The Tale of Two Shoe Shiners

It is interesting to listen to people talk about what they do. It doesn’t matter how grandiose or menial their job. Everyone has something to say, and many times their words reveal just how meaningful their work is to their lives.

There are two types of shoe shiners in downtown Cali: the one that carries his wares in a small box and ambles under the palm trees in the central square hoping to spot a client or someone looking for some specific shoe related work, and the other, who has had a permanent spot with a chair and an umbrella for the last 12 years, donated by the local shoe polish company, Beisbol.

Raúl Armando is the first kind of shoe shiners. He is a 53 year old man, who has been working the downtown area for the last 20 years. “I’ve had other jobs, and good ones; I worked with the government in EMSIRVA (the public works department), and with the police,” he informed me, enthusiastically. But, he added, “But I was a bum and my own laziness ruined my chances for retiring with a company.”

emboladorHis little tool box, with its small pedestal that clients use to rest their feet on as they receive his services, is the most important thing in Raúl’s life. “For me, this is my wife, my mother, and all my family, because this is my livelihood,” he explains, giving it look of admiration. His trade is not lucrative, just bringing in what he needs to get by. A basic shoeshine costs $2000 pesos, about $0.70 US, $3000 ($1 US) if he applies shampoo and horse grease. If the shoe needs more elaborate maintenance, like rubbing out the scuff marks or dying it a different color, he can charge between $5,000 and $10,000 pesos ($1.75 – $3.50 US).


These rates require Raúl to live austerely. “I spend $20,000 pesos a day ($7.00 US). There’s breakfast, lunch and dinner, and my room that costs $7000 pesos a night. They come at 4:00 in the afternoon to collect the money for my food, so I’ve got to have that money by that time.” Due to a medical problem, he can’t resort to making ends meet in other ways, unless there are special events in the downtown area and he doesn’t have to move too far. He helps people park their cars in December, when the city center fills up. This means that he has a relatively stable economy during the holidays.

Fortunately, Raúl has a handful of returning customers, mainly judges and lawyers who work in the offices around the Plaza Caicedo, the central square. But things aren’t what they used to be 20 years ago. Raúl has seen how fewer and fewer people look for a shoeshine from him, and he supposes that it must have to do with people using cheaper shoes; they worry less about their appearance. That, and the increase in the use of tennis shoes are what have brought about a reduction in demand. But Raúl has adapted to these changes: “Of course, today I have to offer shampoo for tennis shoes. Otherwise, there’d be no getting by.”

Another change that has affected the shoe shiners downtown is the use of public space. This part of the city has seen high levels of mobile sellers, sidewalks crowded with people offering their wares: from underwear and belts to tape measures and books. And the city has tried to do its part keeping the sidewalk open for pedestrians.

“In February of this year (2016) they called us all into a meeting in the Lloreda Building. We thought that they were going to help us establish ourselves more permanently, but that wasn’t it at all. When we walked out of the building, at 10:30 in the morning, our spot was full of cops.”

There_s a saying-1On orders from the mayor, the shoe shiners were given notice that they would no longer be allowed to “loiter” in a single place, but would have to walk continuously. For the time being, they’ve come to an agreement with the mayor’s office that they can gather on the sidewalk across from the Plaza, but there are “caretakers” of public space, who come each morning to make sure that no one is loitering.

Despite all the difficulties for the shoe shiners in the Plaza Caicedo, they keep a strict ethic regarding their trade. “The most important thing for me is that I do a good job, and that the customer feels happy about the product. If they can see that you’ve done a good job for $2000 pesos, then they’ll throw in another $1000 or $2000 as a tip. This feels right, because you know you’ve done things the right way.

No, Not a Shoe Shiner.

Cross the Plaza Caicedo diagonally from where the mobile shoe shiners are, and you’ll find 12th Street, la Calle Real – Royal Street. On this street, full of casinos and restaurants with their lunches designed for office workers, you can also find the lottery vendors and boot polishers who were relocated by the ex-mayor Apolinar Salcedo, 12 years ago.

IMG_2801 (1)This is where Carlos Julio has his chair and umbrella, and where he continues to work after 21 years as a boot polisher. “A shoe shiner? No. I’m a boot polisher or a footwear beautifier. A footwear beautifier and image consultant. That’s what we do here. Embolador (shoe shiner in Colombian Spanish) isn’t even correct Spanish. An embolador would literally be someone who takes someone else’s clothes off for them.”

This clarification draws a clear distinction between the mobile shoe shiner and his counterpart with his fixed chair and umbrella. To give oneself the title of “footwear beautifier” is to assign a new meaning and value to the same job.

Like the mobile shoe shiners in the Plaza Caicedo, the boot polishers on the Calle Real have also been the victims of marginalization. According to Carlos Julio, they were kicked out of the Plaza Caicedo at the same time as the lottery vendors and the paper-pushing scribes because the mayor’s office wanted to “beautify the park”. But with the sponsorship of Beisbol shoe polish, from a nearby city, and the help of the ex-mayor, Mauricio Guzmán, the boot polishers were re-located on the pedestrian street adjacent to the plaza with all the required paperwork.IMG_2803 (1)

Another difference between the Calle Real boot shiners and their mobile counterparts is their price: $2500 for a shine, $4000 for a shampoo and sealer. But these extra pesos, which may be rightly charged by the privilege of having a fixed spot with a chair, do not mean these footwear beautifiers are by any means making significant money. The difficulties are the same one both sides of the plaza. “You might make 10, 20, 30 or even $40,000 pesos ($3.50 – $14 US) a day – but not all that often,” explained Carlos Julio. “It’s a job that varies on a daily basis. You get here and it’s just luck that your clients show up.”

Shoe shining is a job that is part of what is referred to as el rebusque in Colombia, or the activity of hunting down odd jobs in order to make ends meet. These types of jobs offer a certain freedom: no fixed schedule, you can be your own boss, and you are part of a community of people sharing the same needs. But this informality leaves a lot to be desired. The majority of workers live day to day: there are no savings, and no pensions. The two shoe shiners have access to health care through Social Security which gives them basic care when the need it, but nothing more. In Raúl Armando’s case, not following the treatment recommended by his doctors has left him solely responsible for his own treatment, and he has lost the right to return to the clinic.

Even so, Carlos Julio made a very valid point with regards to the manner in which one works. He said, “You adapt to the job because you need it. It is important that you feel good with your work. Feeling good about it brings satisfaction.”

It’s not a glamorous job, and it doesn’t fill their wallets with cash, but the shoe shiners keep shining shoes. They go to work every day with the tools of their trade, they greet the people and chat about the day’s events, and they shine strangers’ shoes until they glow. Their presence in the plaza in downtown Cali is a reminder that personal appearance is an important value to many people, and that public spaces are still used for meeting with people and working. In Raúl Armando’s words, “There’s a saying: a park without shoe shiners just isn’t a park.”

This story was originally published in Spanish on


Earning From Obsolscence

Olga Avirama has been fixing broken suitcases for 50 years. In a world of cheap, disposable things, how can we use less by making things last longer?

Originally published June 14, 2016+

Why don’t things last?  As a faithful consumer, you might be able to think back on your life as a string of purchases: your first TV, first car, first cell phone; and then all of the times you had to replace those items. Second cars, third, fourth and fifth cell-phones. Computers lose memory, battery-life fails, the soles fall off your shoes.

Planned obsolescence is part of the world in which we live. From the refrigerator that keeps your food cold to the light bulbs that illuminate your house, everything wears out and needs replacing. Some say it is a consumerist conspiracy to keep markets growing, others say that the lower quality goods means lower costs and easier access for those people with less buying power – actually providing people with a means of buying things that were previously out of their reach. But it is frustrating to think that the term “disposable income” is so literally applied to the money that is worked for and earned by whichever manner.

Olga measures the dimensions of a computer case she asked to make.

Olga Avirama, a 65 year old woman with roots in an indigenous tribe in the Cauca department in Colombia, has lived for the past 20 years counting on planned obsolescence as a source of income. She and her husband run “La Clínica de la Maleta” (The Luggage Hospital) in the First of May neighborhood in Cali, Colombia. 50 years ago, they started making suitcases and bags in their house, “But,” she explained, “since the markets opened up, artisans like us cannot compete with China.”

“The luggage they make is of poor quality. Really, people use a bag once, it gets damaged, and they throw it away. Our mission is to contribute to lessening the amount of garbage generated in the world.” And, help people save the $50 dollars they may have spent on a cheap bag, and turn it into a more lasting product by reinforcing seams, patching rips and anchoring the wheels so that they don’t fall off.

P1060191.JPGLike the SOP (Sin Obsolescenica Programada or Without Planned Obsolescence) movement in Spain, or many Do It Yourself programs, Olga is believes in things that are lasting, and that regular people can control quality. Her workshop has four Pfaff sewing machines, each one turned 50 years old this year.  “We only use two of them, the other ones we use for parts. I do all the maintenance on the machines and keep them working, After all these years I know very well how to do it,” she affirmed while switching on one of the machines.  “New sewing machines come with plastic parts that just don’t last.”

“We get by. We’re a family of five, and with the workshop we keep afloat, but by being very economical.” Olga showed me her small garden where they grow tomatoes, peppers, and various herbs in the front of her house. “People think it’s strange that we grow food here. It’s like they don’t like to be close to the earth. But we can cut back on spending by growing some of the things we consume.”

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“There will always be luggage hospitals in Cali,” she pointed out. “The economy of this country makes it necessary that people find the way to stretch their money. We can’t afford to throw so many things away.”

So, while the shifting global economy has changed the way Olga Avirama and her family earn their living, it has also changed the way we treat the things we buy. Maybe there will be a time without luggage hospitals in the future, but hopefully it will not be because we have given in to disposing of the things that could be fixed.


Hospital for suitcases and bags. Olga Avirama has been making and repairing luggage for 50 years.

Machete or Machine?

Originally published June 6, 2016.

The valley of the Cauca river in south-western Colombia is full of impressive views. It is in the cradle of two imposing ridges of the Andes mountains; dotted with bamboo groves and giant saman trees, the overwhelming feature are the endless sugarcane fields that stretch from the southern most point climbing up into the foothills, all the way to the northern tip.


Green sugar cane grows throughout the valley of the Cauca River.

Traditionally, when the sugarcane reaches maturity is set on fire to burn away the leaves, whose cerrated edges can cut skin, and to kill of any pests that have infested the crop. After the burn, the stalks of cane need to be harvested. Enter the sugar cane cutter, who armed with a large machete, called a katana or bamba in Colombian Spanish, is assigned a plot to clear and leave the cane prepared for later processing.

It’s a difficult job: early rising to get to the fields as soon after the sun comes up as possible. A massive breakfast and lunch to keep the energy levels up, constant hydration beneath the equatorial sun, and hack, cut the cane, hack hack, cut the tip and size it, toss to one side for collection. What’s more is the days are all the same: enter the burned out field, hack, bend, hack hack, toss. They never plant the cane, or watch it grow. Their job is to get it off the ground and into a truck.

They are long hours of physical labor, but according to Aldemar, a veteran with 27 years in the sugar cane industry, a diligent worker can make between two and three times the minimum wage for Colombia. For a population that has very low levels of education, and is often times migrant, this salary means the possibility to keep their children in school, and with some discipline, possibly buy a house.

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Photos by Satomi Yabe


In US folklore, there is a character named John Henry. He was a worker building the railroads, and his job was to drive the spikes that attached the rails to the ties. The story goes that when they brought in a steam drill, a machine that did the same job as John Henry, the two competed, and John Henry beat it until his heart exploded from over-exertion. Not exactly a story of hope and beauty, but person vs machine is rarely beautiful. Enter the sugarcane harvester.

Cane cutting is obviously labor intensive. The sugarcane harvester makes it much less so. These machines can do the work of 120 men. They can work 24 hours a day. They don’t require that the cane be burned before cutting – something that is important for the sugar mills since the issue of atmospheric pollution has become important.

The process of industrializing the sugarcane industry in Colombia has been slow. Often people do jobs here that machines would do in a more efficient, cheaper way, because there are simply so many people who need work. It is almost like a sense of social responsibility on the part of the businesses to keep people employed despite the inefficiency, and the sugar mills were no different.


It is difficult to pinpoint any one factor that has caused the great decline in sugarcane cutters. Aldemar pointed out, “There aren’t any cane cutters who have only been working for five years. The sugar mills simply aren’t hiring new cutters.”

The Cauca River Valley is primarily fields of sugar cane dotted with trees and bamboo groves.

Hildefonso Rincón, from the Center for Intercultural Studies in the Javeriana University, explained that there are 5 main strategies that the sugar mills have employed to cut back the number of cane cutters. “First, they have tried to return the migrant cutters to their place of origin, which is the Pacific coast of Colombia. Second they have provided compensation to people who willingly give up their position to try to start a business or other activity. Third, they have moved cutters to other posts within the companies. Fourth, they promote cutters up the ladder to higher positions. Fifth, they wait for the cutter to retire, and they never replace him.”

None of these strategies are particularly aggressive on the part of the sugar mills, and seem to indicate a respect for the population that currently earns its living from this livelihood. What is clear is that the land use dedicated to growing sugarcane is increasing, and the number of cane cutters is clearly decreasing. According to Claudia Calero, the director of Environmental Management for the Association of Sugarcane Growers (ASOCAÑA), there are a total of 205,000 hectares (2,050 square kilometers or 791 square miles) that are dedicated solely to sugar cane production in this region. Needless to say, harvesting is a major ordeal.

Calero also made the point that the sugar mills are reaching the point at which they cannot use more machines to harvest the sugar cane. There are three limiting factors that necessitate the existence of machete swinging cane cutters: a machine cannot be used on land that is sloping to a certain degree; they cannot be used in properties whose soil is too soft as they compact it and make the cultivation impossible; if there are too many rocks in the field, a machine cannot be employed for the harvest as it will end up being damaged. “At the moment, the land that has been adapted for the use of sugar cane harvesters is 50%, and currently we use machines to harvest in 42% of the area.”

One of the sugar mills where the cane ends up, regardless of whether is was harvested by machete or machine.

Is it wrong for an industry to replace people with machines? Evidently not, since technology has benefited production processes for centuries. Is it wrong to phase out a job that is back-breaking and hazardous? Obviously not. The question is, will the sugar mills continue to respect the rights of the men and women who work as cane cutters, and will there be new opportunities for the communities in this region that have depended on this source of labor for decades? As this job slowly declines into non-existence, it can only be hoped that the answer to both of those questions is yes.