For the deaf who ply Mexico City’s crowded subways peddling candy and trinkets, the lure of New York is strong. Many of their friends have already left, and urge them to follow.
“My friends said, ‘Come on, come with us’ - but I have my children and parents here,” said Maribel Mendoza, a single mother who hauls a bag of candy through the subways for five hours a day.
In addition to the promise of money up north, there is the threat of exploitation - as the world found out when New York police swooped down on two Queens apartments and found 57 deaf vendors crammed into tiny cubicles, complaining of abuse. The discovery evoked sympathy across the United States and Mexico.
But the deaf who stay on in their native Mexico work the same routine and get little compassion - and little money. A bag of candy here goes not for a dollar, but for a peso - 13 cents.
The deaf also have to contend with a police force that they say fails to protect them, and often preys on them outright.
Rogue subway police demand up to a third of a day’s earnings in bribes or take them to the “Little Bullpen,” a jail notorious for its shakedowns, for selling on the subway. And vendors with normal hearing - because of Mexico’s economic crisis - have begun to intrude on what used to be the territory of the deaf.
That’s why a conversation in sign language among four deaf vendors outside a subway station turned to how to survive in a country where even those without handicaps are having a rough time getting by - and whether the United States might offer better luck.
“The ones who go up there never come back with money. They return just as broke as they left,” said Andres Nava Cardenas, a stocky vendor in a blue T-shirt that proclaimed in English: “I love you.”
But Alma Rosa Rodriguez, who visited New York to sell trinkets in airports and subways, had seen some advantages in the United States. She mimed the way police there treated her: a courteous tap on the shoulder and a wagging finger ordering her to leave.
“We would just wait until they went away, and then we’d go right back to selling,” Rodriguez said.
The deaf here quickly form acquaintances among those who speak their sign language, a gesture-based code that initially baffled interpreters in New York.
When it comes to alphabetic sign language, needed to spell out names, the gestures become slow and laborious.
“Most of the deaf here have little more than a first- or second-grade education,” said Berta Olveira, an interpreter.
Mendoza worked sewing clothing until her husband abandoned her, leaving her with two children and almost no money. She began selling trinkets to make more money, and says she wants a better job.
“My children are teaching me how to read and write. I’ve passed the third grade,” she said. Life used to be worse for deaf Mexicans; many once were classified as mentally retarded because of their slurred speech. That, at least, is “a thing of the past,” said Humberto Galeano, director of the National Special Education Teachers School.
But the deaf still face many challenges.
Mexico’s constitution guarantees an education to all, but Galeano said the government doesn’t allocate enough money to teach the deaf. The constitution prohibits discrimination, but employers guilty of it are seldom prosecuted.
Mexico City has 80 centers where the deaf, the blind and retarded children are all given classes.
But Jose Baldillo Huerta, director of the private Benito Juarez School for the Deaf, said the government schools won’t accept children who are completely deaf.
With little education, many deaf people wind up in the subways - or in the United States. And Baldillo says until the government starts teaching deaf children to talk, the supply of migrants to the north will never run out.
“Here in Mexico, we may be manufacturing deaf-mutes,” he said.
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