Deaf Mexicans Recount Enslavement in the City
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
More than 10 deaf Mexicans told a federal judge yesterday about being forced to sell trinkets on subways, and their waving, wild hand motions conveyed anger and sadness, a translator explained yesterday after she gave a voice to their sign language.
“We were slaves and we have nothing to show for it,” one young victim told the translator, Dorothy Corporan-Nieves, who passed on the message in an anguished voice. “I am very angry. We did not want this to happen. I just wanted to let you know this.”
The young woman, whom prosecutors identified only by her initials, J.S.R, was one of 56 adult victims of a slave ring that police broke up in 1997. The victims, all of them deaf and Mexican, were forced to peddle key chains and pencils on subways in the mid-1990s. In all, 20 people, many of whom were also deaf, were charged in the case.
Two of the ringleaders, Jose Paoletti Moreda and his son, Renato Paoletti Lemus, were finally sentenced yesterday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. Their case in Brooklyn had been postponed for nearly a decade because they were imprisoned in Mexico. As part of a plea agreement struck in June, the two received nearly 13-year sentences yesterday, although they are expected to serve only five years due to their previous imprisonment in Mexico.
Twenty of the victims still living in America came to court yesterday to witness the sentencing. Many of them recounted their tales, and they recalled in different ways the months or years they spent locked in a home in Queens or walking through subway cars peddling their trinkets.
For J.S.R., the abuse is what stood out. She told the judge, Nina Gershon, of how one of her captors interrupted her while showering to put a knife against her waist. There were days, she said, when she walked down subway cars with the bruises and bumps from the frequent beatings the ringleaders delivered.
In Mexican Sign Language, the size of each sign conveys feeling, the translator, Ms. Corporan-Nieves said. Small, pinched motions are used to indicate sadness and large sweeping motions to communicate anger.
When another victim, identified as R.R.T.,told her story, she signed with such vigor that the jangling of her bracelets filled the courtroom with sound. She did not speak of physical abuse, but of the powerlessness she felt while enslaved.
When she gave birth to a son, she said, her captors spoke of putting him up for adoption against her will.
“That put a lot of fear into me,” she said.
Others vividly remember their feeling of being betrayed. Many of them knew Lemus, and came to this country at his urging, convinced he would help them find jobs.
“When I first saw the house it was full of people,” one victim, I.S., said. “But everybody was peddling. Nobody was working.”
The two defendants watched the victims relate what they remembered. At times, a half-smile appeared on the face of Moreda. Judge Gershon recommended that the two serve out their sentences in a prison in Carswell, Texas, where there are services for the deaf. She ordered $180,000 that is reported to exist in Mexican bank accounts held by Lemus be put toward paying off a $1.4 million restitution that the two men owe to the victims.