Time Zones

In a Centuries-Old Plaza, the Quiet Hum of Electric Typewriters

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 13, 2008

MEXICO CITY The day was going badly for Alberto Jiménez Ramírez. Very badly.

The handyman had done his job. He'd hammered and patched and scraped.

But the paymaster at the Health Ministry was demanding half a dozen originals of each of Jiménez's two bills, and he did not have them. The figures he had scrawled on a scrap of paper weren't going to do it. The paymaster was clear: No typed originals, no money, no arguing.

Jiménez doesn't have a secretary. He doesn't have a computer. And that's why he found himself in Plaza Santo Domingo when the bells tolled noon one recent afternoon.

Plaza Santo Domingo smells musty and old. The wood beams that shade its arcade drip. The old counting house on the square -- built in 1682 -- sags. Mexicans love this place.

Jiménez picked his way through the crowded arcade, past the men hawking printed baptismal announcements and prayer cards, past the beggars and the taco vendors, past the scruffy, loose dogs. He stopped in front of a grinning man with a big belly named Enrique Jaimes.

Jaimes is an "evangelita." The word usually means little evangelist, or little nun. But here, it refers to the professional scribes who type love letters, job applications and almost anything imaginable for Mexicans illiterate and poor, for busy shop clerks and harried small-business people. In the past, scribe work was done by educated nuns, known as evangelitas. The name stuck even as the nuns gave way to laypeople longer ago than anyone can remember.

Jaimes took the crumpled bill from his new client and dragged a small, plastic stool up to his desk. Jiménez's face was twisted up into a frown, the stress of the morning showing. But Jaimes, radiating calm, patted the man on the back.

"This is going to work out fine," he said.

Twenty minutes later, Jaimes rose from his stool and waved over his son, Servando, 23. Son replaced father at the desk seamlessly, pecking at an old electric IBM typewriter as Jiménez slowly read numbers and job descriptions aloud.

The scribes of Plaza Santo Domingo once used manual typewriters. Their arcade was alive with clackety-clack clatter. But modernity comes even to the most ancient of professions, and they began switching to electric machines 10 or 15 years ago -- Jaimes can't remember exactly when. But he does remember the place becoming quieter.

Jaimes, 51, has been at this for 40 years, typing his first letters when he was just a boy; his father, who died a few years ago, typed here for half a century. Jaimes got manual typewriters as birthday presents when he was a child -- hulking Olivettis, Underwoods and Remingtons -- but he never learned to type with more than two fingers. He and his family never got rich, but they made a decent living.

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