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Working: A Shoe-shine Girl from Brazil - 2002-04-18


English Feature #7-33318 Broadcast January 15, 2001

Today on New American Voices we continue our series on immigrants to the United States talking about their jobs with Paola Adorno Bernardez, a shoe-shine girl.

Like any city, Washington D.C. has its share of shoe shiners. However, not many of them are tall, slender, stylishly dressed young women with flowing dark hair and a touch of makeup. Paola Adorno Bernardez, who came to the United States from Brazil not quite two years ago, looks like a college student - which is what she would like to be. And that's why she's shining shoes.

"I really want to go to college here, that was my dream since I was a child, so when I was eighteen I started thinking about the idea of coming to the U.S., and so in July of 1998 I just came…"

Ms Bernardez, who is now twenty-two, came to the United States on a student visa. Subsequently she won the diversity visa lottery, and now has a green card. She spent the first ten months in America living with her uncle, earning some money by baby-sitting, and studying English.

"So I finally asked my uncle for a job, and he was the owner of this company, and he said, well, if you have English already, if your English is all that good, so you should start shining shoes. It's going to help you to make some extra money to pay college and get your own place. And now I'm doing [making] enough - how can I tell you - to pay my bills and save some money to go to college."

Ms Bernardez's work station is a polished wooden stand with four high seats and brass foot rests. It's in the lobby of one of the many government buildings in the heart of Washington, just past the guards and the metal detectors. Ms. Bernardez says the going rate for shoe shines is three dollars and fifty cents, but her customers usually leave an additional - and sometimes substantial - tip.

"Now exactly I earn one thousand two hundred dollars monthly. But I could do, like, two thousand dollars a month. Of course, it's not every month, but depends on the season, because when it's vacation people don't dress up very much, they prefer to use tennis shoes, summer clothes. So at this time of year, winter, it's really better to shine shoes than on vacations."

Ms Bernardez shines anywhere between eight and forty-five pairs of shoes a day. Although it can be tiring, she says she likes her job.

"I can make so many friends, you know, and I can practice my English, I can talk with people, I love to talk. We talk about everything - about family, about running, about being human, about Brazil. I think that whatever we do we gotta do our best, so that's why I'm shining shoes and I enjoy that."

The vast majority of shoe-shiners in this country are male. Ms Bernardez says she hasn't really faced any discrimination, being a woman in a man's field.

"Well, my customers don't have this problem, that's why they come here, I guess. But we do feel that some women look at you like - 'What, she's a shoe-shiner!' And some of them pass by, and they make fun of you, you know, they pass by and when they are far you can see they smile, or they're laughing… I guess they think once it's a shoe-shiner girl, probably I get lots of customers. But, well, I'm married and I respect my husband, you know, I just shine shoes, I don't do anything more than that. That's my job, just shine shoes."

Ms Bernardez says that while some people may think that shining shoes is an unsuitable job for a young woman, her family supports her.

"My family agrees with me shining shoes. They feel kind of - sometimes they feel proud, you know, they say 'Oh, my daughter she is not scared, she is shining shoes just to pay college, and she has no problems about oh - this job is not good, the other job is good.' The most important thing to them is that I'm working on my dreams."

For the short term, Ms Bernardez hopes that her uncle, the owner of the shoe-shine business, will transfer her to a better location, perhaps Washington's Reagan National Airport, where she believes she would earn more in tips. Her long-term goal is to study international law.

"I know it's going to be a long way, but I'm ready for that."

Tune in next week for another installment of New American Voices.

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