Exploring the Complex Intersections of Guatemalan, Mayan, and Deaf Identities
I arrived in Guatemala in September 2016 to begin work as a full-time outreach volunteer at Las Voces del Silencio (LAVOSI) School for the Deaf in Jocotenango. Jocotenango is a small puebla just north of Antigua, nestled amongst the hills and volcanoes of the central highlands. Every day I marvel at the sights as I walk to school. I see the Volcán de Agua to the south on clear days, coffee farms climbing the sides of steep hills, and colorful “chicken buses” flying by on the narrow streets.
I thought I was prepared for the whirlwind that would greet me in Guatemala. I knew that the languages and cultural norms, in addition to all the work to be done at LAVOSI, would be a lot to process in the first few weeks. But there sure is a difference between planning for it and actually experiencing it!
I was ill prepared for how many languages and cultures I would be navigating on a daily basis. I had a decent foundation in spoken Spanish, and knew I would learn Guatemalan Sign Language (Lenguaje de Señas Guatemalteco, or Lensengua) at LAVOSI. It’s a common misconception that sign language is universal; each country, in fact, has its own sign language. My knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL) has been helpful because it gives me a background in visual communication. Sometimes I notice signs that are very similar to ASL, but Lensengua is a completely different language.
My experience with the American Deaf community has also been a helpful bridge to learning Lensengua, because I already have an understanding of Deaf norms. While the signs are different, there are many parts of Deaf culture that are similar. For example, you get a Deaf person’s attention the same way - by a tap on the arm, a wave of the hands, or the flick of the lights. I noticed that the school is an important place for the students to socialize, just as school is in the U.S., because many of them lack communication access at home and in the community.
There is also the same practice of assigning name signs. These are unique signs that identify a person. When I introduced myself to the students, I spelled my name and showed them my name sign. Every single one of them looked shocked, confused, or laughed! The teacher explained that my American sign name is very similar to the Guatemalan sign for “man” or “boy.” The students quickly decided I needed a new Guatemalan name sign and by the end of the first day I had been renamed!
All of the students have been wonderful tutors. They patiently chat with me and introduce me to new signs. In return, many of the older students are anxious to practice their English and ASL. They’re learning written English in class, and many have picked up various American signs. One student and I practiced the ASL and Lensengua alphabet every day the first week, until we had each other’s letters memorized.
The students at LAVOSI are learning Kaqchikel in addition to Guatemalan Sign Language, Spanish, and English. Guatemala has a very large Mayan population and many of the students at LAVOSI are Mayan. There are over 20 Mayan languages spoken around the country and Kaqchikel is one widely used in this area. Through their classes, the students learn about their Mayan language and culture. Many of them proudly wear traditional clothing on special holidays.
In these first weeks, I’ve realized that I have only just started to scratch the surface of the rich and complex intersections of Guatemalan, Mayan, and Deaf identities among the children at LAVOSI. I’m excited to continue learning from the students, while sharing my knowledge of social work and community outreach. Together we want to find ways to ensure the sustainability of the impressive program at LAVOSI, since it is a very special home for a unique population. I am thrilled that the Christianson Fellowship has made it possible for me to join the team and contribute to the valuable work happening here.
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