Shoe Shiner Kids Guide City Tours in La Paz, Bolivia

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In a handful of cities in Latin America, I’ve heard the call of child shoe shiners. “Lustre! Lustre!” They approach me with their shoeshine kit, even though I’m wearing clearly un-shine-able sandals or hiking shoes.

La Paz, Bolivia is no different. Here, shoe shining is a go-to street profession for kids who work to get by.

Luckily for some of these lustrabotas (shoe shiner) kids, there’s a resource in La Paz just for them. It’s called Hormigón Armado, a monthly street publication and social project. Always curious about local press, I bought the February 2012 edition of Hormigón Armado from a youngster near El Prado in the city center for 2 Bolivianos (about 30 cents).

Hormigon Armado Newspaper, La Paz, Bolivia
Hormigon Armado Newspaper, La Paz, Bolivia

Hormigón Armado is Spanish-language newspaper packed with great stories and coverage of social issues in La Paz. I read through a collection of essays written by the Hormigón Armado kids on what they’ve learned about their human rights. I read about conservation of Madidi National Park, where I took an Amazon jungle trip of a lifetime. I even found an impressive piece on sustainable tourism in Bolivia.

The most eye-catching page of the newspaper was an ad for Hormigón Tours, “If you want to explore the city in a different way.” For 80 Bolivianos (about $12 USD), you can enjoy a full-day city tour, guided by none other than the Hormigón Armado kids themselves. A half-day costs 50 Bolivianos ($7 USD) and 100% of the proceeds go directly to guides. The tours are in Spanish and you can get in contact by calling their local number or visiting their local office.

I’ve always had reservations about buying anything from enterprising street kids, whether they’re shoe shiners, venders, or street performers. Doesn’t it reinforce their informal livelihoods and keep them out of school? Yes, but it’s never that simple. Every kid is in a different situation within a different context.

Hormigon Kids Selling Newspapers & Shoeshines in La Paz, Bolivia
Hormigon Kids Selling Newspapers & Shoeshines in La Paz, Bolivia

In the case of Hormigón Armado, the project sees the reality of street child labor and confronts it pragmatically. It’s an initiative that was launched in 2005 and funded by La Fundación Arte y Culturas Bolivianas. In the Hormigón Armado office, there’s much more than newspaper publication going on. Staff and volunteers work with 40 hormigones (working street kids). In exchange for keeping the proceeds from newspaper sales and tour guiding, the children are expected to attend workshops that cover topics like human rights, alcoholism, drug addiction, sex education, the environment, self esteem, art, photography, tourism, and first aid.

Extra income and workshops for street kids are a good start, but they still don’t take the place of school. The ultimate goal of Hormigón Armado is to send kids back to the classroom, full-time. So far, they’ve managed to reintegrate four of their hormigones, and one more is enrolled to go back to school later this year. Other successes include a sense of community for the kids, decreased violence in their lives, higher self esteem, and curbing the use of clefa, the glue that La Paz street kids inhale to kill the hunger and pain.

If you’re in La Paz for a day and your Spanish is operational, take a Hormigón Tour. You’ll see the city through the eyes of kids who couldn’t be more familiar with the streets. You’ll get to know them and hear their stories. Best of all, you’ll be contributing to a larger project that brings a little happiness and hope to their lives.

To get in touch with Hormigón Armado, visit the La Fundación Arte y Culturas Bolivianas office on Avenida Ecuador No. 2582, on the corner of Pedro Salazar two blocks from Plaza Espana, or call FACB at 2418151.

You can also contact the guides directly: Hormigón Gonzalo’s number is 72515598 and Hormigón Armando’s number is 2418151.

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