Cobbler of Apache descent also crafts prosthetics and braces

By Smiley Anders
Baton Rouge, Louisianna (AP) October 2010

When Esteban Botello was 7 years old his grandfather put him to work in his cobbler’s shop, telling him, “You need to learn this skill because one day you may be the only one left who can do this.”

Today Botello’s ads bill him as “the only cobbler in the state.” He says he’s one of the few anywhere making footwear the slow, painstaking way of the craftsman rather than on an assembly line.

His grandfather, in Brownsville, Texas, made fine shoes and boots to order. (He was a friend of the famed Lucchese boot-making family of San Antonio.) But he also made prosthetic limbs and braces. And he soon had his young grandson carving peg legs.

In R&L Orthopedic Shoes Inc., his small shop in the Corner Square shopping center in Baton Rouge, Botello practices his skill as a cobbler as well as a “prosthetist, orthotist and pedorthist.” And, for a hobby, an upholsterer.

Near a pair of cowboy boots fashioned from the skin of an albino alligator is a perfectly shaped hand with fingers that move. The skin of a whole alligator fills up one wall, waiting to be made into boots and a purse for a doctor and his wife. Custom-made braces are in a room with a cast of huge feet, soon to become shoes for a patient with elephantiasis.

“These shoes enable this man to walk, for the first time in four or five years,” Botello said.

Every corner of the shop is filled with exotic items, such as the skin of a huge anaconda bought in Brazil for a customer wanting snakeskin boots.

Botello said his path to the shop in Baton Rouge he acquired two years ago was a long and winding one.

He is the son of a Native American (Apache) father and a Spanish mother. “My father met my mother when he was in the service stationed in Spain,” said Botello, who was raised in Brownsville in a family where everyone worked with their hands. His father worked in his grandfather’s shop and his mother had her own upholstery business, a skill she taught her son.

After serving in the 82nd Airborne in the late 1970s, Botello began traveling around the world, honing his skill as a craftsman. He’s been to Russia, Vietnam (he speaks Vietnamese), Spain, Mexico, Hawaii. And during his travels he was “teaching and learning.”

He attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and worked making prosthetic limbs at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.

Botello said much of his experience in fashioning braces came from working with Mexicans who came to Brownsville with polio, scoliosis and club feet – all conditions that were more prevalent south of the border.

“By the time I was 12 or 13, I had learned how to make custom braces and limbs. I never had a childhood,” Botello said.

By 2004 Botello had made his way to Louisiana, and was living in Hammond and working for a Baton Rouge company.

But he wanted to own his own shop.

He knew of R&L Orthopedic Shoes, a business started in New York in 1938 and operated in Baton Rouge by Dominic and Toni Linarello. But Botello didn’t approach them, figuring there wasn’t room for him in their small shop.

In 2008 Toni Linarello called to ask if he would be interested in buying the shop. The Linarellos still work with Botello, and Toni handles Medicare and Medicaid paperwork.

Marsha Flanagan, Botello’s fiancee, is an office manager, and is learning to deal with the government health-care programs.

The other “employee” is a huge white Akita dog named Dakota, the seeing eye dog of a customer who gave him to the shop before she died. Dakota provides security and companionship to those working in the shop.

Botello said there’s a story behind each limb he fashions. He made an arm for a man who was launching his boat during the Hurricane Katrina flood and got a small scratch as he was reaching into the toxic water. Within a day he had a virulent, flesh-eating infection that cost him an arm. A life-like artificial hand was built for a man who held some firecrackers a bit too long.

Much of his work involves making and fitting prescription shoes for people with diabetes.

“Many diabetics have trouble finding shoes that fit and protect the foot but are comfortable and stylish,” Botello said. “Our shoes have extra depth to accommodate an insert custom-fitted for the diabetic foot, plus a rocker bottom coupled with a rigid shank that aids in realigning the foot and encouraging a normal walk.”

He said many of the people who come to see him for various aches and pains simply need the right kind of shoes. While he makes custom shoes, Botello also has a selection of high-end orthopedic shoes and boots. He recently fitted an LSU football player with special shoes to deal with the athlete’s flat feet.

And, speaking of athletes, Botello has provided some custom upholstery for the vehicles of current and former NFL and LSU players.

“I learned upholstery from my mother, and it’s my hobby,” he said.

He has a shop in his home in Hammond, and he came to the attention of New Orleans Saints players in 2006 when the ‘61 Chevrolet Impala he outfitted in red leather won first place at a Hammond car show.

Former Saints Brian Young and Joe Horn got him to do the interiors of their vehicles, and he also upholstered the interior of a truck for former LSU player Herman Johnson – and some shoes for Johnson’s mom.

Botello said that, although he’s four to five months behind on some orders, he can’t find help because “no one wants to learn the trade. I’d have to go to Mexico to find the kind of workers I’d need.”

Despite his backlog, he hopes to get some more business making boots for New Orleans Carnival royalty, since the boot-maker from Jamaica who made them for years has retired.

And he holds a patent on a sole he calls “Flex Float.”

Botello was going to use part of his last name, but “Bo-Flex” was already spoken for.

“When I was a child seeing people with foot problems, I told my grandfather, ‘I want to make people float.’ I’ve had this idea for 30 years.”

It has has two separated soles, so the one touching the foot never hits the ground.

He hopes to put it on the market, but the government is slow.

He said the prevalence of fraud in the business – selling customers products that they don’t need or that don’t fit right – has made administrators of Medicare and Medicaid so cautious that claims are held up for long periods of time.

This can play havoc with the cash flow of a small business like his.

“I like to do my work the right way. I’m very picky, and I guarantee my work. Doctors like my work. But it’s hard when you can’t get paid by the government.”

Botello said he and Flanagan plan on getting married some time next year, when they can find time for a honeymoon.

He even has his outfit picked out – a white suit and a black tie, and those albino alligator cowboy boots.

“I haven’t worn them yet,” he said with a smile.

“I’m saving them for my wedding.”