Scribes' labor of love yields thoughts from the heart

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 11, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

MEXICO CITY -- Roses are fragrant. Chocolates are sweet. But in Mexico, some still believe in the power of the written word to conquer the hearts of the ones they love.

Beneath the arches of the Portal de Santo Domingo, in the heart of Mexico City's historic district, there are always scribes sitting in front of typewriters preparing job applications, loan requests and university theses for their customers.

But this time of year, they say, people come to them with more interesting requests: for old-fashioned love letters.

"They come to us with their hearts about to burst because they are so in love," Hipolito Ortiz Acuna says. "And they ask us to help put their feelings on paper."

Requests for love letters decline each year, the scribes lament, because of more modern and speedier forms of communication, not to mention the popularity of greeting cards that spare lovers the need for original thought.

"Flowers die, and candy gets eaten. Even a telephone conversation will be forgotten after a few months," Mr. Ortiz says. "But a love letter can be saved and read year after year."

Mr. Ortiz says most of his love-letter requests come from merchants or other laborers who do not read or write well. He interviews clients to learn about the predicament and feelings of each.

"Pretty soon, we are not only writing a letter for them, but we become love advisers," he says with a grin.

Or marriage counselors.

"I have had men come to me and say they wanted a letter to say goodbye to their wife and that they were going to get a divorce.

"But I talk to the man and help him remember all that he has shared with his wife. In the end, he leaves here with a love letter for her asking for forgiveness."

Mr. Ortiz, a brown-skinned man with jet black hair that hangs over his collar, is proud of his work. He describes it with the same poetic passion he uses in his love letters.

"Love is so big. There are no limits to it," he says, stretching out his arms. "There are no barriers. There is no cold that can freeze it. And no sun that can burn it."

Scribe Hugo Treco Servin, 22, remembers a client who sought his services last week. The man had fallen in love with a friend but was afraid to tell her of his feelings. Mr. Treco wrote a letter for the man in which he talked about a "new love from heaven."

"I told the man to show his friend the letter and say that he wrote it for the woman he loves," Mr. Treco says. "When the friend asks him, 'Who is this woman?' he will say, 'It is you. You are the woman I love.'

"Hopefully, she will run into his arms."

Mr. Ortiz says he and the other scribes in his scantily furnished office do not charge a fee for their love letters, which usually are typed on white paper with two doves on the top left corner and the words "Nuestro Amor" which means "Our Love" in Spanish. "They are gifts," he says. "You can't charge someone money for love."

But tips are accepted.

Another old Spanish tradition commonly observed on "El Dia de Amor" is serenades, Mr. Treco says. A man will come to the Plaza Santo Domingo and ask for the services of a guitarist to accompany him to the home of a loved one. Mr. Treco estimates that he will perform at least a dozen serenades by the end of the week.

The cost is high, about $100 an hour, Mr. Treco says, but the men usually do not complain.

"They know it is worth it when the woman they love comes outside and starts crying because she is so happy," Mr. Treco says. "For me, it is a good feeling when the men turn to me and say, 'Thank you. With your help I have conquered her heart.' "

The scribes say almost all of their clients are men.

Sometimes the scribes are called upon to express the sentiments of those whose hearts have been broken.

"I only wish to say goodbye forever and I hope you will be happy with your new love," says a letter typed by Mr. Ortiz. "You had promised that you would return to my side, but that was pure lies and deception."

It ends: "Neither with you nor without you my pain would be relieved. If I am with you, you would kill me. And if I am without you, I will die."

Mr. Ortiz shudders as he reads the words aloud.

"Thank God I get more requests for love letters," he says.

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