WRITE-HAND MAN

June 2008 rozinlapaz

The wrought-iron signpost says Escritorio Público – Public Writing Desk. It stands in the small plaza Ignacio Cabezud across from the tourist dock in La Paz. Behind the sign, a weather-beaten stall is open for business. There’s a manual typewriter on the counter, along with pen, paper cutter and FEAescritorstapler. Inside, a photocopying machine pushes up against shelves that bulge with papers.

The man at the counter is Rogelio Askins Aguilar – accountant, bookkeeper and public writer. He has worked in this neighborhood for more than 30 years.

The job of public writer in Latin America is as old as the need to write a letter. Escritores públicos flourished in the days when many people were illiterate. You would find a public writing desk in the central plaza of town, at a table with ink, paper and a sign – maybe a drawing of a quill and scroll for clients who couldn’t read. The writer’s customers sought help with all kinds of paperwork: a note of apology for late payment of fees, an entreaty to an ex-wife to come home, forms to start a business, a letter to a brother gone searching for work.

There aren’t many public writing desks left like the one in the small plaza of La Paz. In an interview, I ask Rogelio about this (our conversation is in Spanish, which I have translated and summarized). Rogelio says his escritorio público could be among the last of its kind in the city. “I had a friend in another neighbourhood, but I don’t think his office is open anymore.”

Drawing on his skills as an accountant and bookkeeper, Rogelio is much more than a public writer. He helps clients with the paperwork of officialdom. This includes tax declarations, health records, immigration documents, agriculture forms, business dealings and the like. That’s the nitty gritty of his day. But after cataloguing the details of the job, he describes what he does in another way: “I do not permit the exploitation of one man by another.”

Rogelio’s office seems out of character in this gentrified plaza. On one side of his shed is the artist Wyland’s mural of wildlife in the Sea of Cortez (Mar del Cortés) . On the other side is a sales office for luxury condos. There are sculptures of sea turtles and a whimsical trio of musicians, seashells brought to life. If you take a closer look at Rogelio’s old wooden shed, you will see it is decorated with fish and figures akin to Baja’s cave paintings. He says he painted them himself, inspired by Wyland.

There is no computer in the escritorio. Rogelio has one at home, but says that here, a typewriter is more valuable. As he points out, it’s tough to use a computer to type in a missing number on a government form.

Rogelio is an old newspaper man. From somewhere beneath the counter he retrieves a pocket-sized brass plate – his press pass. He digs through piles of newsprint on the shelves behind him and emerges with a 25-year-old editorial page from the Mexico City newspaper Despertar de America (To awaken America). He is listed on the masthead as editor-in-chief.

I ask how Rogelio how old he is and get the answer, “Cinquenta” (fifty). He looks at least seventy, and my skepticism shows. He chuckles, then on a notepad he writes “50,” draws an X through it and laughs again. “Sin cuenta,” he says. Ah, a play on words. Sin means without. Cuenta means calculation or account. “¡No tengo (I don’t have) cuenta!” Ageless!

And then he switches languages, using English for the first and only time during our conversation. As a former news man, he may be worried that I’ll get it wrong. “Seventy-three,” he says. “I am 73.”

Rogelio chuckles again when I ask if people still come to him for help in writing love letters. “Not so much anymore,” he says. However, he is ready for anyone who does arrive with that kind of request. “Ponemos picoretes al papel.” He smiles as he says this. I have trouble getting a definitive translation, despite asking several Spanish speakers. The best I can do: “We put little kisses –little nibbles? – to paper.”

Rogelio tells me he loves everything about his work. “I am my own boss. It’s very entertaining. Each of the people who arrives here comes with a different matter, and it must be resolved. So it’s never boring.”

When the plaza in which Rogelio works was renovated, other street stalls disappeared, making way for art work and concerts. But the government permitted Rogelio to stay, he says – “because this is a service to the community.”

(originally posted June 2008)

WHAT THE SHELLS SAY

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMay 2008 rozinlapaz

Guillermo Gómez Macías is the creator of two popular sculptures in La Paz. An earlier feature told the story behind his piece El Viejo . . . y El Mar?, “The Old Man . . . and the Sea?”.  Now we learn about Caracoles Músicos (Seashell Musicians), the sculpture in the small plaza Ignacio Cabezud across from the tourist dock with the watchtower.

Guadalajara sculptor Guillermo Gómez Macías is trained as an agronomist. Some may think crop production and soil management an unlikely foundation for the creation of art, but the 48-year-old says his passion for biological sciences is an important influence.

“Although at the moment I do not practise my career,” he says, “the discipline needed to understand how nature works and the training to observe are very useful in the exploration of my projects.”

Here is what Gómez has to say about the inspiration for his Seashell Musicians.

“The act of fusing human shapes with those of shells is to stress the diversity. And the appeal of the music is that it is a universal language that brings together feelings, emotions, sensations, etc. The idea arose from the act of holding a seashell between the hands. We marvel at its shapes and colours, independent of the place from which it came. If we hold it close to our ears and we pay attention, it will surprise us in that we hear the song of the ocean, and that rouses in us the same sensations.

“The same thing happens with human beings, in spite of the diversity of their origins, their shapes and colours. If we really pay attention and listen deep down in our beings, we can hear the rhythm of our own hearts.”

I spoke by phone with Gómez in Guadalajara, where he lives, and we did the interview through e-mails, which I’ve translated and summarized. His work is on permanent exhibit in Puerto Vallarta at Galleria Dante.

(originally posted May 2008)

THE SANDMAN

March 2008 Roz in La Paz

His studio is the city beach of La Paz. He is an artist whose creations are as changeable as life, itself.

Juan Guillermo Corvera Alemán’s work disintegrates in weeks, to reemerge in another form. And so December’s nativity scene breaks down, becomes February’s pod of whales. This is art that ebbs and flows like the neighbouring  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtide. The artist likes his creations short-lived. That’s why he makes sculptures in sand.“Because it is like life, itself,” he tells me. “It’s of the earth, natural. I do not need to point to something on the wall and say, ‘This is my work.’ ”

Juan’s path to La Paz has been a journey of unforeseen twists. Born in Mexico City, the 28-year-old earned a degree in law. He was halfway through a second degree, this time anthropology, when he decided life wasn’t going the way he wanted. That led to five years of travelling around Mexico.

He was walking down the Malecón in Puerto Vallarta when he saw the sand sculptures of José Gonzales. Juan had no background in art. But he persuaded the sculptor to take him on as a student. Puerto Vallarta is also where Juan met his partner Alma, 26. She’s trained as an architect.  Since then, the two have travelled together. Juan creates sand sculptures, Alma makes jewelry. They live on the contents of donation boxes for Juan’s sculptures and from the sale of Alma’s jewelry and handicrafts.

Is it enough to cover living expenses? “Some days yes, some days no,” Juan says. I pass by every few days to watch his progress and to talk. Our OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAconversation is in Spanish, which I’ve translated and summarized. Juan gives
me a tour. He is finishing a pyramid of figures wrapped around one another, arms stretched upwards, individual features obscured. It’s called Almas (Souls), the same as his partner’s name. Then there is La Cara (the face) with its gaping mouth. Is the expression fear? Amazement? Death?

Nearby is a humongous hand, index finger pointing up. Like many of the other pieces, this sculpture reaches skyward. Are most of your themes spiritual, I ask? Is the finger pointing toward God? Not exactly, he says. It’s pointing to “la grandeza” (grandness or magnificance). Yes, the themes are spiritual, but he shies away from the label of God.

Juan and Alma arrived in La Paz a few months ago. Donations are not as generous here as on the mainland, but Juan says it’s peaceful and people are good. They decided this would be the place for Alma to have their first baby, due near the end of February.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA child will change life for you, I say. And you will need more money. The work of a lawyer or architect is more secure, more lucrative. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad? Juan clutches his throat. “Esclavos,” I think he says. Esclavo means “slave.”

So he’ll continue his work as a sculptor of sand? “Ojalá (god willing),” he says. The plan is to work their way up the Baja peninsula as soon as Alma and the baby can travel. Juan’s idea is to “sell” sand sculptures to businesses along the way. He will try to interest hotels in hiring him to create pieces on a particular theme to promote events and festivals – sand sculptures for a tour of bikers, for example.

Juan has created a sand version of La Pieta. He has given the Virgin Mary a Mexican face. In fact, she looks a lot like his partner Alma. The sculptor says he chose La Pieta because he admires Michelangelo’s work. And because he is hoping that the Catholic passersby will be moved to be a little more generous with their donations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis week Juan finished his latest sculpture: It’s a moon, a baby, and a large sheltering hand. The creation honours his new baby daughter, born around the time of the February full moon. Her name is Luna.

(Originally posted March 2008)