Love letters from the Santo Domingo Square
“I do not understand love stories”, was the starting point of an investigation about romantic love; activated by an act of public writing. During three months I worked as a scrivener at the Santo Domingo public square in Mexico City. My scrivener service was to write love letters, for free. Public scriveners are the professionals that write letters or documents for legal purposes, or for people who cannot read or write. Mexico City still maintains this dying tradition and a community, of approximately 40 scriveners, goes to work every day at the arcades of the Santo Domingo public square. Being a temporary scrivener was for me a nostalgic act and, as well, a means to have a direct interaction with passers-by. The public scrivener writes in the public space and his or her writing is affected by the other, the client. This lecture-performance will engage with the outcome and process of this long-durational performance which searches for the intersections between public writing, artistic gesture in the public space and the possibility of intimacy through the act of writing. A love letter became an excuse for an intimate encounter with the broad public on their reflections and affections on love. As an artist I am interested in the space that writing can offer, as personally it represents a space of freedom and calmness, as the page brings allows for another temporality. How to then inscribe the page in the public space? How to create encounters through the act of writing? A reflection on this together with a poetic reading of fragments of these letters and a performative exercise on sketching with members of the audience a love letter will be part of this lecture-performance.
“I do not understand love stories”, was the starting point of an investigation about romantic love; activated by an act of public writing. My scrivener service was to write love letters, for free. I sat and wrote in the square for three months. Public scriveners are the professionals that write letters or documents for legal purposes, or for people who cannot read or write. Mexico City still maintains this dying tradition and, a community of approximately 40 scriveners, goes to work every day at the arcades of the Santo Domingo public square. Being a temporary scrivener was for me a nostalgic act and, as well, a means to have a direct interaction with passers-by. The public scrivener writes in the public space and their writing is affected by the other, the client. A love letter became an excuse for an intimate encounter with the broad public on their reflections and affections on love. How to then inscribe the page in the public space? How to create encounters through the act of writing?
The day I entered the plaza, I intuitively decided to ask for the chief clerk at portal 12 of the same location. That portal led me to Emilio, who is in charge of all important matters in that quadrant. Emilio’s face is one of those that is not easily forgotten. He has a smile that only comes from growing up, surviving and succeeding in the barrios of Mexico City. That smile that mixes friendship, mischief and mistrust so peculiar to the inhabitants of this city. Emilio is about 1.80 meters tall and has worked in the plaza for more than 30 years, his family was one of the pioneers in the manufacture of invitations for weddings, baptisms and sweet sixteens in these portals. Of his 10 children, he decided to name his firstborn Zeus. Zeus and his other siblings also work in Portal 12. The phenomenon of belonging in Mexico is so ingrained that even a place as small as a plaza hallway can fragment into portals of which one is or is not a member.
“This is Frida” he introduced me to Emilio, a scribe who has gold teeth and everyone else teases him about being cocky “she wants to work here for a few months”. ” Nice to meet you, Diego” he said putting his hand on his chest and winking at me “You know, for Diego and Frida”. I don’t know if they accepted me as a scribe’s assistant thanks to Emilio’s coquetry or because they thought it was funny that someone wanted to write love letters for free or simply because, as Emilio says, ” there is always room for everyone in Santo Domingo”.”I am going to introduce you to our poet, Mr. Edith. Come Tuesday at 11 a.m. so that you can agree with him on the details.” I said goodbye gratefully, the pact was sealed with a handshake and a smile.
It is said that saints automatically become ghosts after their canonization. Dominic’s mother, when she was pregnant, dreamed of a dog. A dog with a torch in its jaw. And, like all premonitory dreams of the twelfth century, this one did not escape interpretation either. It was obvious: the dream said that a saint was approaching, a faithful devotee who would enlighten the way. Torches have not always been a harbinger of good roads, but how can a temporary scribe reinterpret what the past has already taken for granted?
Old files and folders detail that Domingo was born in 1170 in the town of Caleruega in Spain. He was named Domingo because of the fortunate combination of Dominus and Canis. Would “The Lord’s dog” be the most appropriate translation? Dogs in the medieval tradition were those that on the one hand were man’s guardians and helped him in the hunt, but they were also those susceptible to the Devil taking them in disguise. For the shamanic tradition of America, dogs resemble wolves and coyotes, as they are vehicles of passage between the incorporeal and the corporeal. “On his way, the shaman meets the dog or the wolf, into whom he can transmute […]” (Díaz 1997, 10, the translation is mine). It could be conjectured now that Domingo, still gestating, could have transmuted into a dog to appear in his mother’s dreams as an omen.
Among all the medieval bestiary Dominic chose the dog. From among dragons, coyotes, fleas, pigeons, peacocks, squirrels, lions, tigers, rats, whales, bats, wolves, butterflies, eagles, crows and snakes, it was the dog who that night took an imaginary torch and made his appearance in the night dreams of a mother. The dog, for twelfth-century Europeans, was a shrewd and beneficial animal because its tongue healed the wounds of humans, unlike wolves whose tongue was poisonous (Wales 1978, 12). The dog thus emerged as a symbol of a good guardian and companion.
In ancient times it was necessary to walk a long way, to walk as far as the will and the legs would allow, and at the precise moment when the legs faltered, to take up again the energy, as an act of appeasing the mind with the gestures of the feet. Only to the constant pilgrims the gates of a potential city were opened. The Mexica walkers, who were not yet Mexica but walkers, left the territories of myth to reach prophecy. “We went deep into the Colombian jungle in search of La Chorrera, we were surrounded by fog, the night prevailed and the dangers made me hesitate yet you insisted, you assured me that if we continued searching we would be able to find that waterfall through the mountains. You were right. The waterfall is always behind the mist”. (Letter from Paco to Orsi)
How are the cartographies of the myths? Do they also need compasses to find the north? Or as the north was also mythical, it no longer needs signposts? Do ghosts use maps to reach the Plaza Santo Domingo or any avenue, nook, hill or road they want? Are ghosts also pilgrims? The interesting thing about ghosts is that they inhabit us, they travel with us, they are part of who we are. Aztlan was the mythical core of Tenochtitlan and the Plaza Mayor the material navel of the Mexica empire. From there, the four worlds of the universe, the four directions, the four spirits of four colors ruled from that city, the conquered one, the one that was taken to the ashes and hidden in the subsoil. But what is hidden does not remain silent forever. Secrets like to insist, to look for cracks between the cities as the cracks that once took possession of the two previous Santo Domingo churches. “We who are present will never understand the space you inhabit because that space cannot be inhabited. It is a space without time, without tomorrow, without today, without afterwards. You have been forced into limbo. The space you inhabit has memory but no reality.” (Anonymous letter to all the missing people). Tenochtitlan remained trapped beneath the new sacred precincts, the new ideas and the new rulers, the sacred stones, the heads of some and the blood of many. Could it be that we can still walk on top of that other city? As if the floor of one city could communicate with the ceiling of the other? Could it be that the layers of the earth can also be divided into conscious and unconscious?
– All lies! – Manuel shouts at me from the other side of the portal – You write absolute lies!
I am surprised. A slight pain settles in the pit of my stomach; this is the first time Manuel has ever spoken to me and this is the first thing he says to me. I stare at him as if to say: I don’t know what to say to you. Manuel starts laughing. Everyone in Plaza Santo Domingo loves to laugh, it seems like there is a competition in which whoever has the loudest, longest, and truest laugh will win. “Be happy” Emilio tells me every day as he says goodbye to me, “Be happy” and he laughs, a statement that is confused between a command and good wishes.
Manuel continues to laugh and as he approaches my desk he asks another of the inhabitants of the portals, Salvador, my neighbour at that moment:
– Do you agree, isn’t it true that for a love letter to work it is necessary to lie?
– Don’t be bitter, love is also beautiful – Salvador winks at him –. Frida already helped me with a letter, didn’t you?
Salvador looks at me. I answer yes and I’m glad to have helped.
– Didn’t she write nothing but lies? – Manuel insists.
Salvador and I are speechless. Manuel continues:
– I’m not saying that love doesn’t exist, I’m just saying that love letters are full of lies. Pure lies. Without lies no love letter is effective.
We both remain silent, we don’t want to admit he is right even though we both know he is. I have no choice but to ask him:
– Do you believe that love can be true?
Manuel obviously doesn’t answer me, he just laughs and winks at me.
– This girl! – he says in a low voice while shaking his head from side to side.
“[…] in principle and in its classic determination, the lie is not the error. It is possible to be in error, to deceive oneself without trying to deceive, and therefore, without lying.” (Derrida 1997, 13). How can we then say that a love letter lies? Is Manuel’s theory valid? Is it that in order to convince someone of some feeling or emotion it is necessary to exalt it to such a degree that it becomes a lie? Is rhetoric the mother of all lies?
Is thinking about the need to lie in order to communicate a feeling only relevant to love letters written by scriveners? When you are a scrivener there is no possibility of distinguishing between the true and the false, between the real and the illusory of the narratives conveyed by your client. A client asks you for a love letter and you have no choice but to believe in their words. You can probably pretend to have studied some neurolinguistic programming or think that you can distinguish the truth behind the grimaces or tears of someone who tells you a supposed love story; however, you can never know the veracity of a feeling. Do feelings need to be true to be effective? To be worthwhile? The question that underlies these others is how possible, certain, or frequent is self-deception? Could it be that the structure of deception is so quicksand-like and its mechanics so trained in finding cracks that it frequently turns against us? “Then I scold myself because I know beforehand that it’s not your fault, that it’s my expectations, it’s my self-deception.” (Gabriela’s letter to Ari)
Every time I set out to write a love letter I had to take a deep breath and imagine things that I had never felt, or that I had felt vaguely and that they were only condensed into words thanks to the popular songs that swarm the radio stations in Mexico City. “The crucial thing about a love letter is to think about the recipient – what will the one receiving the letter enjoy? They should be your number one advisor,” a friend advised me. “That’s the key,” he assured me. Any speech that claims to be persuasive has to think about its audience to be effective. I doubt that I followed this friend’s recommendations during my stay at Plaza Santo Domingo.
Seemingly, the prisoners who were in those damp and smelly cells of the Tribunal of the Holy Office or those guarded by the Dominicans during the first period of the Inquisition in New Spain, did not have enough tools to formulate a convincing speech for their audience. These prisoners forgot to consult the manuals on the art of constructing truth or deception. Needless to say, these prisoners did not face a docile crowd. The mechanisms of detention, secrecy and torture are never conducive to peace of mind. Much less so when the declarations are appraised firsthand as false. How do you convince someone that one’ s devotion is truthful?
At the moment I began to think about this writing, an image came to my mind. A dark room, large, with high ceilings and crammed with papers. I knew it was a room from the 18th century, it is not common for a room from that century to be full of papers. Papers on the desk, papers on the floor, papers stacked in bookcases, papers with markings, some of them in small mounds separated by a weight of some metal, papers sealed, labeled, catalogued. However, what is intriguing about this image, what makes me remember it as I walk down the street leading to and from my house is not the multiple papers, nor their shapes or sizes, but the way a woman is leaning on the desk, the skirt of her dress over her head, and a person behind her is moving euphorically. I am caught by the thought of the woman’s moans, her orgasmic desperation. Could these characters be real ghosts of Plaza Santo Domingo, or simply my own ghosts as I sit in a library, surrounded by other papers and thinking about the possibilities of this desk, this chair, my legs? It is the rubbing of objects, of skins, of tongues. The search for rest in the body of the other, in that rubbing, penetrating, tasting, smelling, in that being in the other. Could it be that through rubbing we gain access to the illusions of the one we rub against? As if bodies communicate by material and not discursive proximity. “When two objects are in contact and at the same temperature, it will never happen that one of them gets hot while the other gets cold” (Schifter 2008, 60, translation is mine). Life is in the rubbing. We scream to go crazy and in that madness accept that we are alive.
Every day that I went to the Santo Domingo square I would prepare all the necessary items: typewriter, white sheets, carbon paper, pen, sign, sign holder, adhesive tape to hold the sign holder and a lot of damn air. The first thing I would put in a blue backpack was the typewriter, the most essential and weightiest object; with the typewriter already on my back I would walk to the subway; its weight bothered me, I felt it on my back and that simple act implied a series of adjustments to my daily routine in order to carry and return the typewriter to a protected place, my home. I suppose it was my penitent, Catholic way of showing my fetishistic appreciation for the work of scribes, my ritual sacrifice. Is the interference of objects necessary for the concretion of any ritual? As if objects were the only true witnesses to whatever ritual? As if the objects were the only true witnesses of any ceremony, as if if they were the true ambassadors of the sacred. I remember when Mr. Edith asked me if I would need to use his typewriter he told me as he stroked it, that pretty pastel green machine with soft keys like the words of its owner. I replied no, I would bring my own typewriter. Mr. Edith couldn’t help but to smile, at which point he showed me the hatches on his desk. “Here are the letter sheets” he said as he pointed to a beige folder that looked at least 20 years old, “the officio sheets are in the blue folder and here is the oil for your typewriter, take care of it” he said smiling. I have always liked the way older people point at things, as if in the simple act of stretching out their hand they are trying to say something more. It reminds me of the last days when my grandfather was in the hospital and insisted on showing me the flashes of light that were all over the room in that hospital in the city of Colima. Mr. Edith told me that he had been using that typewriter for 15 years now. “I’m the only one who still uses these, the old ones,” referring to the mechanical ones. “Is yours electric?” he asked me. “No, it’s mechanical like yours,” I replied, “That’s good! That way we don’t have to fight over the electrical outlet.”
Derrida, Jacques. 1997. Historia de la mentira: Prolegómenos. Argentina: Universidad de Buenos Aires, Secretaría de Extensión Universitaria.
Díaz, José Luis. 1997. El ábaco, la lira y la rosa. Las regiones del conocimiento, Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Schifter, Isaac. 2008. La ciencia del caos. Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica de España.
Gerald of Wales. 1978. The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales. England: Penguin Books.
Frida Robles Ponce is an independent artist and curator. She has been an artist in residence at Q21 (Austria), transeuropa festival (Germany), Botkyrka Residency (Sweden), Residency 108 (USA), Raw Academy (Senegal) and Clark House Initiative (India). She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. Her thesis focuses on contemporary performance artists from Southern Africa who deal with traditional healing methods to recount or embody social, collective and personal pasts.