Cobbling a Life: Adelante Shoe Co.

(All Adelante photos here taken by Kyle Hilken)

Sometimes you spend so much time thinking about the perfect constellation of words to describe your thoughts that you end up in deep space - an empty vortex surrounded by quiet nothingness.

It’s a peaceful place where you float between allegories and ride atop portmanteaus. But alas, it is a journey without direction. A quest without end.

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Every once in a great while, when you’ve approached the limits of expansion and you’re all but certain that, despite your free, weightless existence, you will soon meet your own end, something miraculous happens. An illusion - no, wait, that’s a real human! - comes crashing into your orbitless trajectory on the wings of simplicity and just says it; so effortlessly what you’ve been trying to say that it’s frustrating - up until the point that you realize you’ve been saved from your own oblivion.

So it went with Rolando, one of the skilled craftsmen and unbeknownst philosophers working for Adelante Shoe Company in Pastores, Guatemala.

“I think that everybody has a story to tell. For all of our lives - every single one of us. If you get close to someone, you’ll learn their story, because they’ve had their own life full of experiences. We’ve got something to share. Something different happens to all of us. We’ve all got feeling, we’ve all got a heart,” Rolando recited with a sage-like wisdom as we sat cross-legged on the lawn of Adelante’s cobbler shop. 

It’s a concept that I’d been dancing with for months. What is story, and why does it matter? Hundreds upon hundreds of books, articles, and blog posts have been written about this. And there Rolando said it so concisely. We’ve all got feeling. We’ve all got a heart. It’s that of ourselves which we see in others - our distant but shared experiences - that makes story powerful. So, on the heels of his proclamation, Rolando told us his own story.

***

Rolando lives most of the way up a steep, cobbled alley on the edges of Pastores. His home - a modest construction of wood, concrete, and corrugated metal - is surrounded by an immaculate arrangement of soft, pink frangipani and white orchids. It’s the work of his mother, a teacup-sized woman with brilliantly white hair dashed with streaks of black.

The two share the home’s lone room, beds within an arm’s reach, just as they have for nearly 30 years. She cooks breakfast for Rolando each morning - handmade corn tortillas with beans and a cup of sweet barley tea - which they share over a card table stationed at the foot of their beds.

“I don’t drink coffee,” Rolando says. “It makes me anxious.” Rolando pulls off his hat and points to the patches of gray encroaching on his naturally black hair.

Rolando’s sewing machine, something out of a mid-century museum, shines beneath the glow of a fluorescent bulb on the home’s porch. This, along with a plastic stool and table pressed against the home’s exterior, has constituted Rolando’s home office since his teenage years.

***

Rolando is a shoe cobbler in a place that is famous for shoe cobblers. Pastores, a sleepy town of less than 4,000, is world-renowned for its handmade leather boots. The last 40 years have seen it transform from a small farming community to an international destination, streets lined with shops selling wildly-pointed cowboy boots and women’s knee-highs.

Despite the popularity of Pastores’ boot industry, however, many of the town’s cobblers struggle with meager wages and an isolated work environment.

“My first job, it paid me four quetzales per week,” Rolando says with a laugh. He was barely ten years old at the time, but that comes out to about 50 cents U.S.

Most men (it is an industry overwhelmingly populated by men) have a home workshop where sellers will commission them to make a pair of boots. But a boot is pieced together like a car door on the assembly line. Each man has his specific task - sewing, sole construction, leather treatment - that is completed independent of the others.

It’s an unstructured and secluded operation that leaves cobblers searching for other ways to fill the voids; a quest that frequently ends with hazy afternoons staring at the bottom of a liquor bottle.

Rolando, however, was able to avoid the entrapments of his Pastores colleagues by finding solace in the company of his mother. For each night that he sat beneath the harsh fluorescent light, she stood by him. When he woke each morning, he could hear the trickling of water filling a teapot outside the thin walls of their home.

It’s been a difficult journey for them - uncertain where the next meal might come from, whether they’d stay dry during a torrential Guatemalan downpour - but each relied on the other as a pillar to bear the pantheonic weight.

Rolando recalls the effect that their separation had when he first started working at Adelante, “At first she was really worried about being alone because we spent so much together. We were always together. Now I eat breakfast alone, eat lunch separately…we only have dinner together. It was really taking a toll on her - she was crying. But now she’s used to it and so am I.”

As Rolando explains, however, it was not always this way.

***

“This is the reason I needed to work. It was just me and my mom living together when I was nine years old - this is really the first time I even met her. Before that I didn’t know her. She left me somewhere else,” Rolando tells us, “There was another family watching over me during that time, but I always wanted to meet her - I was always looking for her. I thought things would be better.”

Despite living within a few miles of one other in Pastores, Rolando did not live with his mother until young adolescence. He would see her once every two years, at most.

While she made a home with his older brother, Rolando lived across town with family friends. Even to this day, Rolando extenuates the circumstance.

“As it always goes with families - well maybe not all families - when there’s more than one kid, there’s always one who is the favorite, who’s going to get the trust and affection of the parents. In my case, my brother had all the support from my mom,” Rolando says.

Undoubtedly, it was a confusing and lonely time in Rolando’s life. And then, when he was nine years old, Rolando’s older brother passed away.

As death has a habit of doing, it reunited Rolando and his mother. But this was not to be a reunion of lost but kindred spirits. After the death of her first son and with Rolando’s father long out the picture, Rolando’s mother was without financial means. So she turned to the son whom she had neglected for the previous nine years.

“My mom told me that I needed to work - that I had to be able to do this,” he says.

For Rolando, it didn’t matter. He had been so fervently searching and longing for his mother that the circumstances which brought them back together passed over him with invisibility.

It was at this time that Rolando learned the craft of shoemaking.

“(My mom) found a man. He was really old - like 50 or 60 - and he taught me how to make shoes over the course of two years,” Rolando explains. “He taught me how to use the machines, how to construct the boots - and he opened doors for me.”

After the two-year apprenticeship, Rolando started making boots on his own. He went from making four quetzales per week to 180 - a change that did not absolve him from hardship, but helped him survive. Rolando, of course, gave each of the 180 quetzales to his mother, but to him, this did not matter. He loved making shoes, and the closeness, if only in proximity, to his mother, was enough.

***

“All these different people - bricklayers, potters, carpenters, shoemakers - we’re all artists,” Rolando says as we gather around the sewing machine from which hundreds of boots have been born. “(Shoemaking) is something you can be passionate about - to be able to work with the the different leathers, different materials - to be able to make all the different designs and styles.”

Rolando dedicated his life to shoemaking, every stitch sewn with care. But as the life of an artist often goes, it was accompanied by struggle. He bounced between shops and supplemented that small income with money earned from in-home commissions.

“Since we’ve been living here, there have been three times when they’ve tried to evict us,” Rolando explains. “It was always a struggle to pay the rent.” He continues, “But sometimes we have to keep doing what we’re doing, we have to keep fighting.”

Without a doubt, Rolando is a fighter. For more than twenty years, he’s supported both his mother and himself, unwavering in the face of uncertainty.

And regardless of how callous the beginnings of his relationship with his mother may seem, it is clear that she kept him from wilting.

“For her I work. I don’t have a wife, I don’t have kids,” Rolando says, “She’s the reason I keep looking for ways to improve my life.”

It’s the type of relationship that, no matter how far you think you can fall, the other person will keep you from hitting the floor with the depth of a stare - an unspoken ritual that occurs over and over again.

***

After sharing tea and tortillas with his mother, Rolando heads out. It’s a few minutes before 8:00 am, and the cool Guatemalan earth eagerly awaits its first touch of sun. Rolando glides down the steep alley and out onto Pastores’ main drag, swiftly passing the shops filled with cowboy and high-heeled boots.

When he rolls up to Adelante, Rolando daps each of the other 20 cobbler settling into their work stations - closed fist bumps, high and low fives, a few knocking of elbows.

Shortly thereafter, Adelante’s workshop manager, Horacio, gives one of his patented pump-up speeches surrounded by cobblers and staffers.

It’s been a short seven months since Rolando has started working at Adelante, but his situation is markedly different.

Where his days were previously occupied with the uncertainty, they are now filled with the security of a paycheck. Where his mornings and afternoons were spent in silence at the sewing table, they now overflow with Marimba music blasting from transistor radios and friends shouting to each other from across the workshop.

Rolando makes $825 quetzales per week at Adelante. He was able to buy his mom a pair shoes for the first time in years, and instead of wondering whether he’ll be able to pay rent on time, is planning improvements for his house.

For the first time in his life, Rolando has private healthcare and a savings account, both set up through Adelante.

***

Adelante crafts custom boots, wintips, and loafers made in the Pastores workshop for an international clientele. The company sells its products online and has a brick and mortar shop in Boston.

Adelante operates under the Living Well Line, a social impact methodology developed by Peter Sacco and Bob Mott aimed to improve the lives of underserved communities across the world.

The wage that Rolando and the other cobblers earn is based on what Living Well determines to be commensurate with the cost of food, housing, and other living expenses in Pastores.

For Rolando, it’s the more than just a salary.

“It’s changed my life. I can relax a bit more. I can rest my mind. We all think about so many things, right?” Rolando asks rhetorically. He has endured a lifetime of questions.

***

As for Rolando’s imparting wisdom, I was struck by how it approached the subject not from how a story might be told, but instead how it is heard.

I think we all stand to gain a little bit by searching the commonalities between one another as opposed to the differences. Or maybe, how can I see some of myself in the story of another? We’re all human, after all.