To be a Shoe Shiner

Shoe Shiner

Shoe Shiner Juan in the Chichicastenango Market

The warm light tickles my cheek which lay firmly cemented to a heavy pillow. I strain my eyes to catch the light as my mind makes notice of the aches in the arch of my back and the pain of the soles of my feet which have recently worn through the bottoms of my shoes. I can hear my mother flipping tortillas on the wood stove, I hate tortillas. Potato chips, I think to myself while my mouth begins to burst with saliva, I like potato chips.

I can hear the market beginning to bustle as I know my mom will soon barge in and tell me that its time to eat and go to work. I look across the room at my baby sister who lay perfectly still and unaware of the morning air that has entered the room. She mumbles words as she nibble on the end of her thumb before rolling over to turn her head away from the open window. Soon she’ll have to work as well.  I can’t help but think that soon she’ll have to wake up every Sunday market to earn money so that we can buy flour to make more of mother’s terrible tortillas. Maybe if she works though we’ll be able to afford potato chips from time to time.

My mom enters my room as I quickly shut my eyes in hopes that she hasn’t noticed I’m already awake.

“Levantate mi amor” she says with a sweet voice and a tired tone, “It’s time for work.”

I look down on my hands whose lines are still filled with the residue of shoe polish and wonder if the black that is so prominently featured will ever fade away. Mom hands me a couple tortillas, but I say no politely lying that I am not hungry. Today maybe I can earn enough today to buy some chips or convince a gringo to buy me a bag.

I leave the house with my tools in hand: a small wooden foot stand with a sheet of metal so the gringos know where to put their feet, a brush, a can of black polish and a rag made out of one of my sisters old shirts. Three houses down from mine I stop to get Jose and we continue on together. While walking to the market we recite the words in English that we have learned; gringos only trust people who speak English.

Shoe Shiner

A profile of Juan

Early in the morning it is only local women in the markets, they buy pots, pans, and material to make clothing. They never want their shoes cleaned, and even if they do they pay far too little to make it worth our time. When the gringos start coming in, after they’ve had their late breakfast, that’s when we can start to make our money.

We push our way through the crowds fighting to be noticed as our heads hang around the waist of the gringos. We race around the knees of the giant foreigners with our eyes set on their feet searching for black shoes a rarity among the gringos who seem to always be wearing sandals, which no one wants us to clean. The gringos patiently walk through the markets worried about pushing anyone away, and even more worried about being pushed. They act like we don’t exist, I don’t understand why they can’t just say “buenos dias, no gracias” when we talk to them. They always seem to have wallets and cameras hanging out of their purses and pockets, but I never take one, unless they are rude.

Finally a tall gringo with blond hair allows us to polish his black shoes that have a bright yellow check mark on them and purple. I try my best to be polite and ask him where he is from, he tells me he is Canadian. I don’t know anything about any of these countries except that they are all cold and that gringos love it if you say, “ohhh, mucho frio.” I can’t imagine what it’s like there that makes them always talk about the cold. I’ll bet that’s where penguins come from.

Jose finishes up the shoe that he was working on and the gringo places his giant foot on the metal stand in front. I start by brushing off all the dust and dirt, from the looks of the shoes he has never had them polished before. Afterwards I plaster a little of the polish trying my best not to get any on that check mark or his yellow laces. I wonder how much these shoes cost. I really want new shoes, mine have holes and it hurts my feet to walk, sometimes I just go barefoot. Believe me, I know the irony, a shoe shiner without shoes. Mom tells me that we need to worry about what we really need though which is food.

The gringo chats to us we clean, and doesn’t look as scared as the other ones usually do. He asks us if we have to go to school tomorrow and what our favourite classes are. Jose and I both like math. Actually, we like when we get to play sports, but that’s not a real class. Math helps me with my work because I don’t need to bring a calculator around with me anymore to figure out how much change I have to give back.

When we finish the gringo hands us 20 pesos each, a little less than a dollar, and we race off in search of our next sale. By the day’s end my face is covered black from wiping the sweat from my brow with my polish covered hands; I could probably polish shoe with my hand alone. We’ve had a good day and each earned 120 pesos – a little more than 5 gringo dollars.

On our way home we pass the snack stall covered in bags of potato chips of all varieties; 10 pesos a bag. Gringos stand around it examining the flavours for the one that they want.

“I worked hard today, I deserve one” I think to myself “but, I don’t need one”

I walk through the front gate of our brick house pat my sister on the head and head through the kitchen. I place my earnings on the table and grab a couple of mom’s tortillas from the stove. As I open my school book to my math homework I wonder about where the gringos come from.

“I wonder if kids shine shoes in Canada?” I ponder under my breath. “They must, someone has to do it!”

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

Share This Post On


  1. Nice article & by taking on the perspective of those having to do this for a living it certainly gives one something to ponder aside from what tourists/gringos might often be thinking: “Ah, just another person hassling me again on the street again.”

    Post a Reply
  2. Great narrative post. I love that you did something different and went with another pov…that’s not something you usually see in travel blogs or travel writing.

    Post a Reply
  3. Great post. Your knowledge and style of writing is so detailed and thorough I can practically feel the scene. Keep up the good work!

    Post a Reply
    • @Michelle – Thank you!

      Post a Reply
  4. Brendan, love that this is from the perspective of the child. It’s a very unique view. You’ve really captured his innocence as well as the frustration he experiences.

    Post a Reply
    • @Peggy – Thanks so much, I’m glad you liked this piece!

      Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Want to improve your photography? Subscribe to my Travel Photography YouTube Channel! You will not regret it!

Get a Free Copy of Vagabundo Magazine

Sign up for my newsletter and get a free copy of Vagabundo Magazine. You'll also get information regarding future travel photography workshops. Right now, we're booking for PERU!