We have finally received a letter from the office of Catastro Municipal, the registry of properties, on the second floor of the Presidencia. The vacant lot across from us, the letter pointed out—where mini gangbangers for years have been buying, selling and inhaling glue, Magic Marker, paint thinner and, for all we know, Comet powder—belongs to Señor Ricardo Valázquez—a dead man.
An official at the Presidencia, a young woman sitting at the front desk at the office of Catastro, handed me the letter. It was short, and so I read it in front of her. I asked her how the owner paid the taxes if he was dead. The young woman showed hesitation, perhaps surprise.
“Someone is paying the taxes for him,” she offered.
I mentioned that I didn’t understand how you could pay his taxes if he didn’t exist. She closed a folder lying in front of her.
“It’s in his name,” she said.
I thought about that, with my semi-wounded I don’t understand look.
“Why isn’t it in his wife’s name?” I asked.
The young woman nodded, approving of my question. “Well, she hasn’t gone through the steps to change the title.”
I mentioned then, a little timidly I confess, I was thinking of suing him for neglect of the property. I explained it was full of trash, it was a gathering place for glue sniffers intent on destroying their brains, its walls were covered inside and out with years of the world’s ugliest graffiti and, when the local delinquents fled the police and Army, they escaped through the lot.
The young woman said she didn’t think I could proceed in the manner I suggested. “That would be suing a dead man,” she said.
I nodded. I thought I detected an edge of impatience, perhaps a judgment that I hadn’t immersed myself deeply enough in Mexican culture. She smiled and said, “You can’t sue a dead man,” and then excused herself graciously, and walked out of the office.
I took a step further into the Office of Catastro, a word that comes from sixteenth century French.
A tall, serious man rose and came around in front of his desk. I showed him the letter and said I’d like to write the owner and make an offer on the land.
The tall man read the letter as if for the first time, although I had already noticed the name on his desk was the same as the signature at the bottom of the letter.
He looked up at me and said I needed to make the request in writing, just the way I had before in order to find out the property owner’s name.
“In letter form?” I asked. “For him directly?”
“No, for the office. We need a formal written request,” he explained.
I sympathize with providing work for people in a country that needs jobs. I asked him whether the office would pass the letter on to the owner. He looked down at the letter again, then up at me.
“I believe he’s dead,” he said.
I asked if that would be a problem, since someone was paying his taxes for him and could possibly therefore speak for him regarding his decision whether to sell or not.
“Perhaps it would be easier if you just gave me his address,” I said.
The man looked at me calmly.
“I don’t think he has an address any more—for the obvious reason,” he said.
I nodded. “Perhaps the address of his survivor then,” I said.
He looked down at the letter again. “That person hasn’t officially claimed the new ownership yet.”
I nodded. “But do you have that person’s address?”
He said they did not, and besides it would be an intrusion on that person’s privacy since they weren’t the new owner until they applied for the title.
I nodded. I thought for a moment, then asked him whether it would be illegal for me to enter the property, clean up the trash and weld the metal entrance door shut so delinquents couldn’t destroy their brains there with paint thinner and Comet powder.
“It’s private property,” he explained, patiently.
I nodded. I asked him if that fact held the same force when the property was a problem for the neighborhood and the owner was dead.
He said I needed to go to Desarrollo Urbano, Urban Development. They would give me a more definitive answer if I submitted the question in writing.
I did not want to insult him, given that the French had invaded Mexico in 1861, but I told him I was having trouble reconciling the concept of ownership and being dead. I mentioned I was reading the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who divided the structure of human identity into the Réel, Symbolique and Imaginaire—the so-called interlocking and inextricable pieces of the Noeud Borroméen, the Knot of Borromeo.
I used the French terms to show my openness about the matter, also suggesting that Lacan’s definitions might help in quantifying the dead man and his control over his property—so that we could all move forward.
To make my remarks more sympathetic, I mentioned that Jacques Lacan was also dead.
He smiled cordially. “You need to go to Desarrollo Urbano,” he said. “We only deal with the ownership of property.”
I held out my hand, and he shook it warmly. I thanked him and then turned away to leave.
An idea occurred to me as I left the Presidencia. I would follow the suggestion of a wise and trusted neighbor and paint in large black letters, on the graffitied walls of the vacant lot, “Se vende” (for sale). I still had the telephone number of the Catastro office and I would add that too, just below the dead man’s name, Ricardo Valázquez—on the theory that a man who owned the property was also capable of painting such a sign and that those who paid Ricardo’s taxes would appear soon enough, given that they, as far as I knew, were not dead. My only regret was that I had not thought of this solution on November 1 and 2 for the Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead)—when the barrier between Ricardo and me might have been more tenuous and communication easier.