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Meet Mexico City’s Amputee Grammar Queen

After losing her leg to cancer, Paulina Chavira turned to her passion for grammar to make sense of the world.

Paulina Chavira, Mexico City’s grammar queen, is sitting in her office, having another fight on Twitter.

“People often get angry with me, saying things like ‘how can you correct me?’” she says. But Paulina feels driven. It’s just one of many interactions she’ll have online on a regular day. But not all are negative – Paulina gets comments and questions from educators, writers and the media, calling on her to advise them on issues of punctuation usage, accents, structure and more.

Being grammar queen is something of a new gig for Chavira. But she’s always had a passion for words.

Chavira checks Twitter.

In July 2013, when Paulina was 33 and had her first son began kindergarten, she read a tweet revealing that Mexico’s education ministry was going to accept public school textbooks into the country’s classrooms even though they were riddled with errors – 117 errors, to be exact. She took to Twitter to express her outrage, thinking, “How can this happen?” So she tweeted to her 400 followers.

The following day, major Mexican media outlets picked up on the issue, harshly criticizing the ministry for allowing a textbook with so many mistakes into public schools. But Paulina’s ire towards grammar mistakes isn’t just aimed one way. The day after, Paulina identified another issue, tweeting back to media sources: “Media outraged with 117 spelling errors in the textbooks of the SEP, but indifferent to those they commit daily.”

The sudden attention got Paulina thinking. In Mexico, as elsewhere, Twitter is a big way that people get their news and information. She asked herself how she could use Twitter to promote proper grammar, and came up with the idea of a Twitter database where Spanish speakers could check spelling and grammar. Armed with the @117errores handle, the result was NoMás117errores, or “No more 117 errors”, a direct reference to the 117 grammar errors found in the schoolbooks.

The grammar bug got Paulina in high school. That was also the year she was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her right knee. When Paulina started her chemotherapy in May 1997, she was having a hard time thinking of the future at all. Paulina thought it was bad enough that she might lose her hair, but soon, there was talk of amputating leg… talk that became a fearful reality after she woke up from her final leg surgery on September 29th, 1997 to just one foot and the indescribable experience of phantom limb pain.

“More painful than all of the surgeries was trying to stand again for the first time,” Paulina remembers. With the help of a few dedicated teachers, Paulina stayed on top of her schoolwork. Her parents, meanwhile, were an incredible support system. “You are more than just your leg,” they repeated, a constant refrain. “You are an entire human being.”

Paulina Chavira in Japan while working for Marlo and his team.

“You are more than just your leg,” they repeated, a constant refrain. “You are an entire human being.”

Over the next few years, Paulina ran the gamut of fears regarding her transition. “How will people look at me? Will I ever get married and have kids? Will I ever dance again?” Making matters worse was her prosthetic leg, a model unchanged since World War II.

When she went to college, she chose journalism as a major, and it was there that her love of writing and grammar became a passion. “Writing was a way I found to pour out all the pain and anger I had after my leg was amputated,” she remembers.

While studying at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Paulina’s antediluvian prosthetic was still causing her problems doing simple things like walking long distances and wearing her normal clothes.

Her father heard about a prosthetic engineer, Marlo Ortiz, over the radio. A man who was revolutionizing the anatomical socket, the interface where the residual limb goes into the prosthetic. The Marlo Anatomical Socket (MAS), was developed with the engineer mindset to provide more skeletal support and be aesthetically more human-like in the gluteal region. Paulina worked closely with his team, testing the new technology, and eventually getting her own advanced prosthetic.

“There was life before Marlo, and life after Marlo,” says Paulina. Not only did he supply her with an advanced prosthetic, but he taught her to use it for the first time. It renewed her confidence. “For the first time I thought, maybe I should try this, while before, I automatically thought: No, I can’t,” she remembers.

This confidence encouraged her to study abroad in Spain, there she finally felt like she really accepted her metamorphosis. “Up until that point, I had never really faced that I had lost a leg.” But abroad, it was was impossible to skirt around the issue. Her new friends asked about it, and as they asked about her missing leg, Paulina stopped being ashamed.

“For the first time I thought, maybe I should try this, while before, I automatically thought: No, I can’t.”

She returned from Spain with newfound independence, and she was asked to join Marlo and his team as a full-time Media Coordinator and Patient Model. Full of unique opportunities, she put her journalism career on hold and she traveled to the Czech Republic, South Africa, Japan and more: visiting the factories where they made the prosthetics, using her journalistic skills to do public relations and talk about her experience. While the experience was extraordinary, after more than a year she felt like she was living inside of her experience losing her leg, and felt like it was time to move forward and reconnect with journalism.

Paulina also found love, something she had previously feared when she first lost her leg.

Paulina and her husband Hector dancing at their wedding.

She married Hector, in November of 2006, and they “danced all night.” As for their two young boys, she tries to make the prosthetic leg as normal as possible. “I think the more normal we can be about it the better.” Once her son Mateo even asked, “does everyone’s mom have a prosthetic?”.

Once her son Mateo even asked, “does everyone’s mom have a prosthetic?”

Her influence on Twitter landed her an editorial position with The New York Times en Español and her career goals have grown. She now hopes to finish a Spanish style-guide for news.

Over the years, and despite the trauma experienced during her formative years, Paulina followed her love of language, starting with writing, finding the accessible opportunity of editing in journalism, and ultimately as a grammar force in her editorial position and on Twitter.

Her ultimate pet peeve on Twitter is “when people say ‘it’s not well written but you understand me.’ And I can’t understand why they don’t see the importance that it’s written correctly.” Paulina believes in the power of language and grammar. She says: “I love my language, I love to write it correctly. It’s a weapon. A peaceful weapon.”

Profiles

Queen Of The Real-Life Furiosas

Angel Giuffria was the world's first bionic baby. Now she wants to be Hollywood's first bionic leading lady.

Angel Giuffria was the world’s first bionic baby. Now she wants to be Hollywood’s first bionic leading lady.

Amongst the colorful cosplay clans of this year’s Wizard World Comic Con, there was a new tribe, jostling steampunk elbows with the Stormtroopers, the Deadpools, the Jokers, and the Wolverines: The Furiosas.

Dozens in number, these post-apocalyptic Amazons boast tunics made of linen, shaved heads, blackened faces, steel prosthetic arms, and skull tattoos on the nape of their necks… details borrowed from the Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s breakout character in the 2015 blockbuster, Mad Max: Fury Road.

If you haven’t seen Fury Road (and what’s stopping you?) Imperator Furiosa is many things: an orphan, a former sex slave, and a warrior with a kick-ass bionic arm. But one thing she isn’t is a victim, which is what has made her inspiring to both women and men alike.

That’s why, in the year since her debut, Furiosa has become one of the most popular characters for fans to dress up as when they go to sci-fi conventions and Comic Cons.

But of all the Furiosas, there’s no one who does the Imperator better than Angel Giuffria. This twenty-something actress living in southeastern Louisiana is the Queen of Cosplay Furiosas. Because she has something that no other Furiosa has: a real-life bionic arm.

“You know what I really like about Furiosa?” Angel says to me by phone as she drives down the highway, gripping the wheel with her myoelectric (or muscle controlled) prosthetic. “In Fury Road, no one ever asks Furiosa what happened to her arm. No one asks if Furiosa’s okay, or if she needs help. She’s just herself. No one needs an explanation about why she only has one arm. Because the filmmakers had respect enough for their audience to just say, hey, this is just her.”

That’s an idea that resonates with Angel, a congenital amputee. She’s just her, whole unto herself. For her whole life, though, she’s been asked what happened to her arm. “When you’re a kid, it’s just so hard to explain why you’re different,” she says. None of her friends got it until 2003. That was the year Pixar’s Finding Nemo came out, whose title character has a congenitally underdeveloped right fin. Suddenly, Angel had a pop culture reference that made her condition understandable to her friends. It opened her eyes to the power of film to broaden perspective on what was (and “wasn’t”) normal.

There’s just as much Nemo as Furiosa in Angel. Like Nemo, Angel was born with one fin a little less formed than the other. Like Furiosa, she soon got a bionic arm to supplement it.

“When I was born, my mom had no idea I was only going to have one hand,” says Angel. “Ultrasound wasn’t as advanced then, so it was a big surprise to her.” But a few months before, Angel’s mother had happened to catch a television program. It was a news report on the debut of the first ever electric prosthetic hand for kids to be released in the United States. “Mom says she cried through the whole program,” Angel laughs. So when her daughter was born without a left forearm, Mrs. Giuffria was undeterred. “She kept screaming to the doctors in the maternity ward: I know where to get Angel a hand!”

Six weeks later, Angel had one. “Because of how proactive my Mom was, I was the youngest person in the world to be fit with a myoelectric prosthesis, and as far as I know, I still am,” Angel says.

Angel was the world’s first bionic baby.

Over the years, Angel’s prosthetic has only got more advanced. When she was a kid, it could only open and close. When Angel was 11, she got an upgrade to a hand which could pinch at varying pressures. Then, in 2007, the first multi-articulating bionic hands came out. These prosthetics allow for many grip patterns, like wiggling your fingers, or delicately holding a plate in a buffet line between your thumb and forefinger. Angel had to have one. The first models she tried were huge, like robot boxing gloves. By 2015, though,  Steeper, developer of the bebionic hand, was the first company to put out a small size hand that could fit those of smaller stature like females and young adults. It’s a super svelte multi-articulating hand Angel has worn ever since.

As a bebionic product representative, Angel tours the globe all the time, trying to raise awareness of prosthetics. She also has an entertaining Twitter feed, in which she talks about day-to-day life as a bionic woman, right down to what to do when people stare at you at the airport when you’re charging your bionic arm from a wall socket.

My hand can rotate 360 degrees on my wrist! How can I not be bionic enough?

Angel’s true passion is acting, though. That’s where she sees her ability to change the world’s perception of amputees. True, there’s not a lot of Furiosa roles out there, and even Furiosa wasn’t played by a real amputee. Still, Angel – who has worked with Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games movies, as well as Ben Affleck and Jon Lithgow in the forthcoming movie, The Accountant – says that the roles she loves most are the ones that don’t have anything to do with her arm, or lack thereof.

That’s something that isn’t happening quite yet. As a bionic actress, Giuffria says she has been turned down for roles where she is told she “isn’t bionic enough” compared to CGI superimposed above another actress wearing a green screen glove. (“My hand can rotate 360 degrees on my wrist!” Angel laughs. “How can I not be bionic enough?”) She also finds herself getting turned down for amputee roles in horror movies because she’s “too cute” and the director wants to “scare people, not make them sad”… a type of professional rejection Angel rightly considers pretty insulting.

In Angel’s best roles, though, being an amputee isn’t a consideration at all.

Angel’s current prosthetic is provided by bebionic.

Angel remembers her first professional acting role, a bit extra part in 2011’s Green Lantern. Green Lantern wasn’t a great film, as Angel will be the first to admit. As the one girl in 100 personally chosen by director Martin Campbell as a featured background player – an extra with no one else in the scene with her, “not just a blob in the background” – it was still important to her. It gave her a glimpse of how Hollywood, and the rest of the world, should be.

In Green Lantern, Angel’s role was small. In a scene early in the film, she had to run down a college hallway, because her character was late for a class taught by “professor” Peter Sarsgaard. But after being cast, Angel started getting cold feet. She hadn’t mentioned her prosthetic; what if they hadn’t noticed it?

So with trepidation, Angel asked if she could speak to the director. Eventually, he came, at which point, Angel told Campbell that she only had one arm. “I told him it would be cool if he picked someone else,” she remembers. “An extra, even a featured background player, isn’t supposed to be the big question mark on the screen.”

But Martin didn’t react the way Angel expected when she told him about her prosthetic. “He looked at me, and asked: ‘Have you ever been late for class?’ Well, yeah. So he said, ”Then I don’t see any reason why you can’t do this.”

So she did. Because while sometimes she dresses up as Furiosa, the rest of the time, she’s just herself. She goes to school, she does Yoga, she avoids gluten, she has drinks with friends, and she tries to get acting roles that don’t have anything to do with her arm. Because Martin was right. Anyone can be late for class. Even Furiosas.