Wednesday, December 03, 2008

write myself a letter

I noticed in last week's edition of The Economist that an ancient profession is dying in Mexico -- or, at least, Mexico City. Not lawyers. Not prostitutes. Not drug lords.

If you walk a few blocks north of the Zócalo, you will find the small plaza of Santo Domingo. The district is the home to stationery stores and printing shops. But the progenitor of those businesses will be found in the stalls of the plaza: professional scribes.

They carry on a profession that seems to be from another century. Need a business letter written? Need a love letter? Want a duplicate of your deed? Receipts produced? A section of a text book copied?

These are the living descendants of cowled monks dutifully copying scripture. But like most copies, they have started to lose the allure of the original.

Technology is one reason. Why pay someone to copy pages when you can get an exact photocopy?

Why buy a love letter when you can twitter your sweetheart directly?

Why have a stranger draft a letter of complaint when it can be ignored just as quickly with an email to the government agency?

I have never seen the plaza. But I would like to. It is another example of an area ebbing away -- what some sentimental gringos call "authentic."

But the mobile telephone, the copier, and the internet that have displaced the scribblers are every bit as authentically Mexican. And, they too will be replaced by some other cousin of the scribes.


Paul said...

Beautifully written, Steve. I used to enjoy visiting that little plaza. It's probably been twenty years or more since I last saw it. And now it's looking like that will no longer be able to peer into the faces of those seeking help with long anticipated letter writing. I really liked your linkage to monks copying text.

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks, Paul. On my next trip to Mexico City, I need to stop in the plaza.

jennifer rose said...

Not so fast, Steve. The profession isn't entirely dead, and its customer base is not entirely filled by illiterates. Frequently, you'll be asked at some government office to write a letter of solicitude that you hadn't counted upon needing when you left home, or the one you did write isn't right. It's far easier to stroll across the street to the guy with a typewriter and have him write it out than trek back home or find an Internet cafe. And some of these typists know better than you or Joe Plumber exactly what the letter should say. Moreover, they're armed with old-fashioned typewriters, which are essential to filling out some forms. In a way, these guys are practically storefront lawyers.

Electronic communication isn't going to be the death knell for these scribes. Those who can't read or write have a real time composing a text message, sending e-mail or Twittering.

ken kushnir said...

Pretty soon Steve carbon paper will become obsolete too!

Anonymous said...

Be a little careful on that street, there is a subtle boundry between safe/not safe. All the services you mentioned can be done at home or in the office. What you can't make, but can obtain in that area, is a Harvard diploma, a Colombian passport, etc. All very authentic looking. You didn't hear it here.

Theresa in Mèrida said...

Apparently in places like Chiapas there are still escribanos (scribes) who read and write letters for the illiterate. That fact came up in a recent presentation that I attended regarding education here.

Steve Cotton said...

Jennifer -- Good point. Technology has mot entirely eroded the granite of bureaucracy. As long as there is a Gribralter, there will be the stream of typewriters in the plaza.

Ken -- I tried to describe carbon paper to one of our attorneys in his 20s. He just stared at me.

Anonymous -- The Economist did not touch on that side of the commerce, as well. I am holding out to be a young Venezualan fashion model.

Theresa -- I am going to keep my eyes open for these interesting trades.

Laurie said...

I love the tradition of scribes. However, I hate the tradition of bureaucratic paperwork that is endemic to Latin America. I found out today I didn't get my debit card for my local checking account because I haven't returned the SIX copies of a form letter yet. Heavens! The bank doesn't have a copier?

Steve Cotton said...

Laurie -- I can only imagine how frustrating bureaucracy must be to economically progressive leaders like President Calderon. They sees ways that their countries can be advanced -- only to be tripped up by unhelpful tradition.

Gary Denness said...

Cool post! You know, after all these years (ok...four years!) I've never seen nor heard of them. I'll have to go check them out.

Steve Cotton said...

Gary -- That was my first introduction to them, as well.

Anonymous said...

Plaza Santo Domingo is a fascinating place in many respects. In addition to the scribes, there are many small printing shops, some of which are so small they operate out of kiosks. And their equipment is positively ancient. Its rather fascinating to see stacks of wedding invitations printed out on a clattering machine that might once have been set to work spitting out first editions of Dickens' work.

As for safety, the plaza itself seems to be ok, but I wandered behind the church, and after a few blocks was warned away by a Mexican man shouting at me, "Oye, güero, peligro!" (Hey whitey! Danger!)

So I turned back, deciding that indeed it was possible to have too much adventure.

But the plaza itself is definitely of another time, and well worth visiting. It's a few blocks behind the main Cathedral in el Centro Historico.


Kim G
Boston, MA

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- Thanks for the tip -- especially, the danger notice. I have a tendency to wander off into unsafe territory. One of these days, I will pay the price.

Gary Denness said...

As Kim said, the area behind the cathedral does turn into a no go area for us whiteys after a few blocks. I'm not generally too worried about where I go, but there are some places I would always catch a cab through, rather than walk. That's one of them!

Steve Cotton said...

Gary -- Sounds like a fair warning -- from both of you.