Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Sandalmaking in Bolivia

              In the late '60s I taught sandal making at the Orphanage of Archbishop Daniel Rivero In Santa Cruz de La Sierra, Bolivia. The local Bishop wanted access to free American teachers through Peace Corps Volunteers, so the Father Superior invited me to teach shoemaking. I blithely said "sure, but I'll need to get some experience first". He said "Fine, class starts in a week".

              So I sat in at a shoe repair shop and Sandalaria to learn the trade. There was/is a huge amount of class distinction in Bolivia (think of France in the 1780's with Che Guevara hiding in the bushes). I found I was fairly immune from upper class prejudice, but not from lower classes. The Kolla (Koylla: Quechua highlander) shoe shop could only see me as a white "Patron", and were somewhat contemptuous, but I got the basics anyway. I traded teaching them some phrases in english for learning to make sandals and the art of 19th century Cobblery using lasts, shoe nails, and double stitching with a boar whiskers for needles. They were kind of frustrated with me because I spent more time asking about shoemaking than teaching english. The phrases were things like "how do you do" and "please buy this", and counting to 10 in english, which they could already do. (Bolivians resist change)

              I learned to make leather Abarca sandals with rubber tire soles, eventually selling them to support myself on and off for 20 years till nylon cord reinforcement was replaced by fiberglass and steel which made wearing them impractical. The reinforcement is hard to cut and a misplaced step, brushing your opposite foot, could cause a serious cut from the saw-like ends of the metal or fiber-glass that protrude from the edge. The most durable sandals ever made are Abarcas constructed entirely from rubber tires. People who wear them swear by them, but in my opinion, compared to leather, they dont break in so much as wear out your feet till you get properly callused, but then they last forever. The camposinos (rural folks = red-necks) actually buy used truck tires from the oil companies and filet the usable part from the reinforcing cords into layers like split grain leather. My own opinion is that by the time you get the right calluses, you could have gone barefoot and achieved the same thing, but the convention of shoes is what distinguishes humans and is not to be trifled by reason (though I admit: hookworms find them impenetrable).

              Fitting into local politics at the Orphanage had a steep learning curve. The Father superior was (to put it clearly), a Stiff-Assed Old Son of a Bitch. Everyone called him "El Viejito", The Little Old Man. He was immensely and acutely condescending and authoritarian. His idea of a cultural treat was (rather than take the kids fishing) to play scratchy 1930's records on the PA system of an unaccompanied Argentine opera singer praising Mother Mary, keeping time slapping her palm with a ruler as she shattered wine glasses with her voice.

              El Viejito had personal issues with everyone there and I was no exception. I'd love to feed the fires under him, but wherever he is now, I'm sure he has enough to worry about. In a way, he succeeded as headmaster because opposition to him was a major unifying force between the brothers, students, workers, and neighbors. He survived because he was the father confessor so he knew where the bodies were buried. Any conversation with him was rife with innuendo and the subtile implication of extortion. But I wasn't Catholic, and had no intention of confessing anything to him, so the lack of leverage must have driven him crazy. Whenever there was some disagreement, someone would make a crack about El Viejito and our meagre problems would seem inconsequential.

              To be fair, the Orphanage was supposed to be self supporting and it often wasn't. Not all of the students were orphans, some came from rural families who couldn't commute (no bus system), so they paid for tuition and housing. Various shops facing the street were rented out in partial trade for teaching students those skills (a printer, shoemaker, cabinetmaker, baker). The parish picked up the slack through tithes, and the Viejito's neck was always on the block to make ends meet.

Orphanage of Archbishop Daniel Rivero

              The teacher I replaced as shoemaking instructor was Mamerto Pedrasa, who's secret identity was a National Hero of the Chaco War, and in fact he was. The Father Superior said Mamerto wasn't coming back and I could clean up his shop and use the tools. Everything had rust, nothing worked, the sewing machines were broken, the knives were dull, and the textbooks were from 1920. Mamerto had paper patterns for shoe designs 20 to 50 years old. Some were incomplete and in tatters, so I tossed them. Then a week later Mamerto came home and wanted his old job back. He was kind of miffed that his patterns had been discarded, but he preferred to blame the Father Superior instead of me. There was some schadenfreude between them, each was posturing righteously and silently telling the other "see what YOU caused".

              Mamerto was pretty cool for being as paranoid as he was. I doubt if he's still alive, he would be about 105 in 2013, so now his story can be told without repercussions: He confided in me one afternoon on a bench in the Plaza while Cicadas screamed in the trees overhead like tiny chainsaws.

              It was his driving belief that Paraguay was out to get him for what he did to them in the 1930's while he was a prisoner of war there. Next to us in the plaza was a war monument built over a mass grave. It had a little window displaying a few bleached bones of the martyrs who defended Santa Cruz. I asked if he knew any of the people in the window. He said maybe a few.

              In the Chaco War, the Bolivian high command were (said to be) pompous bureaucrats while the Paraguayans were mostly Guarani farmers. They completely wiped the Bolivians even though Paraguay was out manned, out gunned, and out financed, because of stubbornly obtuse Good-Ol'-Boy Bolivian generals. Mamerto's company was stranded in the Gran Chaco during the dry season when the Paraguayans cut the Bolivian supply lines. The air temperature was over 100 degF. His company had to split up to forage and lived on Cacao beans (Saint Johns Bread), insects, and raw Iguanas. The only moisture they could get was from ants and lizard blood, so they all became seriously dehydrated, their piss turned black, and many died of thirst. The CO surrendered to save their lives, but was reviled by armchair hawks in Sucre. As POWs they were taken by train to a concentration camp in Paraguay and put to work in support of the Paraguayan's war effort. Before the war, Mamerto had made finely tooled leather shoes and purses for women, so his camp job was to decorate fancy pistol belts for Paraguayan officers. From this position Mamerto decimated the Paraguayan Officers Corp. which earned him so much credit with the Bolivian Military that he could draw on it for the rest of his life. He was more effective than Sargent York or the Red Baron ever were, and his targets were selectively the most critically influential people in the army.

              His technique was to use leather dye and chemicals stolen from the POW camp pharmacy to make mercury iodide. He painted it on the inside of his pistol belts where they press over the kidneys. He made between 60 and 80 belts all destined for Generals, Captains, and Lieutenants riding horses and sweating in the hot sun. When heated, the chemicals were absorbed through the clothing over their kidneys, their kidneys failed, and they died. The Army kept promoting new officers, who sometimes inherited the pistol belts, and they died too. They knew something was poisoning officers, but no one made the connection to Mamerto. Army officers on both sides came from the more connected classes, so it was actually not unrealistic to think someone might put a vendetta against him if word got back. I asked the Brothers if that was true and they said it was an exaggeration, actually it was more like around 40 or 50 belts.

              I never went to Mamerto's house, he never invited me and because he was suspicious of almost everyone, I certainly didn't ask. I can imagine it would have been throughly booby trapped and have enough escape routs to satisfy any drug lord, because I found one of his traps inside the shoe shop classroom. The Brothers of LaSalle wouldn't let him keep a gun at the orphanage, so he booby trapped a tall rickety cabinet used for books and leather. In the back of the top shelf Mamerto kept a 1/2 gallon glass jug of sulfuric acid next to a 5 pound cardboard canister of potassium cyanide. When I asked him about it, he explained it was in case commandos showed up unexpectedly, he would tip the cabinet over and duck out the back door into the chapel. The jug and cardboard canister would smash on the floor and mix to release cyanide gas. I said "Ok fine, but tell me before you tip it". He said "They won't come when you're here, you're my guardian angel", because as a Peace Corps Volunteer working for the government of Gringolandia, it was plausible that I had connections which the Paraguayans wouldn't provoke. Mamerto apparently decided to trust me, partly I think because we shared a contempt for the Viejito's hypocrisy (though most everybody except the kids did too) and because I kept his trap secret and didn't blab. But I did squirt glue into the cabinets loose joints when he wasn't there so it wouldn't sway around so easily, and I put wedges under the front legs so it would lean back more against the wall, but they were gone a few days later.

              As I fit into the schedule at the orphanage, it became apparent that Mamerto didn't do much, he was in fact also a genius at finding ways to not do anything. His job was mostly guaranteed for being a hero, so he could screw off whenever he thought maybe the hit men were closing in. He would be equal to Wally, from Scott Adam's comic strip Dilbert. I really liked the guy, because everyone believed he was loco, but nobody would dare to cross him. The term "Mad as a Hatter", like the one in Alice in Wonderland was because of the effects of Mercury, and Mamerto had used it a lot. His sewing machines had been unusable for years, because the springs were broken, and the parts were obsolete. He worried that he'd have to perform when I replaced them with rubber strips so something in the shop would work. After a few weeks though, Mamerto exerted himself to the position of class instructor. I think partially to reascend from the second place he was forced to take until it became apparent that I didn't know zip about shoemaking and couldn't seriously rock the boat.

              To be useful, I tried to develop their market w/ wallets and "Hand Stitched Trinkets Made By Orphans" that would sell to people w/ money, like tourists. I made a display case and got some of the brothers to wear their white robes to present it to the concessions people at the airport. The brothers liked the case as a "thing" that they could refer to to prove their worthiness. But like giving a Harley to a 4 yr old, the underlying function was beyond their actual need. So nobody bothered to keep it supplied with merchandise, because nobody had a car, taxis were expensive, and if everyone did nothing as a team, the bar for effort would never be raised. Any effort of mine was mostly unnecessary though because my presence had accomplished what the Viejito had set out to do which was to keep the shoe shop running and kick Mamerto's butt back into gear.

              I truly liked Mamerto, I hope he and his girlfriends get a shrine in the Bolivian Hall of Fame. He was probably the most effective operator the Bolivians had in that war. Also, since his secret is out and Chaco War is long over, maybe the Paraguayan government could ask around for any of those pistol belts that might still be kept as family heirlooms. They could still be lethal.

Note: I can't talk about the current structure, but the American Peace Corp no longer functions the way did in the '60s. That's probably a good thing.