Here is what islanders agree on when they tell the story of Kendrick Britton: he was beautiful, tall, and wrapped in muscles he earned breaking gravel for construction projects in the days before it was imported. He never wore a shirt. There was a white streak in the front of his Afro that he hated, plucking and dying it religiously. Of all of the blue-eyed Brittons in Southwest Bay, he had the most beautiful eyes, clear and light like the reef. Most days, Kendrick would swim out from the bay, past the caye, almost to the horizon, until all you could see was a dark stain in the Caribbean. He swam like a fish.
Kendrick was the third child in his family to be born deaf. On days he wasn’t working, he sat on the beach and sketched sailboats in the sand and, with his hands, told tourists stories about ships and the sea. The tourists never understood, but every islander from Bottom House to Lazy Hill knew about Kendrick’s dream. He stuck a steering wheel, pilfered from a broken-down car, into a dead tree and said that he was navigating a ship. He was leaving to be a captain, to go far, far away and bring back money for his mother.
Thirty years later, far, far—always with one hand waving at the wrist, out to sea—is one of few phrases that every deaf person on the island can speak out loud.
Islanders agree that Kendrick’s destiny was out at sea. His first trip—to Cartagena and back, on a cargo ship, the Doña Olga III—was his last. The ship sank on its return, and Kendrick was lost to the sea.
This is where the stories diverge. Some people say Kendrick was asleep when the ship sank, that he never heard his crewmates sound the alarm. His nieces, also deaf, tell the story with their hands, fingers rolling like crashing waves and arms wheeling at the shoulders for the five men who swam away while their uncle with the freckled arms sank and died.
Some say Kendrick was killed for what he witnessed—drugs grown on the mainland and smuggled out on the Doña Olga III. When Kendrick’s brother, Ares, signs the story, he mimes Kendrick’s death with a blow to his own head. One night, his youngest sister whispers that she doesn’t believe he drowned at all: three days after the boat sank, she dreamt of a voice that told her Kendrick was alive in Nicaragua. In her version, Kendrick made it ashore, but no one understood him well enough to help him find his way home.
Everyone says he was too strong a swimmer simply to have drowned.
After all, even before he was lost to the sea, Kendrick was of the sea: he was born and bred on Isla de Providencia, just seven square miles of lush mountain jutting out of the Caribbean and ringed by a barrier reef covering an area of almost a hundred square miles. For more than a century, the Colombian island—situated almost five hundred miles from the mainland—was largely ignored, and in its isolation, men like Kendrick were born: by 1953, the beginning of an end to Providencia’s languid years of solitude, 12.5 in 1,000 children on the island were born deaf—between 12.5 and 25 times the worldwide rate.
In the tight-knit Britton family, Kendrick was one of three deaf siblings. He lived to meet the next generation, the two deaf daughters of his half-sister, but died without knowing that his niece, now thirty-six years old, would be the last member of the family to be born deaf.
For Providencia is changing. In 1953, the Colombian government opened the borders of a neighboring island for trade, and by the 1990s, the rate of deafness on Providencia had dropped to 5 in 1,000, diluted by immigration to and from the mainland.
For all of its islanders, Providencia is at once safe and stifling, but for deaf islanders—chief among them the Britton family—the tension is felt even more keenly. It’s felt by Kendrick’s brother, Ares, who lives in his mind to survive the loneliness of a place where everyone knows him just well enough to laugh at his longing for a wife and a family, and by his sister, Cillis, who gave birth to two daughters while she waited for a man who wouldn’t be ashamed to admit he had fathered her child, even though Providencia has no secrets.
And by Kendrick, who left for the sea.
The details change each time it’s told, but on Providencia, Kendrick’s story is always about the tragic fate that awaits deaf men who dream beyond the safety of the reef. Providencia is a place where everyone shares a history that reads like a novel with a very small cast of characters. The island still has no school for the deaf and a sign language that is only half-formed, into which gossip, but not abstractions, can be translated. Here, everyone brags that they can understand sign language, no problem, but really they mean they already know any story a neighbor of theirs might have to tell. In a place like this, far, far—where people won’t already know where you’re from—seems like a dangerous place.
On sunny days, from El Pico, the highest point on the island, you can see the reef, with waves cresting at the outside like white cotton and the dark shadow of coral just under the surface. Inside the reef, the water is a quieter, darker blue, and the waves are still. Inside the reef, a man can dive down as deep as his lungs can hold and shoot lionfish and hogfish with a spear and eat for days.
Inside the reef is the safety and bounty of Providencia, and outside the reef is where boats sink, boats like the Doña Olga III and a ship called the Betty Bee, on which a deaf neighbor of the Brittons lost her mother. She signs death with her hands folded in prayer, shows the ship taking on water by sweeping her hands toward her face as if she’s swallowing something.
Some days, you can hear the reef from any distance; always, you can hear it in the islanders’ stories. Here is a story: Once, a man in Rocky Point had a deaf child, and his neighbor swore that if any of his children were born deaf, he would take them out to the reef in his launch and leave them to die. Just for the words he spoke, all three of his children were born deaf.
On Providencia, people believe that words have power. God made the world just from his words, and sometimes the words of the father are wrought upon his sons. Here is another story: Once, there was a married man in Old Town who was sleeping with another woman. When the man’s oldest son tattled to his wife, the man wished that the rest of his children would be born unable to hear and unable to speak, and they were, down to the last one.
Almost two thousand miles away, at Javeriana University’s Institute of Human Genetics in Bogotá, geneticist Marta Lucía Tamayo Fernández tells a different story.
Marta Lucía is a diminutive woman, who wears vinyl pants the color of military fatigues and tiny, solid brown boots. She is square-shouldered, with a limp that looks more like a swagger, and she always starts her sentences, “Seems to me . . . ,” even though she’s usually sure. She has little dimples and round ears and a sticker of a koala bear in her car window. On Providencia, people remember Marta Lucía as “la pequeña” or “la doctora.” They remember that she talked a lot, but of what she told them about the deafness that runs in their blood, they remember only that it’s inherited from older generations. But then, so are curses.
Marta Lucía has been studying hereditary deafness since she noticed that her first patients, after a decade of profound deafness, were starting to lose their sight, too. These patients were born with Usher syndrome. In a cruel twist of nature, many of the proteins that allow the inner ear to function are also integral to the function of the retina; a mutation in a gene that codes for any one of these proteins can mean that a child who is born deaf, who spends his childhood learning to communicate in Colombian Sign Language, will later find himself blind and completely isolated. Now, Marta Lucía travels around Colombia to institutions for the deaf, drawing blood from deaf children and their families, identifying causes of deafness and trying to prepare her patients for things to come.
From 1988 to 1998, drawn by the island’s unusually high rate of congenital deafness, she did the same in Providencia, making five trips to collect blood and family trees, and analyzing them for genetic causes. She found two. The first was in a handful of Providencia families like the ones in Rocky Point and Old Town, in which profoundly deaf children had been born to hearing parents for the first time in anyone’s memory. The underlying cause of deafness in these families is a piece of missing code, a mutation in the gene for a protein called connexin 26, which is part of a system that allows ions to pass quickly between cells. In the inner ear, it’s this fast movement that turns the vibrations of sound into a biological signal.
Connexin 26 mutations are the most common cause of recessively inherited deafness in the world; children must inherit two mutated genes, one from each parent—both of whom are usually hearing carriers—to be born deaf. In the whole world, where just 3 percent of people carry the gene, it’s generally unlikely that two carriers will have a child together. On Providencia, however, it was almost common.
Providencia’s thin phonebook lists just a handful of last names, almost all reminiscent of its original British colonists—Robinson, Whitaker, Britton, Newball. Out of only seven pages, over half of one is devoted to the last name Archbold, which came to the island with the captain of an English slave ship at the end of the 18th century. To put it mildly, Providencia is—and has always been—a very small place.
Disorders caused by recessive mutations are often frequent in a place as small and isolated as Providencia, where everyone shares blood but people wind up together, recklessly, regardless. It’s much, much more likely that two people who are related will carry the exact same mutation. Sometimes, people say that Providencia’s deafness comes from a handful of ancestors foolish enough to couple with their own relatives, even though everyone there is related by now. It’s akin to a curse, a sin that doomed the grandchildren of their grandchildren.
Sometimes, an islander can distance himself from deafness by claiming an ancestor from outside, unequivocally unrelated to anyone, a grandfather from the Cayman Islands or Jamaica who fell for a Providencia girl. Sometimes, though, people say that deafness came to the island, like mosquitoes, from the outside—on ships, with sailors who married and stayed. Ask about Kendrick Britton’s family, descended on one side from an old Providencia family and on the other from Jamaican passersby, and you’ll hear both.
The last name is a common one, but the Brittons in Southwest Bay are descended from just one hearing man, Kendrick’s father, who fathered thirteen children with his wife, three of them deaf. He had a handful of children with other women, too. Although none of those children were born deaf, the youngest, Rosa, had two blue-eyed deaf daughters before Kendrick died.
In the Britton family, deafness is intertwined with other traits, including a white shock of hair and mottled skin and brilliant blue eyes. Almost everyone in the family, deaf and hearing alike, loses the dark from their hair while they’re still young, but the blue eyes—wide-set in dark faces, with irises so bright they’re almost impossible to capture on film—always herald deafness.
In communities as small as Providencia, it’s so uncommon to find two distinct genetic origins of the same disorder that Marta Lucía first speculated that the albinism was something apart, that deafness among the Brittons was caused by the mutation in connexin 26 and just happened to co-occur with a mutation in a completely different gene, one for color.
Instead, she found a different cause for the Brittons’ deafness, seventy times more common on Providencia than in the rest of the world, called Waardenburg syndrome. It’s caused by dysfunction in the distribution or development of melanocytes, a type of cell involved in both pigmentation and inner ear function, and although she hasn’t yet identified the exact gene, Marta Lucía knows that, unlike the recessive mutation in connexin 26, Waardenburg syndrome is dominant. A child can inherit Waardenburg syndrome from just one parent, and in theory, anyone who has the mutation will exhibit some of its characteristics. The gene is still inconsistent though, expressed in some as prematurely white hair and perfect hearing and in others as deafness and freckled wrists
In the Britton family, blue eyes are so inexorably linked to deafness that when Kendrick’s niece was born blue-eyed thirty-six years ago, her mother knew before the baby could even lift her head that she would speak only in sign.
To understand Providencia sign is to understand how languages are born, unbidden, of a time and necessity.
It’s a phenomenon that linguists once documented three hundred miles away and thirty years ago, before Kendrick was lost to the sea. In 1970s Nicaragua, deaf children who had previously been isolated from one another were brought together in a special-education school. In classrooms, they were taught spoken Spanish and lip-reading, learning to sign only the letters of the alphabet, but on buses and playgrounds, out of the informal and disparate gestures the children had devised at home to communicate with hearing family members, a sign language emerged.
As far as anyone knows, that’s how a language happens: over time and generations, a hybrid vocabulary made consciously by adults develops a formalized syntax and a refined lexicon as children begin to learn it as their mother tongue. But in Providencia, despite generations of deaf islanders living in close proximity to one another, and despite the willingness of hearing islanders to communicate with signs, some part of the cycle stagnated, leaving the sign language incomplete.
In the 1970s, as sign language was beginning to evolve in Nicaragua, a sociolinguist
named William Washabaugh, who had come to Providencia to study Creole, began to focus instead on what he called Providencia Sign Language. What he found were the kinds of inconsistencies that are weeded out of mature languages. Deaf islanders might use any of a number of signs to describe the same image—a ringing bell or hands folded in prayer for church, for instance. The Brittons sometimes sign family with two index fingers side by side and sometimes with one finger running up the inside of the other forearm, as in “blood.” Washabaugh also found that the syntax of Providencia Sign Language—the order of nouns and verbs within a phrase, for instance—varied just as broadly as its vocabulary, sometimes varying even between two phrases signed by the same islander.
When deaf signers were shown a puppet performing a clear action and were asked to describe it to hearing family members, Washabaugh found that the family members understood the signs only half of the time. Perhaps it’s not surprising: in the seven-square-mile world that the islanders inhabit, populated by characters and places that everyone knows, signers could rely on context to fill in the vagaries.
In short, Providencia Sign is a language of utility. It fulfills the practical requirements of communication between the deaf and hearing in a small community—conveying gossip, soliciting jobs—but in his time on Providencia, Washabaugh found no evidence of the abstractions that exist in languages like American Sign Language. Providencia Sign has no way to talk about Providencia Sign; there are no signs for name, meaning, or word. There are no puns in Providencia Sign, and there is no poetry.
In some ways, any understanding of Providencia Sign must be filtered through hearing islanders, though everyone agrees that when deaf islanders meet, something transpires in their signs, which are suddenly faster and more fluid, that no one else can follow. Perhaps PSL poetry exists in some form utterly opaque to even the most fluent hearing signers. But with no school for the deaf and no concept of a deaf community, deaf islanders are often firmly entrenched in the world of their hearing family members, who have Creole for poetry and puns, and need Providencia Sign only for practicalities.
It’s not easy for an islander to disappear, but in Southwest Bay, there’s a disappeared boy. Ask about him, and people will tell you that he’s deaf and that he’s not; that he’s a Britton, but not one of those Brittons; that he’s here, that he’s in Panama, that he’s in Barranquilla. You’ll hear that he’s smart. He knows English and Spanish, and he can sign with real signs, the official Colombian Sign Language. You’ll hear he’s a shut-in, that he might be on the island, but no one sees him.
The truth is, he’s a cousin of Kendrick, and his mother left for Barranquilla so he could go to a school for the deaf, so he could learn to read and write, and so he could have a chance to leave and never come back. He did come back though, for a year and a half, while his mother looked for a job in Panama so he could finish high school there. He didn’t miss Providencia. There was nothing for him here—no school, no friends. He missed the city, where he could be deaf and still dream of studying computers and finding a white-collar job. Providencia is a place for dreamers, but it’s also the place where the boy’s dream can’t come true.
Most islanders make it only as far from Providencia as the Colombian mainland, but the island shares a great deal more with a handful of communities even farther away, similarly isolated places where genetic deafness once flourished. Most famous is Martha’s Vineyard: at the end of the 19th century, before it became a summer colony for the presidents, the island had a rate of deafness almost forty times the national average and a unique, elaborate sign language that formed part of the basis for what is now American Sign Language (ASL).
On Martha’s Vineyard, the stories go, everyone signed fluently, hearing and deaf alike.
Although the last deaf woman to be born on the island died in the 1950s, hearing islanders occasionally continued to use sign language for years, to send messages in places where spoken word wouldn’t do: across wide fields and between the quiet seats of churches and schools.
Accounts of such “signing communities” have occasionally cropped up in linguistics literature for decades, just often enough to create a mythology of what one graduate student calls “deaf utopias”: an isolated Balinese village that counts a deaf god among its deities; a tribe of Bedouins in Israel in which one hundred out of the three thousand members are deaf; and Providencia.
Things are changing in Providencia, though. Once, it mattered that Kendrick worked hard breaking rock. Now, it matters that one of his nieces dropped out of school before she learned to read and write, and that the other never went at all. It matters that you learn the things that help you to leave Providencia, to run drugs from the mainland to Central America or to work half the year on a cruise ship and send the money home.
Leaving matters the most—but for deaf islanders, with no formal sign language or literacy, and with no way to communicate with anyone off the island, anyone who doesn’t already know their stories, who can’t finish their sentences, it’s a daunting prospect.
The trip from Providencia to the mainland starts with a trip to San Andrés, a larger neighboring island, either by a tiny airplane or a choppy catamaran ride. From the sea, Providencia looks impossible: a wet green mountain so verdant that the whole island seems alive—the mossy hump of a sunken giant that the island’s original settlers, British Puritans aboard a sister ship of the Mayflower, deemed a divine providence. It is from these Puritans and their slaves that so-called “native” islanders are descended. Despite being claimed by the Spanish empire not long afterward, the islanders remained Protestant for hundreds of years, speaking an English Creole and nursing British traditions in the heart of the Spanish empire, as if the patch of the Caribbean on which they existed was transplanted from the Irish Sea.
Kendrick’s older sister, Cillis, only ever left the island for San Andrés, to see the doctor and stay with family. On Providencia, she went out dancing on the beach in Southwest Bay and in town during the summer festival, when reggae music blasts out of speakers as tall as a man and as wide as two, so loud it fills your chest and buzzes in your ears the next morning. “She don’t hear the music, but she keep the compass good,” her neighbors would say. On Providencia, she could work, cleaning at the Catholic church clear across the island and bringing the gossip home to Southwest Bay.
But on Providencia, she also had two daughters with men who never acknowledged that they’d fathered children with one of those deaf Brittons from Southwest Bay, even though the whole island already knew, even though both men had deaf family members.
The Brittons, like Kendrick, are dreamers, and Cillis’s dream was to have a husband, not just secret boyfriends.
But that’s not how things go on Providencia.
She only ever left for San Andrés, but sometimes, she’d go to the tiny one-room airport with her money and bags. She’d say she was leaving for good, but everyone at the airport knew her, and they’d send for her family to bring her home.
Someone always came.
Up the hill, her brother, Ares, is parting his lips and moving his tongue from side to side, signing a story about a snake he saw up in the mountains. He’s scared of the snake, he signs, clutching his fists. He shows its length with one hand cutting against the other arm, then puts his hands in a wide circle—it was so thick—and mimes coiling a rope, hand over hand. “Says he was tying a rope on a tree, and then a snake was there,” his niece says.
A long time ago, Ares farmed his father’s land, growing sweet potatoes and yucca and sugar cane. He used to farm, but people stole what he grew, knew he couldn’t hear them rustling the trees and dropping the fruit, and he got so angry that he stopped.
Sometimes, though, he still works outside, chopping wood and gathering fruit—mangoes and pears and plantains and coconuts—up on the mountain. He can’t count, and when he works others’ land, they pay him far less than the value of his work, if they pay him at all.
He signs the story about the snake again and again, moving his tongue and pointing back toward the mountain. He puffs out his cheeks and spreads his arms wide, like a very fat man. He mimes cutting something, one hand hitting the other. “He said a big guy from down there kill the snake.” They slit the snake down the belly; he makes a line from his chest to his stomach. Sometimes, it storms up on the mountain; Ares signs rain and thunder with his fingers shaking and his fists flung outward from his head as if he’s pounding on something. He makes clouds with his hands loose, moving in a circle.
Like Kendrick, Ares wanted to leave Providencia on a boat for far, far away, but his father always made him stay put. Ares signs his father with the sign for death—eyes closed, arms stretched by his sides, body stiff—and a hand pointing toward Aguadulce, to the cemetery where his father is buried. He tells this story again and again, himself at sea and his father furrowing his brows and waggling his finger as if he’s reprimanding a child. Ares has always said he’ll leave Providencia someday, mimes packing his things into a suitcase and claps his hands past one another—gone.
But Ares is fifty-eight years old, and he hasn’t yet left the island, not even for San Andrés. He lives off of his father’s government pension, in a house on the hill. His hair and beard are white, and his eyes are watery and blue, and he leans into you and tips his head and murmurs as he signs.
Of all of the Brittons, Ares had the biggest dreams.
“His dream was to have family,” his youngest sister tells me. ”He wanted a beautiful woman, and he been waiting on that woman until now.”
Ares dreamt of a wife and children. While Kendrick drew boats, Ares cut out pictures of women from old magazines. Sometimes he spends his pension money on Pampers and talcum powder and baby shampoo, and keeps them in a box under his bed for when he has a family. He used to pack boxes with baby supplies and money, and his siblings watched him to make sure he didn’t send them away, even though he had nowhere to send them.
In the dark, swatting mosquitoes outside her aunt’s house up the hill, Ares’s sister says that out of all of her deaf siblings, Ares is the only one who is truly discontent in Providencia. “The only one that I saw that was all the time in torment was [Ares],” she says. “He all the time preparing the house because he’s been waiting on that lady. It’s just like the book that Gabriel García Márquez write: El coronel no tiene quien le escriba. The Colonel doesn’t have anyone to write him a letter, and he’s been waiting and going to the mail house for that letter—and for that letter and for that letter. Looks to me like it’s my brother, waiting for the lady.”
Ares signs a story about a boat. He had a girl on the boat, he says, miming two long braids swinging past his shoulders, and she had his baby, but she was studying, so she and the baby never came to Providencia, where he was waiting for them. His niece laughs at this, says he’s dreaming again.
Sometimes, Ares has bad dreams, dreams that make him upset, that he can’t seem to explain. When he was younger, they sent him into a temper, but now he murmurs and signs and waits for someone to understand.
He had other dreams, too. When he was younger, Ares dreamed of being a dentist before islanders even really knew the word. When he had a toothache, he pulled out his own tooth with pliers; when he noticed the gap between his front teeth, he tried to close it with homemade braces.
“The first one on the island to ever think about brackets was [Ares],” a neighbor remembers. “He took out those pliers and tighten, tighten, tighten. He got injured, you know? His mouth got swelling. But for me, he was the first dentist created this bracket things.”
Sometimes, Ares dreams of becoming a cop like his oldest brother. He gave himself a blue tattoo on his right bicep, like the one he saw on a TV soldier. But his brother, who can hear, left Providencia to become a cop, and Ares almost never leaves the Brittons’ land in Southwest Bay. Every year, though, when the children and the firemen and the military stationed in Providencia march on July 20 for Colombia’s independence day, Ares fashions a cardboard gun and a striped uniform and marches with them.
Once, Ares dreamt of a Spanish man from far, far away playing a guitar in town, and he made a guitar for himself out of a broad plank, cutting away the rotting wood and imagining the details. There’s a scrap of metal embedded in the neck, and it’s strung with fishing line, curls from the spool pulled straight over a hole in the body. He put the hole in because he might like to make it electric someday, he explains, miming plugging two wires together. If it were electric, he could play more songs, he signs. He could have a microphone. He holds a fist in front of his mouth, and moves his lips like he’s singing.
The wood is rough and warped, and the strap is a leather belt, attached only at one side because Ares doesn’t have a screw to put in the hole he chiseled into the other side. For a time, he made wooden guitars again and again, each one truer to his dream than the last, but this is the only one he kept because the others are too tall for his little house. He takes it out to play whenever his neighbors have a party, nodding his head and tapping his feet and pressing down chords and strumming with his eyes closed, murmuring a song so softly you can barely hear it.
He signs that he’s imitating the Spanish man he saw in his dream—the man, he signs, his hand waving at the sea, from far, far away.