States
(3.4 percent), as referenced Albertorio, Juan Roberto, Holden-Pitt and Rawlings (1999),
and also in National Center for Health Statistics (2007: 258, Table 59). Finally, this estimate
[ 105 ]
does not include the hearing children raised in deaf households. From the perspective of
family units, the number of individuals within the Puerto Rican deaf community might
have been anywhere from four to eight thousand. Given the relative stability of the total
Puerto Rican population since the 1970s (although the numbers have declined by about 10
percent), this serves as a fair estimate of the current figure.
For P.S. 47 see York/NewYork/
PsJhs47SchoolDeaf.html; on the Lexington School data, see http://schools.;
and for national data see Andrews, Martin and Velázquez (2007: 40) and News (2005: 1).
A Latino example of negotiating identities is presented in the biography of Robert
Dávila (Lang, Cohen and Fishgrund 2007), a pioneering deaf leader. Dávila is a child
of Mexican immigrant agricultural workers, a farm worker himself in his youth. He is
President of Gallaudet University, the first person of color to head the university.
A comprehensive annotated bibliography of Deaf Latino research is available on: A ground-breaking study is Delgado (1984).
A strongly argued statement against the notion of a deaf identity or community,
whether in a linguistic sense or an ethnic sense, is made by Davis (2007).
In his letter of endorsement for this proclamation, Msgr. Patrick McCahill of
St. Elizabeth’s Church wrote: “So many of the other fraternal organizations serving
the Deaf people of New York have faded into oblivion. It is a wonderful tribute
to the leaders and the membership of the Puerto Rican Society that they are still
active .
... After 50 years the need remains and the Puerto Rican Society continues to
help…. One reality that always amazes me is that the Deaf people who have returned
to Puerto Rico or have moved to other parts of the country regularly return to
New York and the monthly meetings of the Puerto Rican Society….Honoring this
wonderful organization, organized by, for and with Deaf people and continuously led
by Deaf people would be a wonderful thing.”
Albertorio, Juan Roberto, Lisa Holden-Pitt, and Brenda Rawlings. 1999. Preliminary
Results of the Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth
in Puerto Rico: The First Wave.
American Annals of the Deaf
144(5): 386–94.
Anderson, Glenn B. and Katrina R. Miller. 2004. In Their Own Words: Researching Stories
About the Lives of Deaf People of Color.
Multicultural Perspectives
6(2): 28–33.
Andrews, Jean F., Tony Martin, and José Ovidio Velázquez. 2007.
The Hispanic Outlook in
Higher Education
23(14) 17 April: 40.
Baynton, Douglas C., Jack R. Gannon, and Jean Lindquist Bergery. 2007.
Through Deaf
. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Chandler, Michael Alison. 2006. Education worth a thousand words.
The Washington Post
2 January: B1.
Davis, Lennard J. 2007. Deafness and the Riddle of Identity.
Chronicle of Higher Education
12 January 53(19): B5–B8.
Delgado, Gilbert I., ed. 1984.
The Hispanic Deaf: Issues and Challenges for Bilingual Special
. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Fox, Margalit. 2007.
Talking Hands
. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Jacobs, Leo M. 1989.
A Deaf Adult Speaks Out
. 3rd Edition. Washington, DC: Gallaudet
University Press.
Lane, Harlan. 1999.
The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community
. New Edition.
San Diego: DawnSignPress.
[ 106 ]
Lane, Harlan, Robert Hoffmeister, and Ben Bahan, eds. 1996.
A Journey into the Deaf-
. San Diego: DawnSignPress.
Lang, Harry, Oscar Cohen, and Joseph Fishgrund. 2007.
Moments of Truth: Robert R.
Davila—The Story of a Deaf Leader
. Rochester, NY: RIT Press.
National Center for Health Statistics. 2007.
Health, United States, 2007 With Chartbook
on Trends in the Health of Americans
. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for
Health Statistics.
NEWS. 2005. Press Release from the Federal Communications Commission 14 July: 1.
Padden, Carol and Tom Humphries. 1988.
Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Prickett, Darlene. 2000. The CODA Connection: Do Your Parents Know Braille?
Gallaudet Today
Fall: 27.
Sacks, Oliver. 1989. Seeing Voices:
A Journey Into the World of the Deaf
. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Schemo, Diana Jean. 2006. Turmoil at Gallaudet Reflects Broad Debate Over Deaf
New York Times
21 October: A9.
Solomon, Andrew. 1994. Defiantly Deaf.
New York Times
28 August: 40.
Torres, Andrés. 2009.
Signing in Puerto Rican: A Hearing Son and His Deaf Family
Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Van Cleve, John ed. 1987.
The Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness
. Vol. 2.
Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Walker, Lou Ann. 1994.
Hand, Heart, and Mind
. New York: Dial Books.
Zentella, Ana Celia. 1997.
Growing Up Bilingual: Puerto Rican Children in New York City
New York: Blackwell Publishers.
[ 107 ]