They cover their face behind balaclavas. Greasy hands and heads bowed. Meeting the shoeshiners in La Paz.
Every morning, at 5 o’clock, Paco leaves his home in El Alto, a very poor city on top of La Paz, and reaches the centre of the Bolivian capital after an hour’s travel by bus. He is one of the three thousand shoeshiners working in La Paz. He started to shine shoes when he was 10 years old, now he is 20. “It’s not easy at all. It takes elbow grease to obtain ‘el brillo’ (shininess)”, he says.
His hands are rough because of the cold temperatures in La Paz, which is the highest capital in the world, at over 3,650 meters above sea level. But Paco does not cover his face with the woollen balaclava just to protect himself from the cold or the smell of shoe polish, the reality is that shoeshiners hide their faces in shame behind balaclavas. They feel they are looked down upon, the majority of Bolivians, in fact, considers shoeshining an unseemly activity. Shoeshiners are faceless, ageless and often nameless people.
On the other side of the square, Robinson, another shoeshiner is sitting on the steps of the Church of Saint Francis: “I started to polish shoes when I was nine years old, – he tells us – I cover my face because I am ashamed of the work I do, but this is one of the fastest and simplest ways to earn some money. I need to bring money home to help my family. Like Paco, I also live in El Alto and every day I arrive in town at six o’clock in the morning. I work there all day until late afternoon when I go to school to attend evening classes. My dream is to become a mechanic”.
One can see through the balaclava he is wearing that Robinson is chewing coca leaves, a very common habit in Bolivia that helps to forget about hunger and fatigue: “I have seven brothers and two little sisters. My father died when I was 10 years old. He taught me shoeshining. My mother sells fruit at the markets of El Alto and she finds it difficult feeding the family all by herself. That’s why I polish shoes so that I can support my family. But I hope someday things can change”.
However, a small group of shoeshiners began to fight back, setting up, in 2005, their own newspaper called the Hormigon Armado, a play on words that means both reinforced concrete and armed ant, representing the resilience of Bolivia’s street people. “We are workers, people who struggle against poverty with dignity. We deserve respect, not contempt and discrimination”, says Louis who has worked as a shoeshiner for more than eight years.
The Hormigon Armado newspaper is published every two months and sold by some 60 shoeshiners. Seventy-five per cent of net income stays with the sellers, the other 25 per cent is saved for work development. The newspaper is fully managed by shoe-shiners; they are the writers and editors, and the designers and distributors. Oscar, one of the founders, and ‘editor’ of Hormigon Armado and former shoeshiner explains: “Currently we work with sixty shoeshiners and their families, the newspaper is a window to their lives. We write articles about shoeshiners’ rights, and those of children and teenagers who work in the street. The goal is to promote their protection by society, give them dignity and proper development. We also promote respect for the environment, art and culture. We are very proud, we have received numerous awards and recognitions for our publication”. Several non-profit associations are supporting the Bolivian shoeshiners’ initiative whose goal is social redemption. Shoeshiners have also begun to self-organise themselves in small groups, each of which chooses an area of the town where to work (there are about fifty areas in La Paz).
The members collaborating on the magazine also launched another project the Hormigon Armado, Tours of La Paz guided by trained shoeshiners. A way to see the beautiful city through the eyes of someone who is more familiar with the labyrinthine back alleys and small markets, than with the usual tourist hotspots. An experience that allows a tourist to feel part of the reality of the place through a mix of smells, colours and flavours, and not remain just a spectator. The Hormigon Armado guides are 12 shoe shiners. Ninety percent of the tour cost stays with the guides. Thanks to their work as shoeshiners, many boys manage to pay courses for their education. “Many ex-shoeshiners have become successful engineers, architects, psychologists”, says Raul, who works for an NGO for street children, many of whom are shoeshiners. Few of them, however, reveal they are shoeshiners. “I’ll become a teacher in two years. Nobody in my class knows about my second life as a shoeshiner”, confesses Javier.
Javier will continue to shine shoes secretly and to cover his face so as not to be recognised by friends or acquaintances, while dreaming of a better future. (P.M.)