Boys of the Streets

Jillian Koopman
February 01, 2005

Lori Zimmaro

Lori Zimmaro traveled to the Dominican Republic to meet the limpiabotas. These small boys shine the shoes of businessmen for 10 pesos, or about 25 cents. According to a National Survey of Child Labor taken by the Dominican government, about 18 percent of Dominican children between the ages of five and 17 are employed. "They should be playing," says Zimmaro, "but instead they're working."

"Limpiabotas," Lori Zimmaro said slowly, folding her long legs Indian-style on her blue comforter. Her voice resonated off the high walls of her bedroom. She pulled her short, blond hair into a ponytail, her blue eyes sparkling.

"Oh right!" I exclaimed at last. "Limpia-botas! I get it! Spanish for 'cleans shoes'!"

Zimmaro sprang off her bed, laughing, and stood before me. "They have this little box with a handle, a scrubber brush and some polish inside, and they just walk around the streets all day." She grasped an imaginary box and walked around the room. "Some of them have a paint can they use for a seat. People just hail them over —pssssst!—with a finger. The whole thing only takes about two minutes."

"Basically," said Zimmaro, hauling two oversized photo albums onto her bed, "I just wanted to know, 'who was a limpiabota?'"

Zimmaro first heard of the Dominican Republic back in high school, in Abington, Pennsylvania. Her Spanish teacher there was a frequent visitor to the tiny island country, and spoke often about his experiences there. She remembered his enthusiasm years later when, after returning to Penn State after a semester in Salamanca, Spain, she decided to pursue a second semester abroad. Accepted into a study-abroad program for the spring of 2004, she flew to the capital city of Santo Domingo.

"The Dominican Republic is a country full of extreme contrasts," she said, her eyes darting over photos of shimmering beaches beneath aquamarine skies. "There's just this absolute, physical beauty. . . but nowhere can you avoid the extreme poverty."

Upon arriving, Zimmaro found herself thrust into the heart of a pulsing, restless city. She trekked daily through crowded, and often extremely dirty, streets. ("I would blow my nose at night and it would be black!") She braced herself against a constant flow of piropas, or catcalls, sensitive to her high visibility as a pale-skinned young American in a country comprised almost entirely of people of color. The warmth and openness of Dominicans, however, helped her to quickly overcome feelings of intimidation.

"I'd be sitting on a bench, reading a book," she explained, "and the person sitting next to me would comment on it. Not just, 'Oh, that looks interesting,' but actually start to read it and ask me what I thought about a certain passage."

blue cartoon of shoes

One of the other things Zimmaro quickly noticed was the small boys—limpiabotas—who shined the shoes of hurried businessmen for 10 pesos, or around 25 cents. Many appearing no older than 7 or 8, these boys roamed the sweltering streets for long hours each day, looking for customers. Their profusion, and the city's apparent disregard for them, jarred her. "They have these great big smiles, ratty clothes...dirty all the time and visibly hungry," she said. "They should be playing, but instead they're working."

As part of her study-abroad experience, Zimmaro took advantage of a service pasantía, or internship, offered as a way for students to get involved with local organizations. She worked in an AIDS orphanage, where she taught classes one day a week. By the end of her stay, she knew she would be returning to the Domician Republic. "I thought to myself, 'this is not a place I'll be leaving forever.'"

In particular, her brief encounters with the limpiabotas had filled her with questions—about the lives of these boys, the families they had come from, and the economic conditions that gave rise to them. Two weeks before she flew home, Zimmaro applied for a research grant from the Schreyer Honors College that would enable her to return to explore these questions. Three months later, she found herself once again on a plane bound for Santo Domingo.

According to a National Survey of Child Labor undertaken by the Dominican government, roughly 18 percent of Dominican children between the ages of 5 and 17 are employed, Zimmaro found. Children between the ages of ten and fourteen comprise 5 percent of the country's total work force.

Although she had researched the scope of child labor before her return, Lori chose not to contact local outreach organizations until after she had spoken with the boys. "I wanted to hear their stories first," she said. She didn't start working with faculty advisors until she had returned to the U.S.

Zimmaro spoke daily with limpiabotas for the duration of her week-long stay. "I pretty much just made it up as I went along," she said of her ethnographic technique. "I'd sit up every night and think of questions. In the morning, I'd grab some breakfast, get my notebook, and hit the streets for the rest of the day. I'd buy the boys a banana or some treat and ask them about their lives."

Most limpiabotas start around age 9 or 10, she found, and continue their work for anywhere from two to five years. They work several hours a day during the week, either before or after classes at their public school, as well as most of the weekend.

Originally assuming that their parents had sent them onto the streets, Zimmaro found the opposite to be true. "They wanted to do it themselves," she said. "For these boys who live in such extreme poverty, there's a sense of pride in being able to bring something home."

Most of the boys she interviewed gave the money they earned to their parents. The fortunate ones got a small weekly stipend, usually about fifty pesos, or roughly one dollar, which they used to buy shoes, notebooks, or food. "When I asked some of the boys how they spent their money," Zimmaro later wrote, "one of the older ones responded 'lo como,' which literally translates into, 'I eat it.'"

She heard stories of abuse, both at home and on the street: fights with other limpiabotas, beatings from older boys who took their money, angry customers shattering their supplies, and men who invited them back to their homes and robbed them of even their clothes. Their fear of police officers was palpable, and she remembered the way their eyes constantly scanned the streets as she spoke to them.

Zimmaro was astonished to find that despite the harsh lives these boys led, their hope was far from extinguished. "All of them thought an education was important, all of them wanted to graduate from high school," she remembered, eyes widening. "They all wanted to become doctors and lawyers and engineers, and it's just . . . " Her voice softened. "They have so many obstacles."

girl smiles at camera and shines shoe
James Collins

Zimmaro continues to compile the data she collected in Santo Domingo, and plans to return to the area soon.

After speaking with the boys, Zimmaro investigated local programs designed to help them. She visited Muchachos y Muchachas con Don Basco, a non-profit organization for children run by the Silesian order of the Catholic church. Throughout the Dominican Republic, Don Basco centers offer education, skills training, and spiritual and moral guidance.

At the Don Basco center in Santo Domingo, Zimmaro met Deborah Greebon, an American Peace Corps volunteer and head of a "sala de tareas," an after-school tutoring and activity center. Greebon, Zimmaro said, spoke of the violence, abuse, and extreme hunger suffered by most of the limpiabotas, and of the damaging psychological and emotional consequences of their lifestyle. She also explained how specific Don Basco programs, such as one called Canillitas, offer them a support network by fostering healthy relationships with adult mentors.

Currently enrolled in an integrated undergraduate-graduate degree program at Penn State, Zimmaro is still compiling the data she collected in Santo Domingo. She is working with Leif Jensen, director of the Population Resource Institute and professor of community and economic development, and Ralph Rodriguez, assistant professor of English and comparative literature, and hopes to publish all or part of her honors thesis, "Limpiabotas—Phantoms of the Street," as a way to publicize the boys' plight.

In a second thesis, Zimmaro intends to evaluate the effectiveness of the Don Basco programs she observed, perhaps creating a model for other outreach groups. She is currently planning another trip to Santo Domingo.

"As an English major," she told me, "I do a ton of reading and writing, but sometimes I feel like I'm not doing anything." She smiled as she began flipping again through her photo albums.

"With this, I feel like I'm doing something real and concrete—something good."

Lori Zimmaro is a senior in the Schreyer Honors College majoring in English and Spanish; Jillian Koopman is a former Research/Penn State intern currently studying in Spain.

Last Updated January 10, 2014