By Sylvan Hardy
No one is quite sure how Luis Caldas earned the title of “Governor.”
It might be because he shined the shoes of the governors of Azuay Province, as well as those of presidents and mayors. It might be because his shoeshine stand, on the east side of Parque Calderon, was within sight of the governor’s office at the corner of Luis Cordero and Simon Bolivar. It might also be because of his encyclopedic knowledge of history and current affairs.
Caldas died last Thursday, aged 85, just two weeks after shining his last pair of shoes. He had shined his first pair, in almost the same location, in 1947.
According to historian Carmen Lucia Cordero López, Caldas was as much an icon of Cuenca as Panama hats and the Chola Cuencana. “He was a true institution and, at one time, almost everyone in Cuenca knew him,” she says. “He was truly an outstanding human being, full of kindness and knowledge, a simple Cuencano, a simple hero.”
According to Cordero, Caldas had his finger on the pulse of the city. “He worked only steps from the governor’s and mayor’s offices and when he shined their shoes, they told him the news of the day,” she said. “They also shared with him their private frustrations and worries.”
Caldas also had a front-row seat to the political and social protests in Parque Calderon, and came to know the issues and the protagonists. On more than one occasion over the years, he had to move downwind when police dispersed protesters with tear gas.
Most impressive of all, says Cordero, was the care Caldas took with his work. Whether he shined the shoes of governors or poor campesinos, the quality was always excellent. “He took more time than the other shoeshine men, cleaning and polishing the spots the others missed,” she said. “Shining each pair of shoes, no matter how fancy or humble they were, was an act of devotion for Luis.”
Cordero added: “Parque Calderon will not be the same without him.”