In the interstices where cultures and people bump into one another there is work to be found--and interpreted. Thus this look at the evolution of the escritorio público in Echo Park.
Escritorio público translates literally as a “public desk” and, more broadly, as a writer/secretary for hire. Long a traditional employment in Latin America, Egypt and France, where writers can sell their skills to the less-literate or confident in the plaza or in storefronts, the office has adapted for Los Angeles. There are scores of escritorios in our city. Wherever you see “tax” or “immigration service” on a sandwich board a writer middleman/woman is ready to deal in words and documents.
Of course, Echo Park is brimming with writers for hire--they’re in the cafes, they’re walking dogs, they are seated at kitchen tables--at this very moment! Reader, I am one of them. But the public writer is a special breed.
The way a public writer operates is a reflection of the community he/she serves. Which is why Echo Park has such a varied history of its own vis-à-vis the writer/secretary for hire. On one end of the spectrum, we have the poet and translator Jen Hofer, who several years ago set herself up on a small table in front of Machine Project on Alvarado Street, where she wrote letters for passersby. Conceived initially as performance, Hofer’s performance was also commerce. A resident of Cypress Park, Hofer has taken to the streets with her typewriter in many locations in Los Angeles and beyond.
In an email exchange, Hofer wrote (for free):
“The first time I ever wrote letters for people on the street was in Echo Park, in front of Machine Project, as an accompaniment to their first-ever show, Tom Jennings' Story Teller. Since then I have written letters in many neighborhoods in Los Angeles (most recently at the Silverlake Jubilee), as well as in Phoenix, Santa Fe, Austin, Chicago, Oxford Ohio, and Union Square in New York City.
“I charge $2 for a letter, $3 for a love letter and $5 for an illicit love letter [and] I have written all kinds of letters at my escritorio público, including graduate school recommendations, letters to pets, letters to unborn children, letters to people who have passed away, love letters to new lovers, love letters to partners of many decades, an apology to the DMV for a late payment, and many, many other sorts of letters. I have written in both Spanish and English, but I have not written translations at the escritorio público, nor have I filled out any government forms on behalf of anyone else.
“I find that most folks from Latin America are familiar with the tradition but are surprised to see an escritorio público in the U.S. Most folks from other places (including here) need some form of explanation, but I enjoy the conversations.
“I had a fellow ask me to write a series of letters to the parole board requesting that his very sick brother be allowed to leave prison to die living at his (the brother requesting the letters) house. The responsibility of these letters felt immense to me, and after a few of them I lost touch with the person asking me to write them. I don't know if the brother was allowed out of prison to die in the way he and his family wished; I hope so.”
The poetry and drama underpinning the office of public writer also inspired the late Elizabeth Stromme, author of Joe’s Word (City Lights Noir). First published in French, Joe’s Word is about an escritorio público in Echo Park.
A website honoring Stromme (http://www.undergroundgardener.com/index.htm) contains the following oddly delightful sentence:
“There's plenty of sex in [Joe’s Word], some of it graphic and all of it central to Stromme's protagonist and his job as a public writer.”
On the same site, Stromme is quoted:
“It would be a mistake to think public writers are only useful to immigrants, or the poor and disenfranchised. No matter how they're called -- writers for hire, ghostwriters, scribes -- their function is to serve their community.”
And so we have the office of Chahin Travel (established 1986), now on Echo Park Avenue. The owner, Hania Torres, describes her office as “a sort of secretarial service.” She is a notary public and immigration consultant, and she is licensed in tax preparation. Her pleasant storefront office occupies the space that previously was an art gallery. A sign in front offers translations.
Torres does not like “escritorio público” as a description of her work, which she started doing in 1991. When I asked whether she ever wrote personal letters for people, she demurred, saying that she offered a variety of services. Born and partly raised in Nicaragua, where she said notary publics are attorneys, she is ready to help mainly with civic tasks, where an official voice and knowledge are needed. She’ll help you stay in the country, and, as a travel agent, she can also help you leave. (In a conversation this week, she stressed, “I know my limits.”) One reason I feature Chahin Travel in this column is the pedestrian. Torres says foot traffic accounts for a significant portion of her clientele.
It’s all about the sandwich board.