Hanging Out With The Lustrabotas

27 Aug, 2010 | Deborah Bender

Social issues

The lustrabotas are the young boys who offer to shine your shoes on the streets of La Paz. You will also find them running to your side with their shoeshine kit if you chance to sit on a bench in one of the city’s many open, airy plazas. 

Some of the lustrabotas wear balaclavas; others don’t. Some say that these masks serve as protection against the winter’s chill, an understandable reaction to the bitter La Paz winter.

More often, however, the youth themselves will tell you that they wear a mask so as to hide their identity from family or friends. One lustrabota, in his early twenties, told us that he was still going to school and he didn’t want his classmates to know that he worked at shining shoes. Another said that he has told his family that he works as an assistant in a hardware shop. Whatever else it may be, it is clear that shining shoes on the streets is looked down upon as an occupation.


Bolivian Express has a collaborative relationship with Hormigón Armado, a non-governmental organization whose members work with the Lustrabotas. Each Saturday, one or more Bolivian Express members meet with the lustrabotas at the “Fundación Arte y Cultura Boliviana” on Calle Ecuador. During this past month, we held writing and photography workshops with the boys. Each youth wrote a story about a favorite memory and a brief autobiography. During one workshop, local photographers demonstrated how to take photographs using a digital camera. They also discussed photo-portraits with the boys. In the accompanying photographs you can see the lustrabotas’ photographic work, creating portraits of each other.

There are many warnings and cautions about the lustrabotas. Many will tell you that the boys are “cleferos” – that is, glue sniffers. Others will tell you to watch out, as they will be the first to pick your pockets.

Certainly, the boys know how to negotiate to get their needs met. But usually a firm “No” or “No, thank you” will suffice. The cautions are however, not entirely unwarranted – some shoeshine boys undoubtedly sniff glue, to alleviate symptoms of hunger or because they are encouraged to commit trampas by other boys.

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For the most part, however, the boys that I met with each Saturday at the Bolivian Express –Hormigón Armado workshops had more to teach me than I could have taught them.

From them I learned that while mathematics and languages may be preferred by one or another, recreo is every boy’s favorite subject. I learned, too, that the laughter of the boys is universal and infectious. In short, I discovered that the lustrabotas are quite like other boys of their age; conditions of poverty may change outward appearances, but they each have hopes and dreams, just like boys and youth in every corner of the world.

During the upcoming months, Bolivian Express members will continue to meet with the lustrabotas. At their request, the focus will be on learning English.

Those who work near the entrances to the fancy hotels already know quite a few phrases, as they ask their English-speaking clients to help them with the language. Beyond their threateningly masked exterior, the boys I worked with revealed themselves to be fun-loving young people with admirable ambitions and a zest for learning that is veritably entrepreneurial, the third and most important lesson I learned during my too short stay in La Paz.

Lutra A

“I was born in La Paz and I grew up here. I’m 11 and I study at ‘20 de Octubre 1’. I live in El Alto with my mother and my three sisters. At school, my favourite day is Thursday and my favourite subjects are languages and playtime. If I had 100 pesos, I would buy clothes and trainers.”
Juan Ignacio

Lustra B

“I was born in La paz, but I grew up in Caranvi. I am ten. I live with my mum and my dad and my brother and I live in up in the deep inside in El Alto. I am at school and I like to study. The subject I like best is maths and playtime. If someone gave me a 100bolivianos as a present, I would do lots of things with them, especially get food and clothes.”

Lustra C

“I was born in Caranavi but I grew up in La Paz. I am twelve years old. I am in 6th grade. I live with my cousins and my uncles. In school my favourite subject is maths and I don’t like languages. I like playtime.”


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