(Mad-) Men of Letters

Papá y Ruby, Xochimilco

So much to see! So much we want the twins to see! We can't imagine leaving without visiting Xochimilco, where canals are navigated by the "trajineras," boats propelled by pole. It's touristy-sweet and kitschy, and there's also a strong aura of history, both pre-Columbian (much of Mexico City "floated" above waterways) and cinematic, the image immortalized during the golden era by Dolores del Río.

So tourists by day and then occasionally bohemians by night, such as when I get to visit my close friend Pacho, a founder of the early "rock en español" scene and now director of Mexico City's premier literary institution. He picks me up in his late-model Passat. Black exterior, beige inside, high-end stereo, the instrument panel glowing a powdery neon-blue. We visit his apartment, about 1500 square feet of prime Condesa real estate that he bought a year ago. Hardwood floors and stainless steel, stunning view of the castle crowning Chapultepec and a southward sweep of cityscape.

We enjoy ribbing each other about the "contradiction" of being left-leaning writers with a lifestyle edging up to Dwell magazine. There is no way out of the contradiction, of course, and it's been much on my mind these days, reading Angel Rama's Ciudad Letrada in preparation for the Transnational History of the Americas Conference, a gathering of intellectuals from both north and south held annually in Tepoztlán, Morelos.

Rama was an Uruguayn urbanist and postcolonial scholar and La Ciudad Letrada, his major work, critiques the manner in which the Spanish colonists made order real through language. This included everything from royal edicts to the rules of urban design in the New World, and especially the bureaucrat-ese that developed over centuries to control every aspect of people's lives, all in the name of the colonial project and maximizing its profit for the people that wrote the rules--the letrados, the people of letters--and the Crown they represented.

Anyone who's lived in Latin America has had some contact with remnants of the colonial bureaucracy. I remember spending days in Guatemala City jumping through the hoops to get a driver's license. Outside the transportation ministry was a gaggle of guys in cheap suits waving leather portfolios stuffed with documents in triplicate. One cornered me and became my guide through the system--the forms, the stamps, the blood test. He was a letrado. Indispensable for me, and for the system.

In Mexico City just a few blocks off the zócalo is the Plaza de Santo Domingo, whose history, like so much of this cityscape, runs very deep. One of the buildings on the plaza housed a colonial-era customs office; another was the Palace of the Inquisition. Reason enough to keep your customs documents in order. Anyway, to this day you can find "escribanos" in the plaza who will type up documents, authentic or fake, for a fee. Escribano means scribe, a kind of letrado. You can also get some to write a flowery love letter.

You don't have to look for history in a museum here. The city itself is one, a living diorama of history, always somewhat astonishing to me, a native of L.A., the pastless paradise. Although that's been changing of late--and a long-dead Mexican artist who left an indelible impression here in el D.F. is playing a role in it. (My op-ed on the re-emergence of David Alfaro Siqueiros' América Tropical on Olvera Street here.)

Rama details how even the literary arts were subsumed into official discourse. Poets, playwrights, the first "cronistas" (chroniclers) of the New World during the colonial period were mostly products of their time. They were willing cogs in the machine, telling the metropole what it wanted to hear, glorifying the process of subjecting a civilization, ignoring the contradiction of doing so in the name of a Christian god.

There were exceptions; first and foremost would be Bartolomé de las Casas crusading against the barbaric treatment of indigenous peoples. De las Casas just happens to be one the heroes of When Worlds Collide, the PBS documentary that gave origin to this blog and that airs next Monday at 9 PM!

But "counter-discourses" such as de las Casas' were still circumscribed by the colonial project; the debates occurred in rarefied environments and completely erased the indigenous voice.

The independence movements of the early 19th century and the revolutions of the 20th were protagonized by the liberal descendants of the old "letrado" elites, a tiny minority living on an island of opulence amid a vast sea of poverty. In my lifetime, the socioeconomic ratios have not changed much. And all the while we the new letrados argue in the Leftist papers and in hip cafés about "transnationalism" or other terminologies of the moment.

This is my own rather dark extrapolation of Rama's essential point about the relationship of power and language in the colonial era. It would be easy to argue that the problem with such a focus is that it leaves out what the rest of the "city " was thinking and doing, the city beyond the bureaucracy of empire, both in everyday life and at the great historical junctures (say, Mexico in 1910, the Revolución whose centennial is just a few weeks away).

And in Latin America the "cronistas" of the 20th century, especially in its second half, took pains to talk about "popular" movements and cultures (in Spanish the term is much more diretly linked to the working class than it is in American English). Carlos Monsiváis, who died a few days before we arrived in Mexico City, was among the great practitioners of the genre.

Still, the work of a "letrado" representing a "marginal" subject raises a whole other set of issues, of course. Just when does that subject get to represent itself?

Then there's writers like Pacho and me, trying to make sense of the world we've inherited and the one we will bequeath, pecking away at our Apple laptops, broadcasting ideas among the post-letrado (neo-letrado?) cohort, surveying the chasms of class across a vast geography sculpted by events so long ago and that are so present today.

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