Banquitos are little benches used by shoeshine guys called Lustradores that roam the towns of Guatemala. Because there were so many tourists in my town of Antigua, they were everywhere.
One day as I was walking through the central park of Antigua I realized my work boots were messed up so I decided to get them cleaned and shined. I called a guy over to a park bench where I sat down and waited. He arrived and put his wares on the cobblestone ground and proceeded to get his shine on. Immediately I noticed the little bench that he pulled out to sit on while he shined. It looked old and had a beautiful patina from the boot-black that he used. His hands carried the same deep patina which I’m sure was impossible to remove at this point. He was an older guy relative to the other lustradores who were basically kids. He had deep lines on his face and his clothes were also stained with the boot black and his countenance was more serious and rich with experience than the other kids who were always smiling and messing around. Guatemalans are generally extremely kind and affable and engaging with them was always a pleasant experience. I was trying to figure out a way to comfortably engage with them and realized that creating a project based around what they do for a living would be a great way to enter their story.
When I saw the bench that the gentleman named Luciano Sam sat on while he shined my boots, I realized these were objects of great beauty and rich heritage. The benches were obviously hand made and old, or at least, well used. I told Luciano I would be honored to buy his bench if he was willing to sell it. He said ok and gave me some astronomical price. Guatemalans are shrewd and relentless negotiators and after dealing with their methods, I began to learn how they operated. They always offered a ridiculous price first, why not?. Maybe they would receive the sum from an occasional tourist. But when he offered I just smiled and asked for a better price. We quickly negotiated a fair price (even though I’m sure he got the better of me, they always did) and he handed me the bench after the shine was over. I paid him and thanked him for the conversation, the bench, and the beautiful shine, and he went on his way.
I held my new acquisition in my hands with respect like I was holding an ancient priceless vase. I knew this object was really special. Each banquito is handmade, likely from whatever scrapwood they had laying around, and almost all of them are around 5”x8” and about 6-8” high. But each one is uniquely different depending on the owner. Some have religious symbols scrawled into them, others have stickers or the name of the owner carved into it. One of my favorite lustradores carried a really interesting bench that had his name in colorful foamy letters arranged on the surface.
After buying the first banquito, I soon became obsessed and began strolling the town looking fir lustradores that carried interesting benches. After buying about 20-30 benches I realized that it was time to slow down and think about how to use them.
The most interesting aspect of the “Banquitos” was, of course, the lustradores themselves. Each time I would buy a bench, I would talk to the owner and get his story. They were always forthcoming (maybe bending the truth) and talkative using their smiles and conversational gifts to help sell their service. So I learned a lot about their lives.
The first gentleman, Lucian, who I previously mentioned actually had quite a family strolling the parks of Antigua. I learned this after I approached 4 of his sons on separate occasions. I was surprised to learn there were so many Sams carrying on their fathers work. Each one had a bench that was passed down from one the older brothers and the youngest Sam, Alex, who was about 12, carried a broken bench that was basically a perfunctory that he would soon become a lustradore. I also bought his also. This family rode in by bus or pickup 3-4 hours from their pueblo and they would often sleep in town while conducting their business. They are extremely poor but from most of their attitudes you would never know it. There are also lustradores who have learning disabilities or are obviously deeply worn from a very hard life. I looked forward every day to speaking with them and buying their benches and over time I made friends with some of them, especially the Sam family.
There is always an element of exploitation happening between the poor indigenous population and the well to do tourist or business people. Some of these business owners will try to get the price down to as low as possible without concern for the impoverished condition of the people they are trying to buy from. I always had this concern and fear that I was doing the same thing. But I don’t think so. I was paying them much more than their level of expectation of what they would have sold for. Also, what I paid for the bench was the sum of a total day's work that they would have had to do had I not bought the bench. And they could easily remake the bench for nothing in less than an hour which they often did. I would buy one of their old benches and the next day they would show up with a light and clean bench with crisp cuts. And I enjoyed watching these benches wear with age over the coming months and hoped to buy those benches one day.
Still not knowing what to actually do with the benches, I came up with the idea to have them make new benches in a style any way they wanted to. There were no limits and I mentioned to them that they could be highly adorned, varying colors and materials; anything they wanted and I would pay them double for their new creation. That didn’t work out so well. Either there was something lost in translation or they just couldn’t fathom why they would create a functional object artistically. When one of the Sam’s approached me with a new bench a few days later, it looked almost identical to the previous bench with a subtle shape and material change. I quickly gave up on this idea. One day when I return to Guatemala I’ll try again. I think this idea could be really incredible and I would love to see what they come up with and show them in an exhibition somewhere. Maybe they would sell them and raise a lot of money for their families.
After deliberating on how to create something with these benches, I finally gave up and passed them on to my gallerist in Guatemala City who was extremely adept at presenting work. He came up with the idea of displaying them in a separate room of the gallery and spreading them out in a manner that allowed each one to be appreciated but they all worked together in a unified whole as if they were people in a village. I think the benches were so beautiful that I didn’t want to create something entirely new with them, I just wanted them to highlight their unique energy and their wonderful visual stories.