Shoe polishers Plaza Grande 5

As I’ve written many times before, streets and people working on the streets fascinate me. I’m not such a fan of touristic sights (although the city tour I did with my host Inico in Quito was lovely!), but rather love getting lost in a city, either interacting with locals or observing them and the way they act. This time, what caught my attention in Quito, Ecuador, were the shoe polishers at the Plaza de la Independencia.

Plaza de la Independencia

The Plaza de la Independencia, also known as Plaza Grande, is the main square of Quito, Ecuador. It lies in the old, colonial part of the city, and it is also where the presidential palace, the municipal palace, the metropolitan cathedral, the archbishop’s palace and the Hotel Plaza Grande are located. In the middle of the square, there is a monument dedicated to the fight for independency on the 10th August 1809. This is an important date in the whole history of Latin America, as it is the first fight for independence on the continent.

Shoe polishers Plaza Grande 4

The shoe polishers of Plaza Grande

The shoe polishers at the Plaza de la Independencia are an interesting phenomenon, as they are both an integral part of the everyday of rich Quiteños, and at the same time totally invisible for most people, almost like furniture in a living room. I approached one of these workers and what I ended up with was a very practical account on the everyday of an old, hardworking man.

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Shoe polisher for 62 years

Mr. Luis Calbez has been working as a shoe polisher in Quito for 62 years. Born on the 21st of November 1934, this 82-year-old man started with shoe polishing in his twenties out of necessity and has never stopped since. For nearly 60 years the Plaza Grande has been the scene of his profession, him paying the municipality every month for his little stand under one of the stone passages.

Mr. Calbez works from 8am to 5pm Monday through Saturday. Only on Saturday he goes home at midday. His profession is definitely not a money making machine. On some days Mr. Calbez doesn’t earn even a dollar, on good days he might earn up to 15 USD. In order to make 10 USD, he needs to polish 20 pairs of shoes and for 15 USD, 30 pairs. The polishing of one pair of shoes takes him around 6-7 minutes.

The people who stop to have their shoes polished are, according to Mr. Calbez, mostly office workers, doctors and lawyers. “People who are well off and like to have shiny shoes”, Mr. Calbez describes. “Although the Plaza Grande is an important tourist attraction, nearly all customers are locals”, he adds. Sometimes the clients and Mr. Calbez talk to each other, yet many a times the job is done in silence.

Left without further questions I thank Mr. Calbez for his time and he returns to his newspaper. However, before I go, he kindly asks me for lunch money.

Shoe polishers Plaza Grande

(Mr. Luis Calbez didn’t want his picture taken, thus the empty chairs.)

Written by Sissi Korhonen
Exploring, interpreting and understanding cultures through local languages and people. An advocate for intercultural communication as a basis for diversity acceptance and human equality.