When I visited master printer Gabriel Quintas Castellaños in his workshop in Oaxaca Centro, I immediately knew we would make a strong connection. The Keis family has ink running through its veins. My father was a lithographer, my grandfather a typesetter for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and several of my uncles were also in the trade. It was what you did if you were a male in the Keis family. Being the first in the family to go to college, I broke with tradition. But the ink is still in my veins and my encounter with Quintas brought it to the surface again.
At age seventy-six, Quintas has been in the printing business for sixty-seven years: seven years as an apprentice and sixty years as a printer. When he was ten years old, he left for Mexico City alone and got a job working for the newspaper El Universal". He rented a tiny room in the attic of a building on Cinco de Mayo and worked an eight hour shift at El Universal learning to typeset and how to do maintenance of printing presses.
He returned to Oaxaca at age fourteen and set up his own print shop. He began by typesetting newspapers and traveled extensively in the state of Oaxaca publishing newspapers not only in Spanish, but also in Zapotec. In addition, he printed one hundred posters daily for local cinemas, dances and other cultural events.
At that time he also began to buy presses and boxes of letters from print shops that were going out of business. What he has accumulated over the years amounts to a museum of printing in Oaxaca. He has over 4000 boxes of letters of all sizes and materials. He has also written a history of printing in Oaxaca that is near being finished. It is his hope that before he dies, he will be able to create a museum of printing so that the younger generation will be able to know how things were done in the pre-computer era. In this day and age of advanced technology, typesetting is a dying profession. Quintas sees the artistic aspect of his trade falling by the wayside as people choose the easier but less permanent form of publishing. In Quintas' words, "Dura más la más pálida tinta que la más brillante memoria" (the most pale of inks outlasts the most brilliant memory).
"I love everything about my work, everything. This has been my life since I was a child. This has been my whole life".
Quinta's wife works with him daily, running the small Heidelberg press and binding books. They are the "old-timers of the trade, the "puristas". According to
Quintas, "typesetters create as they work to make a piece that is pleasing to the eye". He is proud of his ability to always keep the aesthetic as his guiding principle.
Right before I left Oaxaca to return to Oregon, Quintas typeset a poem I want to use in a photography exhibit here in three languages: Spanish, Zapotec and English. He welcomed the challenge of publishing in languages that were not his mother tongue and the final printing was without error in any of them.
Craftspeople like Gabriel Quintas are rare nowadays as is his profession of typesetting. The pride that he takes in his work and the quality of what he produces is admirable. May his history of printing in Oaxaca be published and may his dream museum be realized while he is still on this earth. He has indeed lead the life of an artist, set in print.