Perhaps the simplicity of the sandals, or the fibers in their composition, caught my eye. I remember being totally intrigued from the first time I saw alpargatas in Buesaco, Colombia in 1963. Many men and women campesinos (subsistence farmers) wore them in town. Outside, in the paths and fields, people mostly walked in bare feet.
I learned later that campesinos walked barefoot from their mountainside veredas (outlying farming communities) and slipped on sandals before they entered the village. I wondered why. Was it because walking barefoot was more comfortable? Or did the farmers want to save wear and tear on the only footwear they owned?
I referred to the sandals as zapatos (shoes) to my friends, but soon learned that they had a special name –– alpargatas. It took me a while to remember or spell this name but after becoming more fluent in Spanish, I asked my women friends to tell me more about alpargatas.
“Why would you want to know? Why would you care?” was their response. “Only poor campesinos wear them.”
“They intrigue me,” I said, “and, besides, I want to buy a pair.” The women giggled at the thought of a gringa (North American woman) wearing alpargatas. They directed me, nevertheless, to the larger marketplace in Pasto, the capital city of Nariño, 38 kilometers from Buesaco. Long after I bought my own pair, I learned these same women had alpargatas tucked under their beds in their own homes. They wore them like slippers.
Alpargatas have traced a long trajectory, from at least 5,000 years ago all the way to wedge sandals designed by Yves St. Laurent in 1970. Sometimes called espadrilles, they have morphed into many styles and colors for both men and women.
Alpargatas are made from natural fibers that are easily found wherever indigenous peoples live around the world. The soles of Colombian alpargatas are braids of jute sewn together; the tops are made from heavy cotton. A heel strap and sturdy twine tied over the ankle are used to help the sandals stay in place while walking.
When I traveled to Pasto to buy my alpargatas, I thought they’d make great souvenirs from Colombia. Although they were a source of embarrassment for those who left the campo (countryside) and donned more western-style footwear, they looked comfortable to me.
In the traditional marketplace I found a pair that fit me. The lady selling them was overcome with disbelief when I tried them on and then told her I wanted to buy them for myself. I asked her what to do about the missing twine to tie over the ankle. She answered, “Use any old piece of rope.”
Finally, within the privacy of my house I tried walking in my new alpargatas. The rope soles were coarse and uncomfortable. The heel and sole did not match the contours of my feet. I couldn’t stretch or flex my toes naturally. The rope bit into my ankle when I walked.
What a revelation! The alpargatas were not nearly as comfortable as they looked. Now I understood why campesinos walked barefoot until they entered the village. They wore alpargatas when they needed to protect the soles of their feet or, perhaps, to achieve an element of status when they came into Buesaco on market day.