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The Oaxacan Shoeshine: A Relaxing and Rejuvenating Treat

an article by author Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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If you're a Wall Street Wizard it might be an integral part of your weekly routine. For the rest of us who have spent most of our lives in an American or Canadian city, we don't think much about getting a shoeshine on the street&ellipsis;too expensive, too busy, or just not something that regular people do. And so naturally when I moved to Oaxaca a couple of years ago, along with me came the best Bar Mitzvah gift I'd received some 42 years ago, still ticking, the electric shoeshine machine. But now it gathers the dust of Juarez.

The Ritual

Young boys will approach while you're sitting at a café on the Zócalo, but they don't appear to have the experience or range of polish colors and other accessories required to enable you to get the most out of the service. Better to stop by one of the seasoned professionals and relax in a chair, feet raised to the optimum working level, and read a page or two from a local daily you'll be offered. If you struggle with your Spanish, ask for Noticias and look for the selection from The Dallas Morning News. It's usually an insert.
With your pant legs raised and sock guards inserted, before going further your purveyor of polishes may ask you to choose, if he's not quite certain that the dye he's selected is right for those dark wine shoes. Then you'll be ready to sit back under the shade of the enormous trees lining Oaxaca's central square or elsewhere closeby to the city's numerous marketplaces, while the balance of the ceremony unfolds.
Dust is briskly brushed off, following which a soapy liquid is applied then dried off with a soft cloth. The shoes are brushed once more, and then dye is applied with at least two different sizes of paint brush&ellipsis;the large for the tops and sides, and then the smaller for the sole edges and creases joining them to the sides. A colored paste is then rubbed on, followed by a clear cream. After a further brushing another layer of transparent cream is applied, and then a good buffing. We're not finished yet. If there is any doubt about the color of the sole edges being correct, remedial measures are taken, to be sure. Are they to be black, or match the shoe tops? Another brushing ensues, then more of the transparent, still yet another brushing, and finally, the last hearty series of buffs. After sock guards are removed and newspaper has been returned, you're ready to stand, look at yourself in the mirror at your feet and pay.

The Economics

At 10 pesos a pop there's no better bargain in town to help you to look and feel better. It's pretty well impossible to resist providing a tip if the ritual has consisted of anywhere close to the foregoing steps. Regardless of your personality type, budget or any other excuse you may come up with to not indulge, if you didn't bring at least one pair of leathers with you, you're missing out, unless you can find at least a couple of strips of cowhide on those runners.

I met my favorite shiner, Pedro (his name has been changed to protect him from la hacienda, the Mexican equivalent to our tax narcs), about a year ago when he was working as an unskilled laborer with aspirations of becoming an apprentice bricklayer. He was earning no more than 150 pesos a day when he could get work. An opportunity arose for him to start a new vocation whereby he could be his own boss and the maker of his financial fate, at least to some extent.
By Oaxacan standards these tradesmen don't do all that badly in terms of eking out a living, considering that the average annual wage in the state according to the most recent figures is about 56,000 pesos.
Pedro works his designated spot daily from about 9 to 6, on the south side of Independencia across from the Museo de Pintores Oaxaqueños, at the Alameda de León. The location and chair are leased from his patron. He's responsible for all the tints, polishes, rags and brushes, and for paying the weekly storage fee to have his tools of the trade secure at night, since he lives in a town perhaps a half hour's bus ride away. Apart from paying for his polishes and related accessories, his costs including stowing at night-time total 675 pesos monthly. This 22 year old entrepreneur grosses on average 150 to 200 pesos per day, working six days, nine hours per, so we can now do the math (gross of 4,546.50, less 675, for a net of 3,871.50 pesos monthly, with a day off, and not working horrific hours). At about 46,500 pesos annually, while below state average, there's the potential for more if evenings are worked&ellipsis;and he's his own boss. However, when was the last time you fessed up to how much you actually earn? Furthermore, if a week arises when Pedro has an opportunity to work elsewhere and make more, all he has to do is tell his boss and his spot will be held for him, without penalty. From the perspective of his lessor, if Pedro is reliable on an ongoing basis, it's better to forego a week's rental income once in a while than lease to someone else who may prove to be less conscientious about fulfilling his contractual obligations. And of course there's always the option of he himself working the spot for the week and retaining the gross.


When in Oaxaca there's always more to do than even the most enlightening of tourist guidebooks can detail.

Author Alvin Starkman (M.A., LL.B.), now a resident Oaxacan, has stopped writing legal briefs in favor articles on topics which really matter. He and wife Arlene operate a unique bed and breakfast, Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast.

This page has been visited times since August 20, 2006.

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