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Culture : Evangelists in an Old Plaza Sell Hope Found in Literacy : In Mexico City, public scribes write letters for the lovelorn and the illiterate. They act as counselors and linguistic guides to a waiting public.

September 04, 1990|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Their tools have evolved over the last 150 years, but their mission is the same. From the stone, arched portico of Santo Domingo Plaza, dozens of public scribes offer their writing services to the lovelorn and illiterate, to students, taxpayers and job-seekers.

The sharpened plumes and ink pots have been replaced by manual Remingtons and Olympias; a few electric typewriters have made their way into the colonial plaza. The scribes, however, still call themselves evangelists, the traditional term for purveyors of the written word.

Although much of their work is routine--filling out tax forms and job applications--men and women also come to them with requests for love letters, university theses and appeals to Mexico's president.

"We are guides and servants of the Mexican people," said Hipolito Ortiz, 50, who has been a scribe for half his life. "They come to us with sentimental problems and moral problems. Sometimes they cry. We still write love letters, although now they usually are to people who live far away. One writes these as if they were your own, not for a client but as if it were your own personal suffering."

The job of a scribe is demanding, said the bespectacled Ortiz, who considers himself part psychologist and part priest. A scribe not only must master typing and spelling but must be able to turn a phrase and offer good counsel.

"One acquires experience over the years and learns to give advice. For example, not all love letters are pure joy. Some are about deception, but they are still love letters. If a man wants to write something violent to his girlfriend, I try to calm him down. 'Violence is ephemeral, love is enduring,' I tell him," Ortiz said.

About 10 years ago, he recalled, a couple came to him with their young daughter asking for a letter to a civil judge.

"They wanted a divorce. I said, 'What about your little girl? There must be a solution. I will write your letter, but in a week. Come back in a week.' They came back three days later and told me they had decided not to get a divorce. For me, that is a satisfaction that I will never forget," Ortiz said.

Just last month, Ortiz said, an elderly and illiterate woman came to him with her 5-year-old grandson. They were survivors of the 1985 earthquake in which the boy's parents died.

"She wanted to write a letter to the president's wife asking for help or a job. She laid out her problems, and I wrote the text. I wrote the prettiest letter imploring, very sincerely, for the senora's most valuable assistance, for economic or material help," Ortiz said.

"I haven't heard what happened yet, but she'll come back and tell me. Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, she'll come," he said.

According to Ortiz, who is head of the public typists union, the first scribe to install himself in Santo Domingo plaza was Manuel Rivera Cambas in 1854. He wrote with a bird's feather that he kept razor sharp. Ortiz said Rivera Cambas wrote love letters, but some people say he also copied down prayers for worshipers at the baroque Santo Domingo church, built in 1736 on the northern edge of the plaza.

Next to the church is the palace that housed the Inquisition, or the Tribunal del Santo Oficio. About 50 people reportedly were burned at the stake in Mexico during the Inquisition. The palace later became the government School of Medicine and then a museum.

On the eastern rim of the plaza is the mansion of a Spanish conqueror, the Marquis de Villamayor, which became the government Customs House. Today, the mansion belongs to the Ministry of Education and is decorated with murals by Diego Rivera depicting the lives and hardships of common people.

A fountain at the center of the plaza is overwhelmed by sunning pigeons, who are surrounded by vendors, shoppers and children. Men sell coffee from giant thermoses on their backs; women sell mangoes and other sliced fruits from their colored carts. Business-suited bureaucrats stop to read the newspaper or get a shoeshine.

Sharing the colonnade with the scribes are dozens of printers running their manual presses out of wooden kiosks. Letter by letter, the printers in ink-stained smocks set the type for wedding announcements, baptismal invitations, business cards and pads of receipts. The arcade echoes with the clatter of their iron press.

Electric typewriters, offset presses and computers have taken away some of their clients, but still there is enough work to keep them in business, they say. What hurts more than anything are newcomers who don't take pride in their work.

"Some of the new printers are lazy and not so professional," said Carlos Lara, 38. "They make their clients come back two or three times before the work is ready, and that hurts us all. Later, the clients say we're all alike."

Lara, whose 16-year-old son works with him at the press, said the bustling plaza has been home to him since he was a teen-ager. "We live here. This is our source of work."

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