I’m sure you’ve heard this cliche phrase: “a look is worth a thousand words.” It’s true, and I’ve always thought that communication goes far beyond a word coming out of our mouths. Without realizing it, we have all spoken without uttering or a single word, simply sending a signal with our hands or eyes.
Guatemala is a country of almost 17 million people, and we communicate in over 24 recognized languages. They are all really different: among them is Spanish, 21 Mayan languages, one Xinca and one Garifuna. Of the entire population of Guatemala there is 1%1 who are forgotten and even seem invisible in communication, since these people do not speak with their voice, but communicate with their hands. This percentage of the population is comprised of deaf people.
For the unaware, sign language is different depending on which country or region of the world in which you live, just like spoken languages. Legal Initiative 5128 was proposed to approve this specific sign language of Guatemala, better known as LENSEGUA. However, the country first has to approve the Sign Language Act in order to be recognized as a language, since it generates identity, belonging, participation and access.
Having no knowledge of any of this, in February 2015 I started to study LENSEGUA in the Educational Association for the Deaf, ASEDES. Without knowing what awaited me I started a real adventure. The first big surprise was that I was to be “baptized” with my sign or nickname as it is known in Guatemala. My sign language teacher Niurka Bendfeldt, deaf by birth, explained that proper names have no sign for that reason each one of us would receive a sign, and that they typically are based on a special characteristic of our personality or appearance. To my surprise it was my long beard that really got a lot of attention at the time, combined with the first initials of each of my names, Eric and Fernando. And there it was: I became E * beard * F.The year after having started to study LENSEGUA, my friend Jeffree Carvajal and I decided to make the first short film in Guatemala designed from the start to be inclusive for both the deaf and hearing public. We called it “Otro Sentido” which means Another Sense in Spanish. The following year we made a music video of an emblematic song from Guatemala called Luna de Xelajú. The singer, Carol Villagrán, performed it using LENSEGUA. In each of those materials I was a producer.
In March of this year, the 26th episode of the documentary series Our American Story was released for the Voice of America TV channel in over 20 countries around the world for an audience of millions. I remember this episode with a lot of love because the idea was born in a bar in Panajachel, Guatemala with my friends Miles and Jeffree. One May evening, between peanuts and beer, I told them it would be good to be able to tell a story of a deaf person for this series. The star of the show, Sima Mehan, is originally from Russia but came to the United States as a young girl. She was born deaf and tells an incredible story about the experience she had when she first came over.
Soon enough, in August of the same year I found myself en route to Washington D.C to be part of the production team of the episode and help tell Sima’s story. It was a rewarding experience with a dose of reality because I realized the enormous gap in access and education that there is in the deaf community of the United States and Guatemala. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated for a moment, and then truly inspired to continue producing visual content to raise awareness of the deaf community in Guatemala.
Here is why I love my sign: it starts with the letter E on the left end of my face and, as my hand slides along the contour of my face along my beard, it emphasizes my smile and ends boldly with the letter F.
My sign is more than my name, it is the visibility of an entire culture, it is the recognition of the diversity of my country. Every day I reaffirm my path in communication for development with projects in which I can capture stories by following my heart.
1. [Legal Initiative 5128 “Law of Sign Langauge of Guatemala, LENSEGUA”]↩