EL PASO — Let’s hope Pope Francis left some extra room in his suitcase for a new pair of shoes. Or more specifically, a custom-made pair of papal white calfskin cowboy boots, complete with the pope’s signature and Shepherd’s Cross displayed prominently in pewter-hued leather on the front of each boot.
The work of El Paso craftsman Tomasso Arditti, the boots will be given to Francis in Juarez Wednesday, where he will pray along the US-Mexico border with undocumented US migrants and celebrate a huge public Mass before wrapping up his six-day visit.
Why boots? After all, Francis’ choice of footwear made news immediately after his election, when the relatively unknown pope chose to keep his simple and scuffed black shoes rather than trade them in for the red leather kicks favored by his predecessors.
Arditti said his family has deep Catholic roots in the area, and that he wanted to give something to the pope that is integral to El Paso, where, he said, “boots are king.”
“He was coming to the borderland, and El Paso is known as the custom boot capital of the world. This is one of the last areas people come to get boots, and we’re one of the last companies that makes them by hand,” he said.
Papal footwear has been something of a running theme during Francis’ trip to Mexico. On his flight from Rome, the pope was presented with a pair of Vans by one journalist as a gift, and a Mexican TV broadcaster bent down and gave him a shoeshine.
In the case of Arditti’s boots, eight craftsmen spent about four weeks designing custom patterns and hand stitching each panel of leather. Arditti searched online for the pope’s shoe size, eventually coming across an article about the pope’s cobbler in Buenos Aires, who said he wore a size nine.
The design, Arditti said, was inspired by the pope’s personality.
“We came up with the design because he is very modest and simple, and we wanted to create something that is reflective of his persona,” he said.
Arditti owns a workshop in the heart of downtown El Paso, and said he and his team produce only four or five pairs each week. Each pair is custom made, and the pope’s pair would cost about $3,500.
“Every boot is super labor-intensive,” he said, adding that his biggest hurdle is explaining to customers the difference between mass-produced boots and those he makes.
“It’s like Corvettes versus Lamborghinis. They are two different animals. They both go fast, they both look great. But it comes down to what goes into making them, the materials, the workmanship, the overall quality,” he said.
Arditti isn’t under any illusions that Francis will actually wear the boots, (“Though,” he says, “stranger things have happened,”) but he said being able to craft a pair of boots for someone “who has a direct line to Jesus through Peter” is deeply meaningful to him, as well as an homage his father’s active involvement in the Diocese of El Paso.
He said he worked with event organizers who promised they’d deliver the boots to Francis during the pope’s stay in Juarez.
Arditti himself won’t be crossing the border, however.
“I would love to,” he said, but with El Paso schools closed for the day to accommodate the papal visit, he has to watch his two young children. Plus, he said, “my shop will be open. I’ve got work, and it never stops, thank God.”