Friday, May 30, 2014

The shoe-shiners, an example of a fighting spirit!

Laura and Kelly with the shoes-shiners during the tour 

The streets of La Paz are characterized by a mix of people, young people, aparapitas (men that carry your bags), caseritas (women street vendors), older people and many more. Amongst the population of La Paz are the lustrabotas (the shoeshiners). It is difficult to walk through the streets and not see them. At first glance they appear to be men embarrassed of their jobs because they cover their faces with balaclavas. You see them sitting on the streets with their shoe-cleaning boxes, dressed in blue and asking passers-by on the street if they can clean your shoes.
However, after having spent one and a half months in La Paz, and above all after having spoken to some lustrabotas, I have been lucky to learn about their incredible community. Now I see that being a lustrabotas means being part of a community in La Paz where they support one another. I see that the character of the lustrabotas is one of a fighting spirit, here I explain why….
Last Friday, as part of our ‘Action Friday’, we went on a tour with the lustrabotas. It is a well-known tour in La Paz because the money goes directly to the lustrabotas, and also because they take you to the less popular parts of La Paz, for example the areas around the general cemetery, the fish market and so on.
When I began to talk to the lustrabotas that was guiding my tour, Ramiro, he told me about how the life of a lustrabotas is not an easy one. He explained to me that if someone wants a lustrabotas to clean their black shoes, it costs 1.50 bolivianos, and to clean other colours it costs 2 bolivianos. This means that in general they can earn up to 80 bolivianos on a VERY good day (the minimum salary in Bolivian being 72 bolivanos a day).
The way in which they cover their faces has two meanings. On the one hand it is to protect their health against the toxic substances from the shoe creams they use at work, as well as from the sun’s rays. On the other hand, they cover their faces to protect their identity, given that many of them are minors and they want to work without the police or other authorities detaining them.  There are even lustrabotas that are 8 years old. The youngest lustrabotas work to help their families, like their brothers and sisters, and also to help pay for their education. It is usual for the older lustrabotas to protect the young ones on the streets.
 I thought it was really interesting how each lustrabotas has a specific area in the city in which they work. However, Ramiro told me how he was an ambulant lustrabotas, one without a territory. There are also women lustrabotas and elderly ones but they are not so common. What I thought was most interesting was that the lustrabotas have their own newspaper, which is published every two months. Inside, there are articles about lustrabotas rights and stories about their lives. To make sure there is a new story about the lustrabotas life, every Saturday those that want to participate go to the editor that publishes their newspaper and they enter their story.
In conclusion, it has been a pleasure to speak to the lustrabotas, to learn about their lives and to read their newspaper. I hope that the next time you walk through the streets and you cross paths with a lustrabotas, you don’t ignore them or think that they are part of a different society. Speak to them and discover that behind those balaclavas exist stories of fighters!

Posted by: Laura Prieto Martinez 

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