Erika Levi: “I found myself understanding them, and their dreams.” Discovering the Deaf World in Mexico

Posted on January 29, 2014



Exiting the airport, I breathed in and was struck at how the air smelt so strangely like Indonesia where I was born. The smog. Despite of this, I smiled, I liked the imperfections and was excited to enter a new different culture. Mexican culture.

Sitting in a taxi, with a bag wedged between Simon and me, I observed Mexicans and their city, Guadalajara waking up. The sun was just about to rise and the road was already choked with traffic. The taxi was moving at a caterpillar’s speed.

I spotted a young lady dressed in modern attire walking down a street, alone. I remembered vividly a couple’s alarmed reactions when I told them that we are going to Mexico. They shook their heads and cried, “No! It’s dangerous there!” while flapping their hands.

I could feel Simon swinging his shoulders and I glanced over. He was busily capturing the lives of Mexicans with his 5DM3 through the window.

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Fast forward to the present. I am typing on my laptop, trying to find the right words to paint my experience in Mexico. The time and date on the top right corner of the screen reminds me that I only have a few days left until we depart Mexico, from the same airport where we arrived.

Time is ticking. Memories flow into my head. I close my eyes.

I see a deaf Mexican with black long dreadlocks that would make a Dothraki proud, appear at the front of the hostel’s gate. Ernesto. Ernesto Escobedo who opened the door to the real Mexican world. He beckons us to follow him. I follow him. It is a cold morning, the sky a shade of dark blue and only light we can see come from the lampposts. Yellow tinted light. He boards a bus. I hop onto the bus. I am on a journey.

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A deaf shopkeeper with a brilliant smile opens a door, the door to a small space in the front of his home. A car, definitely not a RV, but a small car could just barely fit in the space.
A wide variety of snacks, soft drinks and basic food such as eggs and milk are displayed on the shelves. I look at him and see that behind his smile is a fiercely proud family man who despite of being told by a doctor not to work due to his spine problems, refused to let his hearing wife become the sole breadwinner.

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A young deaf waiter, in his late teens, slides through a small door and then lifts a round tray with his hand. He walks with a sure and confident aroma, balancing the tray on his hand. I interview him. He moves his hands around as if to paint on a whole wall. He is not afraid to dream big even through he had experienced many rejections. Finding jobs in Mexico is not so easy as I discover.

A dark tanned man weaves together hundreds of coloured threads, working steadily. My amigo, sitting in front of the car, juts her arm out of the window and tries to wave her hand wildly. The man jerks his head around, sensing the movement in the corner of his eyes. He smiles. My amigo swings the car door open. I squeeze out of the small green beetle car that has been boiling hot for two hours. The signal on my phone has completely died. My bottom is tingling from sitting too long and Simon’s legs are drenched with sweat but we are standing in the centre of Chican, a small rural village where seventeen native deaf Mayans live!

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Instead of McDonalds and Starbucks welcoming us (I absolutely loathe Starbucks, McDonalds or any fast food chains), a modest wooden hut greets me. Several deaf Mayans signal us to come in and so I enter. The walls are made of long thin wooden sticks lined up. There are slight thin gaps between each wooden stick but these imperfections are good. I could feel a warm breeze seeping through the gaps.

Sitting on a low wooden stool, I watch a broad Mayan lady roll a ball of white dough, which is made of corn and water. I could feel the heat from the fire. I could smell the smoke, wood and damp rain in the air. The Mayan family have generously fed us with their delicious homemade food and gave up their bedroom for us to hang up the hammocks to sleep in for a night. Their sign language is completely different from Lengua de Señas Mexicana (LSM), the sign language that deaf people outside Chican use. I watch them, especially their faces, trying to figure out what they are saying.

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I remember vividly how on the first day I met some deaf people in Guadalajara, I could not understand their sign language but slowly, I began to read their facial expressions, the way they move their eyebrows, the way their eyes look like an open window into their souls, I found myself understanding them, their dreams, their pains, their wishes and hopes even though I am not one hundred per cent fluent in LSM.

Despite of the hardships deaf Mexicans might experience throughout their lives, they have welcomed us warmly, inviting us to eat breakfasts, lunches or dinners with them. A kind hearted deaf couple drove for miles and miles, which lasted from afternoon to midnight, to bring us close to one of the World’s Seven Wonders, and at two occasions, invited us to sleep in hammocks at their small and humble home. I never knew that two or even four people could sleep in a single hammock.

I remember attempting to sign back in LSM, actually in broken LSM but they seemed to understand me quite easily and they loved our effort in learning LSM to communicate with them. I remember on the eve of Christmas, with our amigos, we emptied a bottle of tequila and cried together over the thought that we are not going to meet again for a very, very long time, which is funny because Simon and I have decided at the last minute to return to Guadalajara one more time before we leave Mexico, just to see Ernesto who gave us the key to the door. We are heavily in their debt.

‘If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home’ – James Michener

I like this quote because it fits with my belief so much. If you fly over to a country and tell someone how much you want to learn his native sign language or spoken language, eat the local food and interact with different people then you will be warmly welcomed and probably will form some new and lasting friendships.

Although Mexico can be a bit dangerous in some certain places I have seen the glorious beauty in the rolling green hills, the smooth beaches with their perfect sunny weather, the fabulous margaritas, the beautiful old buildings that resembled Spanish’s ancient buildings, the absolutely jaw-dropping, magical cenotes, the magnificent ancient Mayan buildings and of course, their spicy food that always come with slices of zesty limes to squeeze over.

I hope you will enjoy the short promo that Simon edited, in where you will see the deaf people who helped us during our stay in Mexico. (You can view the short promo on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/85039124 or watch it below).

A man with a shaved head will appear at the gate of my hostel in about thirty minutes. This time, he is not a stranger but my good amigo, Ernesto.

By Erika Levi. Erika has lived in four different islands (the latest island is United Kingdom) and she likes watching super awesome TV programmes such as Breaking Bad, The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones and…*coughs* The Great British Bake off. She is currently on a lifetime adventure around the world with her tall partner, working on the Deaf World project together. 

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