In Bolivia, Chola Pride as Cultural Ground Shifts

The caste hierarchy that long dominated Bolivian cultural and political life–Spanish-Europeans at the top, Aymara and Quechua native Americans at the bottom—is eroding, with the election of Aymara coca farmer Evo Morales to the presidency only the most visible symptom. In El Pais Semanal, Liliana Colanzi examines the intricate ethnic and gender politics of a changing Bolivia by way of the colorful skirts worn by native Aymara women:

“My son’s father scorned me. He said I was worthless because I wore pants,” remembers Rosmeri Fernandez, 41, an Aymara migrant from Tablachaca (in La Paz province) who arrived in Santa Cruz, the economic capital of Bolivia, as a teenager. At first it was hard for her in the city: She started selling candy in the street, then got sick and finally found a job as a nanny that gave her economic stability.
Far from her family, Rosmeri started to frequent the Sunday folk gatherings where she could connect with the music, dance and food from the land she had left behind. There she met Ernesto (not his real name), a carpenter who soon abandoned her, pregnant, but she also made contact with other migrant women who reaffirmed their identity by wearing skirts, the traditional garb of the mestiza women, or cholas, from the indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples.

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Cholas Dancing, La Paz, Bolivia. Photo CC: Alan.

Top hats over long tight braids, flats, a blouse covered with a wool shawl, a wide skirt with over 18 feet of fabric which upon moving reveals four or five underskirts: the traditional cholita dress, which has its origins in Spanish fashion from the end of the 18th century [and was]adopted by the mestiza or indigenous women looking to survive or climb socially by approximating Spanish culture. Until a few years ago, these women were discriminated against by the white Bolivian elite: They demanded that Lidia Katari, the former wife of the Aymara ex-president Victor Hugo Cardenas, take off her traditional skirt to continue being a teacher, but she opted to quit teaching rather than yield. However, in the past many women have had to abandon the skirt to be able to continue with university degrees or work in public administration.

Rosmeri Fernandez did the journey the other way around. “I had to raise my son alone,” she says, “But at two years old he got sick and died. My son’s death gave me a lot of courage. I decided not to be afraid of anything and started wearing the skirt at the folk gatherings. At first I didn’t know how to braid my hair or manage the underskirts, but I felt happy representing La Paz in this city. The people who knew me were surprised and would ask: ‘Why are wearing the skirt now when before you wore pants?’. Opting to wear a shawl and five underskirts in a tropical city like Santa Cruz is not a decision to be taken lightly: on one hand, the 100-degree weather and 90 percent humidity make the chola garb suffocating during most of the year in this city; on the other hand, the regional conflicts between the people of the east (cambas) and the people from the west (collas) have resulted in further marginalizing the women who wear the skirt.

But Rosmeri’s decision to wear the skirt coincided with a time of indigenous pride in Bolivia, with Aymara president Evo Morales taking power in 2006. His reforms have had a strong component of ethnic recognition: The government incorporated indigenous representatives in some political departments, and in 2010 enacted a law against racism and all types of discrimination. Irene Cruz, 43, a skirt vendor at La Ramada market, still remembers when cholas were looked down on in the downtown streets of Santa Cruz, which for years has been a stronghold for opposition to Morales. “Before people spoke to us in a humiliating way, but since Evo passed the law against racism they don’t get involved with us,” she says.
She regrets that in Santa Cruz, unlike in La Paz, women of the skirt are still not working in government. She attributes this situation to the tension between collas and cambas in the city that has even led to confrontations between merchants at the market.

The Morales administration, revolutionary in many aspects, has been a patriarchy, and machista in regards to gender issues; women are seen as subordinates and their voice is barely taken into account (Bolivia has the highest rate of violence against women in Latin America). Despite that, there are exceptions. During (Morales’) first term, there were an unprecedented three women of the skirt nominated as ministers; today, many cholitas have turned into public figures.

One of them is Justa Elena Canaviri, 52, the most famous chef on Bolivian television and host of the successful La Justa, a cooking, folklore and politics show. “When I started my career 16 years ago, there were very few cholas. Being a public figure was exclusively for models. I broke the mold and stereotypes of beauty,” she says. The host highlights the role of the chola as the “fundamental pillar of the Bolivian economy”, since many women of the skirt have taken jobs in commerce, gaining economic independence before upper class women.

Despite belonging to a younger generation, Norma Barrancos, 30, also experienced discrimination. Barrancos has been a radio host for five years for San Gabriel radio, which transmits all of its programming in Aymara for the city of La Paz, whose inhabitants are majority rural migrants from the Andean region. “At first, it wasn’t common to see an Aymara journalist reporting in the government ministries. The security guards held me up. They thought I was entering without permission when I was doing my job”, she says.

This situation has changed over time. “In the current situation, indigenous women have a very major role. There are sisters making inroads in areas of power and decision making,” says Norma, who was born in the community of Achumani and graduated from the University of Social Sciences. Last year, she won a scholarship that allowed her to work for three months with the BBC in London, and she reported while wearing clothes that reflect her Bolivian identity.

Felipa Huanca, the candidate for governor of La Paz for Evo Morales’ party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), has an uncommon profile: indigenous Aymara, orphaned by her father and mother, union leader from a young age who decided to remain single and childless in a rural area where it is difficult for an unmarried woman to get a title for land. She was the executive secretary for Bolivia’s Bartolina Sisa Confederation of Indigenous Women Farmers, a union whose support was of vital importance in the rise of MAS.

For Felipa, the oppression of indigenous women it not just a question of ethnicity, but also of gender. She experienced racism at the hands of her teachers in secondary school and her classmates in college because she wore a skirt and spoke Aymara, but for her the central problem that women must face is the prevailing machismo in Bolivian society. “The patriarchy is something we have internalized. Our brothers tell us that men are in charge,” she says, and adds that women also perpetuate sexism. “In the union they would say to me: ‘How can this woman speak in public? Is she a male, perhaps?’ Amongst the sisters we also humiliated each other: The system has taught us discrimination and to stand up to that is not easy.” She admits that she “trembled” the first time they let her speak at a meeting for the (union) Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB), and says that the biggest challenges for indigenous women are losing the fear to “let their voices be heard publicly”, recovering their self-esteem and valuing each other so new players and leaders emerge.

Cholita fashion: “Now the skirt is in style, and even women who wear dresses want to wear them,” says Zenobia Huiza, 44, the owner of a skirt store at La Ramada market for the past 22 years. “Right now they are buying corset-style muslin (skirts), semi-transparent, and with muted tones like salmon. I have so many customers that I can’t keep stock up and I’ve had to hire a helper,” she says, satisfied with the extensive variety of textures and colors that her store offers. Zenobia was born in Oruro and started wearing a skirt 15 years ago “because she liked it”: She says that not even the heat of Santa Cruz is capable of getting her to trade in her garb for a dress or pants.

The outfit of the cholita has created a powerful fashion industry that moves millions of dollars every year and has its biggest moments at the emblematic folklore and religious festival Lord Jesus of the Higher Power in La Paz and the carnival in Oruro, declared one of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Wearing the traditional outfit of La Paz’s cholas is not only an indicator of ethnicity, but also a sign of opulence, given that a complete outfit can cost from 2,000 Bolivian pesos ($307) and up, a considerable sum if one takes into account that a minimum salary in Bolivia is 1,440 Bolivian pesos ($220). From there, a complete spectrum of options stretches out to the far reaches of luxury, with exclusive catwalks and high-end designers (a shawl made of vicuña, the most prized material, costs around 7,000 Bolivian pesos, over a $1000).

The Higher Power festival, which before was disrespectfully considered a “a party for Indians” and took place in the city’s peripheral areas, has moved to heart of the city and has turned into a fundamental part of La Paz’s identity, involving 40,000 dancers and moving some $53 million. And the Miss Cholita pageant has arisen as an alternative — still of very limited impact — to the concept of eastern beauty imposed by (Santa Cruz’s) Miss Bolivia pageant. Now the women of “the dress” or “pants” pay more than $525 to be able to dance with the cholitas at the Oruro carnival.

Tani Cardozo Velasquez, a member of the group Cocanis in which the vice president’s wife and the president’s daughter participate, remembers that in 2011 their troupe had nine members, while this year they had to limit it to 72 dancers and leave out more than a dozen candidates. Tani also knows bilingual (Aymara or Quechua and Spanish) speakers who dress up as cholas to go to work because the garb gives them credibility with the indigenous people, but then they put pants on to go out to the nightclubs.

The growing attention on skirt fashion and the new consumer horizon prompted Amina Rojas and a partner to launch the magazine Pasantes, dedicated to promoting the latest fashion trends in the world of folklore. The magazine has been around since March 2013, with a print run of 1,500 full color copies. Amina says that even though the Higher Power was born as a festival to gather the merchants from the north of the city (the most populous part of La Paz), in the past years the old elite has gotten involved as well.

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The Colours of La Paz. Photo CC: Geraint Rowland.

The new bourgeoisie born during Evo Morales’ administration has not only cornered their own catwalks and festivities, they are also creating their own architecture. The eye-catching buildings of stone mason and civil engineer Freddy Mamani Silvestre have turned into part of the identity of the city of El Alto, the second largest in the country. Dubbed as Andean neo-Baroque, they are informally called “cholets” – chalets cholos – in La Paz and “little clown houses” in Oruru. These magnificent buildings of five multicolored stories, whose owners are merchants of Quechua or Aymara origin, challenge the arid landscape of the altiplano with their eclectic and motley style. For the academic Elisabetta Andreoli, co-author of the book “The Architecture of Freddy Mamani Silvestre”, the fact that people make fun of the buildings — ‘They look like they are made by aliens’, is a typical comment — is associated with the rejection of the kitschy aesthetic of an indigenous population that was poor until recently.

The skirt is a symbol of the new battles for identity that are being carried out these days in Bolivia, but it would be an error to think it is a symbol that everyone defends. As Maria Galindo, leader of the feminist group Women Creating, says, it is a simplification to think of the “world of cholos” as a homogenous one, given that “the aspirations are different for a chola woman at (Bolivian universities) UPEA or UMSA than an older chola woman who is a butcher and has a carnival dance troupe”. And just as some women are maintaining or reclaiming the skirt, others, “daughters and sisters of the chola”, prefer to leave behind the braids and skirts to adopt “pants and a tee-shirt… This move away from the skirt represents a move away from a way of perceiving the body, from a sense of life in this city”. This is the case of Maria Elena Ramos, who sells skirts for younger girls — shorter and lighter weight — in La Ramada who at 27 years old is economically independent. She is single and disapproves of her customers who get pregnant at 15 or 16 years old and forget their personal goals.

The new emerging class is showing itself in Bolivia in various ways, among them abandoning the skirt or assuming it and rediscovering it. It is one of the interesting developments in a country that is experiencing a turning point in cultural and racial discrimination, and is rapidly getting over it. It is not a small thing.

Liliana Colanzi Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard