The End of the Scribe-for-Hire?

A short piece in a recent Economist Magazine documents the decline in writers-for-hire in Mexico City. The venerable role of these escribanos (documented in the Brazilian film Central Station) is most popularly associated with writing love letters and personal correspondence to illiterate clients from the barrios and nearby pueblos of Latin America’s urban centers. It seems relative literacy rates and the availability of new technologies (cell phones and texting in particular) have degraded the demand for such personal correspondence. Interestingly, though, the demand for paper-trail documentation seems to be declining as well.

Historically speaking, the role of this type of escribano is both ubiquitous, and extremely difficult to document (much as that of the tintillero discussed here). Whether as a linguistic technician bearing quill and rag paper or an IBM Selectric, the informal escribano was the illiterate mass’s access to the written word, so essential in societies dependent up on the production of authority-through-paper-trail. Many individuals capable of signing their names (the bare minimum requirement for literacy in the colonial period- no sabe escribir accompanied anytime a petitioner could not sign his or her name), still relied upon escribanos to prepare virtually any document longer than a few lines– simple debt instruments, letters, memorias, etc., that might not require the papel sellado of imprimatur of an official notary. But of course, the escribano never signed his (or her) own name to the many pieces of paper he produced.

For what it’s worth, the position is unlikely to completely disappear anytime soon. As long as individuals continue to interact with bureaucratic entities through paper, need receipts (real and imagined), and aren’t able to produce them on their own, typewriters will continue to click and clack in squares around the region. I wonder, as computer technologies decrease in price, if and when we’ll see laptops and portable printers moving in.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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2 comments on “The End of the Scribe-for-Hire?
  1. BQ says:

    On my last trip to Guadalajara, México, a couple of years a go or so, some of the escribanos in the plaza behind the cathedral had replaced typewriters with computers. A very odd and somewhat incongruous sight.

    Also, you might want to take a look at Cantiflas’ film El ministro y yo where Cantinflas plays the role (at some point in the movie) of a very memorable and semi-illiterate escribano.

  2. El muy disfrutable cortometraje de Iria Gómez Concheiro “Dime lo que sientes” trata también el tema de los escribanos (muy apropiadamente llamados también “evangelistas”) de la plaza de Santo Domingo, de la ciudad de México. Aunque la obra está supuestamente ubicada en el presente, en realidad es una mirada nostálgica a una época que fue y ya no es.

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