MEXICO CITY — As they sat in their humble home here this week, Guadalupe Muniz Rodriguez's parents shook their heads over what they said was the most perplexing, unanswered question after their daughter's 14-month ordeal.
Why, even after New York City police rescued Muniz--along with 56 other deaf and speech-impaired Mexican migrants--from alleged servitude in a trinket-selling ring that forced her to live dozens to a room in a small Queens apartment, would she and the others tell Mexican authorities that they still don't want to return home?
The answer, Jose Badillo Huerta and other advocates here say, lies in Mexican society. They say it has little tolerance and offers few opportunities for people like Muniz, 20.
When asked to describe attitudes here toward the deaf, blind and speech-impaired, Badillo--who started Mexico City's first private school for the deaf 17 years ago--replied: "It's deplorable. Why don't these deaf and speech-impaired want to go back to Mexico? Because there's nothing for them here. Because there, in the United States, they have everything they don't have here. There, they have food. There, they have a job. There, they have some understanding. It's a horrible life for them there, but it's even more horrible here."
No matter how bad their lives were in New York, where police say the Mexicans worked 18-hour days selling key chains on subways, Badillo said it is even worse here in their native land. In this metropolis of more than 20 million, where life can be hard and unemployment high even among those without disabilities, Badillo and other advocates say, neither the government nor society--not even their families--has much to offer those who cannot see or hear or walk.
There are only a handful of wheelchair ramps in Mexico. Braille signs are nonexistent in public places. Translators who know Spanish sign language are few. And even the closest family members treat deaf or blind relatives with shame, Badillo said.
The problem, he said, begins at home.
"The mentality of parents now is that they just hide them under the rug," he said. "If a doctor or a public official has a deaf child, it just isn't possible to show it. For example, there is a very famous Mexican comedian who had a deaf brother, but he never let anyone know it."
There are government schools for the blind and deaf, but they are few and underfunded. Badillo's National School for the Deaf and Mute, which opened in 1980, offers free tuition for the needy. But the private Silent Friends Group that funds it can only afford facilities for 40 students at a time.
Change, Badillo said, also must begin at home: "The parents must be brave enough to stand before society and the government and demand, 'This is my child, so respect him. I'm not asking. I'm demanding that justice is done. He is a human being. He is just like any other Mexican citizen. And there are internationally accepted rights he should have.' "
For many families here with disabled youngsters, however, life is not just about standing up for their children. It is a bigger, more basic struggle with overwhelming poverty.
What Muniz left behind in Mexico City's impoverished Iztacalco neighborhood is a tin roof over four rooms of crumbling concrete. This is home for 12 members of her extended family. There is no plumbing.
Muniz's parents insisted that they are proud of her and that they had kept her home not out of shame but because there were no opportunities for her beyond the family's ramshackle front door.
* HOUSES RAIDED
N. Carolina case may be similar to New York allegations. A18