In my early days of learning sign language, I occasionally visited a Deaf church in Hato Rey on Calle Alhambra near the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. The school I worked at was religiously-affiliated, and the Deaf and hearing staff often attended together. The church occupied the first floor of a two-story concrete building in a residential neighborhood. An enormous tree sheltered the limited on-street parking and refracted the evening street lights in yellow splotches across the pavement. The slim doorway opened up into the first of two rooms. Brown, plastic-molded school chairs lined three walls. An indestructible wooden table sat low in the middle of the room where children could play with minimum risk of breakage. A short hallway connected the front room to the sanctuary. Metal folding chairs, easily put away and taken out again, formed six rows, front to back, arranged to minimize the visual barriers of two load-bearing columns, inconveniently place there by the building’s architect long before anyone knew this would become a Deaf space.
On Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, church members would filter into the first room and chat, some enthusiastically, some with trepidation, in what I can only summarize for the unfamiliar as a Spanglish version of sign language. This hardly does justice to the politics of sign language in Puerto Rico, since, like many places in Africa and Latin America, the spread of ASL by missionaries such as those called to serve this small church, has frequently displaced local signing conventions. Nonetheless, an ASL user, even one determined to eliminate all initialized signs and preserve the purity of the language, will quickly learn with great interest how many English conventions have been incorporated into ASL. Initialized signs such as YELLOW are signed with a Y hand shape, even though amarillo begins with an “A”. Red and rojo conveniently share the first letter. But Christmas, signed in ASL with a C, becomes navidad with an “N”. Even simple phrases such as, “how old are you?” (YOU OLD HOW-MANY?) is often signed YOU YEARS HAVE HOW-MANY?, following the Spanish Cuantos años tienes? (How many years do you have?). Regional sign differences also abound: grade level looks a bit like KILL, search (buscar) is signed more horizontally looking down than looking straight ahead, and graduate looks a bit like signing the initialized sign for WEIRD backwards.
So varied were these signs that when I moved back to the U.S. and went through an interpreting program, I spent the first year discovering what these differences actually were. I’m pretty sure my teachers thought I was making things up even though I seemed to sign them with perfect confidence. The lobby of that little church was one of many spaces of language immersion before I knew that the term existed. People from all over San Juan came to the church in buses, shared cars, by foot, and in the back of the white, unmarked church van. They came for community, came to have their souls washed clean, but I suspect even more importantly, came for conversation in .
Of all the people who have remained rooted in my memories over the years, one man sticks out. Having grown up on the margins, I somehow always feel drawn to back to them. My experience with the Deaf community reminds me of that nearly universal truth, that even the margins have their margins. This man was in his late 40s when I met him. His name may have been José. I say “may have been”, because I think that was his name, but I also have a pitiable time remembering names. I still remember the speed of light in metric and standard, which I memorized on a boring day in high school chemistry (299,792,458 miles/sec or 186,281.7 meters/sec). I still remember the words to Ice, Ice, Baby, and a 16-character cheat code to Castlevania II for Nintendo (CTMVW26KR5KNSIBK), both of which I memorized in 5th grade on the 7 minute bus ride from my house to school. But if you introduce yourself to me at a party, wait two minutes, and ask me what your name is, be prepared to have your feelings hurt. José, then. Not much was known about José except that he seemed to understand sign language although he never used it, and there was at at least some indication of him being hearing.
One Wednesday night when I dropped him off at his house on the way back from church, he asked me a question about how I learned sign language, then said “thanks” with a handshake as he left. This might be conclusive evidence that he was hearing. But during Miranda’s (my wife) graduate school training in language disorders, I learned about a number of forms of selective mutism and autism that impact language in socially-mediated ways. I’m totally against reducing people to diagnoses. But I have often wondered if there was a psychological or medical context for the way that we knew José. I imagined – then and now – that if José was different in some way, he might have been ostracized in school, ignored, or worse yet, ridiculed by his teachers and peers for the way he spoke – or for not speaking at all. I wondered if the members of this Deaf church, with their relatively more accepting spectrum of language styles, was a logical, if unconventional, social fit for José.
Like all memories, one cannot remember without re-membering, dis-membering, and trans-membering the very people we wish to remember. Memory is an act of fidelity and infidelity at the same time. This picture of José is inaccurate and insufficient. Likely factually wrong in some way. But it’s in the inconsistencies – the inconsistencies that I produce through the act of re-membering, as psychoanalysis suggests – makes this memory interesting to me and productive of my present.
It is with at least some embarrassment that I think about this early experience. I feel unease today about the relationship between missionaries and Deaf communities around the world, and self-consciousness about the fact that my formative signing years overlapped (though not exclusively) with these missional spaces. I’m not naive, about this, of course. Whatever one says about religious missionaries, they cannot be easily dismissed as fanatics or interlopers. Many of them were former farmers and working class laborers, who carried out long-term commitments with a dedication unmatched and unimaginable among today’s social justice volunteers. In fact, the time may soon come when we would gladly take a reformed missionary education over the individualizing consumerism of global capitalism, though the two don’t stand entirely at odds. Yet, I can’t help but blush when I think about the condescending side-comments made to me about Puerto Ricans (to which I probably acquiesced), and the tacit Anglo-centrism of their particular form of fundamentalist theology. But there’s no sense in angrily snubbing people with whom we have profound differences, even when that person is a former version of ourselves. We must make peace with the person we embodied in the past as much as we must make peace with others in our present.