Migrant sign language interpreter becomes bridge for Juarez’s deaf community

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Venezuelan professional breaks stereotype of international citizens coming to U.S.-Mexico border

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Ruben Efrain Gotieh describes himself as “just another migrant” in Juárez.

But unlike the tens of thousands of international citizens who’ve come to the border since late 2018, Gotieh doesn’t have his sights set on the American Dream.

The native of Caracas, Venezuela, says he’s happy being the bridge that allows deaf people in Juárez to connect with essential government services.

“That would make me an exception. I decided to come here, with a master’s level academic foundation, to practice my trade,” he said. “Most migrants are forced to leave as if swept by a current, not knowing what their fate will be.”

Gotieh is a sign language interpreter at Juárez City Hall. With deft movement of hands accentuated by animated facial expressions, he stands side-by-side with the mayor, the police chief and any number of public servants who appear in city broadcasts and press conferences.

Ruben Efrain Gotieh, a native of Venezuela, is a sign language interpreter at Juárez City Hall. (Photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report.)

The National Institute for Geography, Statistics and Information estimates that some 630,000 people in Mexico are deaf or have serious hearing problems. The Chihuahua Association of Sign Language Interpreters says as many as 5,000 people in Juárez and the rest of the state are deaf.

“There aren’t sufficient certified interpreters, not just in Chihuahua, but in all of Mexico,” said an association spokeswoman, adding that only four companies in the state provide interpretation services.

Gotieh said “speaking” a visual language requires comprehension and precision. Add to that the regional nuances in the language that is being translated — meanings of some words in Spanish on the U.S.-Mexico border may vary greatly from those in South America, for example — and you have quite a challenge.

“To speak sign language, you need to know your community, to have a good relationship with the local deaf community,” the interpreter said.

Gotieh has been performing sign language for 20 years in Venezuela and Colombia and previously worked as an English, French and Spanish translator/interpreter. He has kept up-to-date in his trade, attending seminars all over the Americas, including in the United States.

But with the economic collapse in Venezuela prevalent during the Nicolas Maduro administration, he started to look for work opportunities elsewhere. Mexico popped on the radar. He tried Mexico City and Puebla before settling on Juárez about a year ago.

“We all have a life plan. Mine fell through. You may live in a country that has the largest oil reserves in the world, but still have a diminishing economy,” he said. “I saw that and thought it might be necessary to leave before the ship goes down.”

Ruben Efrain Gotieh (right) provides sign language interpretation at a press conference by Juárez Police Chief Raul Avila Ibarra. (Photo by Julian Resendiz.)

In Juárez, he has seen the ebb and flow of migration and the stark reality of border politics.

“It’s the 21st century, we need to evolve as social beings […] we should show more empathy for these migrants, especially those who come without a plan, just looking for a country that will give them the opportunities they do not have in their own,” he said.

Gotieh surmised mass migration might be stemmed if some countries stop being so territorial and opt instead to be part of an international solution to problems that make people leave their homes. Immigration experts have said asylum seekers who came as part of the migrant wave last year mostly were fleeing poverty, crime and gangs in Central America.

A migrant family walks over a bridge in Juarez, Mexico. (AP file photo)

“Our world coexists with other worlds. It’s good to keep that in mind,” he said.

City officials like Communications Director Monica Luevano speak glowingly of Gotieh’s precise, expressive style and the depth of thought in everyday conversation.

“He is a very educated, very prepared person,” Luevano said, referring to how he provides a contrast to the image people have about the typical migrant in Juárez.

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