|An Evangelista for Our Times: Jennifer Hofer ’94|
Every week or so, Jennifer Hofer pins her hair into a gravity-defying bouffant, dons a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and slips into a suit that would have made Jackie Kennedy proud. Then Hofer grabs a stack of stationery, envelopes, and a book of stamps, and heads for a busy stretch of sidewalk in Los Angeles, where she sets up her grandmother’s Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter on a wooden folding table. Hofer is a part-time escritorio publico, a letter writer for hire. It’s a role with a long and rich history in Latin America.
A poet and translator, Hofer became interested in the custom while living and working in Mexico City on an anthology of contemporary poetry by unknown Mexican women writers. She often found herself in Plaza Santo Domingo, where for more than 150 years public writers, known as evangelistas, have set up booths among the hand-run printing presses where people have business cards, wedding invitations, and other papers printed. When she moved to Los Angeles, Hofer decided to import the tradition. “It’s a public art project,” she says, “and a way of interacting with a really wide cross section of people in my city around something that I care very deeply about and feel very strongly about, that also, I believe, really does provide a service.”
Hofer charges $2 for a letter and $3 for a love letter. Illicit love letters—she’s written just two, including one for a woman with a crush on a married man—cost $5. Hofer’s clients range from illiterate immigrants to educated professionals who have trouble expressing their feelings in writing. Some dictate their messages, while others sketch the outline and leave it to Hofer to compose a letter. One man asked her for a letter of recommendation for a master’s program. Another had her apologize to the department of motor vehicles for a late payment. Both men and women frequently ask her to write romantic notes to spouses or partners, she says.
The most moving, Hofer says, was a Salvadoran woman who asked her to write a letter to a man—“the father of my son.” As the woman spoke, Hofer pictured a husband or lover left behind in El Salvador, and the letter ended with a promise to see him again. When it came to addressing the letter, though, the woman dictated, “El cielo”—the sky. The man had died of cancer a month earlier, and the woman planned to save the letter with his belongings. “It was such a gift, [that] she was willing to write this through me,” says Hofer. “Her honesty in that moment is something that I’d really like to live up to in my work.”