LA PAZ – A score of Bolivian women who scrape out a living shining shoes, selling sweets and cleaning windshields on the streets of the capital city of La Paz have now reinvented themselves and become expert pizza-makers.
Relying on local ingredients for the small restaurant they operate through an initiative of the Hormigon Armado organization, they have turned to gastronomy as a means of escaping the severe economic hardships stemming from this year’s coronavirus crisis.
Known as “Laja Pizza,” this pizzeria on La Paz’s south side has been in operation since Nov. 20 at a type of roofed terrace on Hormigon Armado’s premises, where customers are served three days a week in the afternoon hours and can even enjoy film screenings while they eat.
Some of the women had already been involved in earlier initiatives of that organization, whose mission is to help low-income people working in La Paz’s informal sector.
Their main work had involved baking cookies as part of a subsidy program for pregnant women carried out in conjunction with the state-run Bolivian State Enterprise for Almonds (EBA).
The idea for the pizzeria originated late last year, although plans were stalled amid the post-election crisis that was roiling the country at that time.
It then gained fresh impetus when the coronavirus-triggered lockdowns began in March and brought the cookie project to a halt.
The pizzeria now represents opportunity for many of these women in a time of crisis, as well as the hope of being able to leave behind their hand-to-mouth existence.
The women – some of whom carry their small children on their backs in aguayos, multi-colored woven blankets used by indigenous communities in the Andes region – work in six-person shifts to prepare the pizzas and wait on customers.
Angela, who preferred not to give her last name, goes to the pizzeria with two of her three children and carries the smallest on her back while she prepares sauce for the pizzas or readies another of the ingredients.
She said this initiative has provided her an enormous economic lift after spending months trying to eke out a living selling items on the street or washing clothes.
“This gives us hope to carry on because the quarantine, the pandemic, really affected us, and there’s no work,” the young woman told EFE.
In the mornings, Esther Valero puts on her balaclava (cloth headgear) and heads to downtown La Paz to shine shoes. But she also decided to join the “Laja Pizza” initiative after an Hormigon Armado tourist guide project she had been participating in also was put on hold due to the coronavirus restrictions.
Prepared without yeast – the main leavening agent in dough – and using pan de laja (artisanal flatbread) baked in craft ovens, the pizzas have a distinctive Bolivian taste and run the gamut from the classic varieties to house specialties with a base of llajwa, a spicy sauce traditionally prepared from locotos (hot chili peppers), tomatoes, salt and quirquiña, a typical Bolivian herb.
Hormigon Armado is a Bolivian social project that dates back 15 years and primarily is dedicated to providing assistance to so-called “lustras,” or street shoe-shiners, but also to the homeless population.
The organization offers a wide variety of workshops to more than 130 people, including courses on cooking and health law, and also provides tutoring to their children, its director, Juan Pablo Villalobos, told EFE.
Hormigon Armado raises funds through donations and also receives financing from non-governmental organizations such as Sweden’s LatiCe. But with its benefactors also feeling the economic pinch from the coronavirus crisis, the organization has sought to stay afloat by holding several food fundraisers that have appealed to people’s sense of solidarity.
Among the best-known projects has been the sale of a newspaper produced by the “lustras,” who have published at least eight editions on environmentally friendly paper.