Peasants set the fashion in Bolivia's ethnic revolution

Rory Carroll, July 29, 2007

Quito - For centuries the traditional dress of South America's indigenous people has been mocked as the garb of losers. The Indians lost power to the conquistadors, they lost land and wealth to waves of European settlers, and eventually they lost pride.

The bright tunics and unusual hats were belittled by the paler-skinned elites as the uniform of marginalised peasants in the highlands and shanty-dwellers in the cities.

But in a dramatic turnaround, the style has now become synonymous with authority. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia and a figurehead for the indigenous movement, has led the way by turning traditional dress into a statement that the natives are back in the game. The outfit he wore on the eve of his January 2006 inauguration - a multi-coloured tunic and an alpaca-wool sweater with a four-pointed hat, and a garland of coca leaves - is to be officially declared a national treasure.

'It was one of the most important moments. Those clothes were symbols. Right there was contained our history and patrimony,' said Juan Ramon Quintana, Minister to the Presidency, when he unveiled the plan to immortalise the clothes. Just a few years ago, the outfit, which Morales wore at an indigenous ceremony in the sanctuary of Tiawanacu, would have been seen only in remote villages or in displays for tourists.

That it should now be elevated to a totem of national pride reflects the ascendancy of Morales, a former coca-grower and radical left-winger, over the economic and political establishment that used to run the country.

Indigenous people are still economically marginalised and often the victims of racism, but in the past decade they have emerged as a formidable political force. To protest against crushing poverty and neglect, they have blocked motorways, clashed with police and even swung elections. Bolivia led the way. Morales swept to power in 2005 by mobilising indigenous voters, previously neglected by the European-influenced elite. As his clout has grown, so has the visibility of traditional dress.

The costumes, once largely confined to peasants, have become prominent and even hip. Earlier this year the capital, La Paz, hosted a glitzy fashion show in which models wore the bowler hats and flared skirts of highland women. Increasing numbers of shops are stocking traditional outfits, and newspapers and magazines are publishing more pictures of people wearing such clothes. TV stations, which used to ignore or play down celebrations of the Bolivian Aymara people's new year, last month devoted lengthy shows to the spectacle. A feature film about Morales's life - he is one of the few heads of state to have a biopic made while in office - will depict events such as the grisly execution of Tupac Catari, an indigenous leader whose 1781 revolt against Spanish colonisers is a touchstone for Indians.

With talk of Morales amending the constitution to run again, there is growing realisation that his radical - and supporters would add, belated - push for indigenous rights may be here to stay. Many pale-skinned city dwellers are learning Quechua now that the language can help get jobs in government.

Rising indigenous influence across the Andean region is both a cause and a consequence of the 'pink tide' of left-wing governments. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa owed much of last year's electoral victory to indigenous support.

In Venezuela the Indians have found a champion in President Hugo Chavez, himself a mix of European and Indian blood.

Much of Latin America still celebrates 12 October as Christopher Columbus Day, but in Venezuela it has been renamed Indigenous Resistance Day. Protesters smashed a statue of Columbus in Caracas three years ago and authorities have not decided where, if anywhere, such a discredited figure should now be erected, said Mercedes Otero, president of the heritage group Fundapatrimonio.

Republished from Guardian

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