Meredith: The lettered city, alive and well

June 3, 2010

“El que no está en el gobierno no existe y el que no existe no habla.”
“He who is not in the government doesn’t exist, and he who doesn’t exist does not speak”

–From “La virgen de los sicarios,” by Fernando Vallejo

Since the time of Spanish imperialism, the “written word” has been intricately tied to power and freedom in Latin America. In his ground-breaking novel, The Lettered City, Ángel Rama identifies this relationship and discusses how it produced endless conflict between the “letrados” (educated elite) and the illiterate masses. According to Rama, “The principle explanation for the ascendancy of the letrados lay in their ability to manipulate writing in largely illiterate societies.” The educated urban elite imposed written laws on the masses, creating an almost mystical relationship in which the written word had the power to shape reality. Peoples’ actions were allowed or disallowed according to law, and actions outside the law were ignored, punished, or eliminated. Thus, the letrados oppressed the masses: “Within each visible city stood another, figurative one, that controlled and directed it.” This “less tangible lettered city” utilized “the order of signs, and the high priority of its function lent it a sacred aspect, freeing it from subordination to ordinary circumstances …This was the cultural dimension of the colonial power structure.”

As Rama has noted,

“Because [graffiti] is written on the wall, because it is frequently anonymous, because its spelling is habitually faulty, and because the kind of message it transmits, graffiti attests to an authorship outside the lettered city.”

This idea is thoroughly explained in The Lettered City, using examples from colonial times. Reading about this in a class, in a book, without a physical context and landscape to connect with, can make this seem something far away, irrelevant. Yet everyday, when I walk around the city of Buenos Aires, I see the struggle over the lettered city come alive. I see those who have no voice, or rather, no medium through which to make their voices heard, re-appropriating the spaces of the city.

the streets are ours

insecurity is the police

get out, Bush

we said, never again

ideas cannot disappear

without condemning punk rock!

so that everyone can speak


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