Spend any time walking around Bolivia’s capital city, and you’re sure to witness a curious and initially ominous sight: Men and boys in ski masks and stained clothes are ubiquitous on the sidewalks of La Paz. Especially when you first spot one, or have one walk straight toward you, it can be unsettling if you don’t know who they are or why they look like a mugger.
Not unlike India’s untouchable class, Bolivia’s lustrabotas, or shoeshine boys, live in a world of blatant discrimination and shame. Stuck on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, many are homeless, and they are often harassed by fellow Bolivians. As a result, the tradition of the mask was born.
In 2009, you could volunteer through the Adventure Brew Hostel with a street outreach organization that ran a soup kitchen in El Alto, La Paz’s poorest (and highest) neighborhood. Most of the patrons were lustrabotas, who relished the opportunity for community and a warm meal. Within the confines of this oasis, some even shed their masks. Child-workers shared stories of wearing the disguise so that their schoolmates would not know what they did for a living.
I’m not sure that volunteer program still exists, but the lustrabotas now sell a newspaper called Hormigon Armada (Army of Ants) to raise funds for themselves. You can also apparently volunteer for lustrabota street outreach through an NGO, the Rainbow Foundation. It might be the most heartbreaking, but rewarding and memorable thing you do in Bolivia.