Signing in Puerto Rican: A Hearing Son and His Deaf Family. Torres, Andrés. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet UP, 2009. 232pp.
Sign language has not always been an acceptable language in society. Often many do not even realize that if one is deaf and literate in the language of the non-deaf, they are considered bilingual. Non-deaf persons have both negative and positive viewpoints, any negative views can be due to a lack of unawareness of this so called disability. Society may tend to label the Deaf handicap, however bilingualism is a gift. Torres’ insightful memoir brought to my attention how invisible the Deaf community was to me personally, I now realize how gifted they are. As Colin Baker writes in Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (5th edition), “It is important to recognize that Deaf people (like many hearing people) form relatively disadvantaged minorities and have certain things in common with hearing, language minority individuals and groups” (362). This book review will indicate the many similarities between the Deaf community and the bilingual community.
The author does an impeccable job of sharing with his audience the trials and tribulations his family went through. Being a hearing son of two deaf Puerto Rican parents in New York City during the 1940s-70s, he and his family often faced discrimination. Unfortunately, “to less aware people sign language may seem primitive, rudimentary, and just a simple picture language, whereas the spoken language is seen as the natural language for all in the community” (Baker, 363). Torres recalls the hidden embarrassment of his parents through the way they would sign in public on the train, versus when they were at events hosted by the Deaf community. This can be relatable to the bilingual community because typically children of a minority language prefer to speak the majority language than their parent’s language. Some children are strongly encouraged to learn the majority language by their minority language speaking parents, such as English, rather than becoming a balanced bilingual. In addition, the majority language is viewed upon as an entryway into a successful lifestyle. Even Torres’ father, the president of the Deaf society while he grew up, wanted his son to have the best education possible. His family struggled financially, as most minority bilingual communities of a low socioeconomic tend to; often moving or not being able to afford a private school are examples of this. His Puerto Rican family was of a language minority community, Spanish which left them, “doubly underprivileged, and doubly despised” (Baker, 370). This underprivileged state is commonly due to being excluded from the majority language.
Children of parents who speak a minority language and children of deaf adults (CODA) become interpreters. Torres writes, “We children never thought of ourselves as ‘interpreters’” (Torres, 202). Children who learn the majority language become essential advocates for their parents from young ages without even realizing their roles as interpreters. Both children translate for their parents or grandparents to their teachers, doctors and other professionals, as Torres did. This is an important job for such young ones and as their English progresses they are forced to assimilate to the mainstream culture. This goes for both communities, for example, a Deaf student being pressured into a mainstream classroom or an emergent bilingual placed in a monolingual classroom. As a future bilingual educator I know a child of minority language should be taught in their home language and then in the majority language, as should a deaf child. Being taught in a student’s home language, “enables a focus on the subject matter of the curriculum (rather than learning to speak a majority language)… [which] can allow the students to perform well in the curriculum”(364). Although, in education both bilingual and deaf communities are subject to deficit viewpoints, “Deaf people are expected to become as ‘normal’ as possible by avoiding purely visual methods of communication such as sign language, and learning spoken language (as much as is viable) to integrate into mainstream society”(Baker, 363). It is unfortunate that this takes place as it does with bilingual children being forced to sink or swim in a monolingual, majority language classroom. Signing or speaking any other language other than a majority language can add diversity to the world we live in today, instead of focusing on the deficiencies, the abilities should be emphasized (364).
When young ones of these communities are faced with these challenges, their journey for their self-identity is full of struggle. Torres saw how his parents preferred to interact with those who were also deaf because they could easily relate to them even if their signing was a bit different, just like Spanish dialects can be different. Although, as Torres was of the hearing community, and of the Deaf community he often held the sentiment as both an insider and outsider. He states, “My deaf Puerto Rican world was doubly separated: from the hearing world and from the larger Puerto Rican community” (Torres, 203). Torres grows up with diverse language use for different times and places, as do other bilinguals. Almost like living a double life; from his studies of priesthood, to being on the block, to be of the hearing world and the deaf, it led him on a journey both compelling and engaging. It is an organic story and an eye opener especially, for a future bilingual educator.