How Sign Language and a Chance Meeting Forged a 35-Year Friendship

Paul Barnett (L) and Armando Rivera established a lifelong friendship after a chance meeting in a Fresno grocery store 35 years ago.

Paul Barnett (L) and Armando Rivera established a lifelong friendship after a chance meeting in a Fresno grocery store 35 years ago. (Photo courtesy of StoryCorps)

In honor of Cesar Chavez Day, the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno has partnered with StoryCorps to record and preserve the stories of Latino families in the San Joaquin Valley. 

We’ll be airing excerpts of some of those conversations over the next several weeks on The California Report Magazine. This week, we hear from Armando Rivera, a deaf man and his longtime friend, Paul Barnett.

It was 35 years ago when Paul Barnett saw Armando Rivera struggling to communicate with a grocery store clerk in Fresno. Rivera is deaf.

“I knew the alphabet,” Barnett said of his rudimentary American Sign Language (ASL). “Being a social work student, I thought I was going to save the world, so I jumped in to try and interpret the little that I knew.”

The two exchanged numbers, and they started spending time and signing together. A year later, they were roommates, and 35 years later, they are still friends.


Before their checkout line meeting, Rivera worked in Central Valley fields with his family picking grapes and other produce.

“At the end of the day, I was basically all black with dirt,” said Rivera, through an ASL interpreter. “You could even feel the dirt in your nose, in your nostrils.”

Barnett sat down with Rivera for a StoryCorps interview to learn more about that time in his life.

The project was co-sponsored by the California State University, Fresno Office of the President, the College of Arts and Humanities, the College of Social Sciences and Valley Public Radio

Author

Ryan Levi

Ryan Levi is an intern with The California Report. He previously worked as an radio news intern where he primarily reported for KQED's daily newscasts as well as contributing to KQED's website. Prior to joining KQED in 2016, Ryan was a general assignment reporter and producer at KBIA-FM, the NPR member station in Columbia, Missouri. Ryan reported on Columbia's renewed fight against homelessness as well as coordinating the station's coverage of the annual True/False Film Fest, one of the top documentary film festivals in the country. Ryan has also written about film, food, books, religion, theater and other topics for various publications. You can find Ryan on Twitter @ryan_levi.

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