Cabarete Shoeshine Boys Dare to Dream Big

Written by Eva Kristina Knof, Producer of the Film “Shoeshine Boy”

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 scours this street every day in search of willing tourists, who pay him loose pocket change to get their shoes shined. His 14-year old friend Yeuri is happily perched on his wooden shoeshine box beside him, as he solicits each “well-heeled” by-passer courteously.

Pablo has been a shoeshine boy for eight years now, and he takes pride in helping the younger shoeshine boys, or ‘limpiabotas’ to learn the “tricks of the trade”. He also 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.

“It takes me one second to shine a pair of shoes”, he announces proudly, and then corrects himself quickly, laughing: “No, it takes me three seconds!” 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 documentfor 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. According to UNICEF, 15.6% of Dominican minors ages 10 to 17 years do not know how to read or write, and only 25 of every 100 adolescents ages 15 to 17 have been to secondary school.

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.

According to the World Bank’s World Development Report for 1997, 19.9% of the Dominican population survives on less than one dollar a day, as they persist in a situation of extreme poverty.

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 teens to steal my heart through their big bright smiles, equaling only their ambitions for their future. Pablo plans to be an engineer, and Yeuri a big city lawyer.

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