April 27th, 2011: Market Research: Hooking up with local Shoeshine Boys

Living in Cabarete, a charming tourist town on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic has allowed me to have the privilege of peeking into a secret world usually hidden from the average Westerner. I am referring to the world, where shoeshine boys struggle against all hope, supporting their families by working the streets, without having the basic right to education, health care and clean drinking water.

Walking down Cabarete’s busy main street, I am greeted by a smiling 15-year-old Pablo, who has been a shoeshine boy for eight years now, and who takes pride in helping the younger shoeshine boys, or ‘limpiabotas’ to learn the “tricks of the trade”. He has four other siblings who need his support, because his mom is mentally ill and the dad cannot afford to feed the entire family on one paycheck.

He goes on to tell me that he is not able to attend school, because his family cannot afford to apply for his birth certificate, which is a mandatory document for school attendance past the fifth grade in the DR. At 15 years old, he is not sure of his date of birth and has never celebrated his birthday. Sadly, he is one of the many thousand illiterate teens living on this paradise island, who eke out a meager existence by shining shoes of the more privileged.

Yeuri has six siblings, no father, and his mom just had surgery, so he carries an adult-size burden on his narrow shoulders – what little money he earns, he takes home to his family. If he does not work, his family does not eat. His fee is $15 pesos for small shoes, and $20 for the bigger ones. His bright eyes and baby cheeks reflect innocence, yet his words reveal a child far beyond his teen years.

I bought the boys lunch in exchange for a friendly conversation and a few photos. My generous offering of a chicken breast, rice and salad makes quite an impression on them, yet, they still manage to share some with a skinny street dog, and ask for the rest to be packed up for their friends to eat later. It did not take long for these boys to steal my heart through their big bright smiles, equaling only their ambitions for their future and I was now more than ever committed to bringing awareness to some serious social issues through our film.