Thursday, March 15, 2012

Portal de Evangelistas: scribes for centuries, now with IBM Selectrics.

A project I've been wanting to do forever is now coming to fruition here in Mexico City: a book about my mother's time here in 1941 as a member of American Ballet Theatre. She was 21 years old and the company was in residence at the Palacio des Belles Artes (Palace of Fine Arts).
She had her first great romance – with the actor/comedian/bullfighter Mario Moreno Reyes, known as Cantinflas. When I tell my Mexican friends about it, their jaws drop. If U.S. Americans have heard of him at all, it's because he was in "Around the World in 80 Days." But he's the Charlie Chaplin of Mexico, and Charlie himself called Cantinflas "the greatest comedian alive."

The book is illustrated by pictures I have of Mario and my mother, and of telegrams and other ephemera. My intention is to have it typed by the "typewriter men" who work in the Portal de Evangelistas, in the Plaza de San Domingo.

This part of town is where all the paper-related businesses are: greeting card makers, letterpress printers, book binders.
Letter-writers have worked here for centuries, acting as "evangelists" for those needing their words transcribed – once illiterates needing love letters or petitions written, now those who want invoices typed or other documents executed that require the official touch.

I first discovered these scribes in Istanbul, and had a birthday greeting written in Turkish, just for the experience. When I learned that over a dozen were in residence here, I planned that each page of the book be typed. I am a typewriter geek (see earlier post.)

Raul is very simpatico. He has a great sense of humor and a lot of endurance.
Thanks to Garth Amundson from Western Washington University, I got in touch with Forrest Kahlil Perrine, an artist living here who agreed to help me interpret my odd project in Spanish. On Wednesday we scouted the options and quickly got referred to Raul Tenorio Rodriguez, who's been here daily for over thirty years.

My fantasy was to have the book typed on a vintage machine, from the '40's maybe, and we did see those. But as it was, it took a full day of typing on Raul's '70's-era IBM Selectric. And correcting is so much easier with correction tape.

After he described the project, Forrest went off to work. Raul and I functioned well as a team: he'd type a short paragraph on a page, I'd proof it, then he'd do the rest of the pages. As he pulled each sheet out of the machine, I'd stack them and double-check everything.
My Spanish improved as the day went on, and we drew a small crowd of curious folks. I was a blond, white person, for starters (I saw no white tourists in Plaza de San Domingo at all, and I think they're a rarity as customers.) And this was a conspicuously big job for Raul. Periodically a regular patron would come by with a short project, and he'd take a break and do that.

There are twenty copies of the book now – ten on vellum and ten on old-fashioned onionskin typing paper.


  1. I was a Cantinflas fan at an early age. I can't remember the title of his movies but there was more than one that we took in at a drive in.
    About a fast talking mouse I imagine....
    ok I googled it and it was "Pepe" getting cornfused with speedy gonzales.
    also I was freaky over Jose Jimenez and Senor Wences. I loved the head in the box. My cousin Barry the first Communist I ever knew, could never get a job at an american newspaper so he bailed and moved to Mexico City and married a beautiful senorita. I have slew of Mexican cousins.!!! All bright and beautiful.

  2. I never knew your mother was a Prima Ballerina till the eulogy.
    you are full of surprises.

  3. Thanks for these great story fragments. I'm looking forward to hearing more and seeing the completed book project!