Cholitas paceñas: Bolivia's indigenous women flaunt their ethnic pride

Aymara women of Bolivia show off their newfound upward mobility while preserving their traditional dress of full colourful petticoats and tall bowler hats

Sara Shahriari

Brilliantly coloured skirts and fringed shawls swirl and massive gold earrings and brooches glitter as young women sway up and down a room in a 17th century hotel in downtown La Paz.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and modelling class is in session. But these are not size-zero supermodels wearing the latest European couture; they are petite indigenous women dressed in rakishly tilted bowler hats, shawls – and layers and layers of petticoats and skirts.

They are dressed in the traditional costume of the Aymara Indian women of La Paz – known as cholitas paceñas – an outfit which once which denoted membership of a marginalised and downtrodden section of Bolivian society, but now reflects the growing confidence and spending power of the country’s emergent indigenous middle class.

The modelling school’s director, Rosario Aguilar Rodríguez, is a lawyer and local politician who says she is proud to wear the pleated skirt known as the pollera. She also points out that cholita style is a sound investment.

“The strongest market is in women who wear the pollera. They have the economic resources to buy a good mattress, good perfume, good furniture. So betting on indigenous and mestiza women as models means reaching a very important group,” she said
Bolivia is still one of Latin America’s poorest countries, but its economy has grown rapidly in recent years on the back of high mineral and gas prices, and the government’s pragmatic economic policies. That growth has helped a commercial boom in La Paz and the neighbouring city of El Alto, where Aymara merchants – many of them women – play important and lucrative role.

Nilda Virginia Gutierrez is a merchant and fashion designer, whose small store in La Paz is packed floor to ceiling with a rainbow-array of skirts and shawls. “We bring out new fashion every month,” she says. “We are always innovating, because there’s so much competition.”

Even the unpracticed eye can see that this fashion is not static. The crowns of the bowler hats that perch atop a cholita’s glossy black braids are getting lower and lower; high crowns now look very last year.

“Now people are spending more - people want a whole outfit, from the jewellery to the shoes to the hat,” said Gutierrez.

None of that comes cheap: a Borsalino – the most famous brand of bowler hat – costs roughly 300 pounds, and a standard outfit commonly costs another 300. No outfit is complete without earrings and a sparkling brooch to fasten the shawl and another adorning the hat. A fine set may run around 1,400 pounds - but the best can be well over 6,000.

These extraordinary ensembles are shown off at events like weddings, or La Paz’s yearly Gran Poder festival, which brings the cities’ wealthy Aymara merchants out in force. Some of the jewels women wear in Gran Poder are so pricey that they reportedly employ bodyguards follow them throughout the day.
This increased visibility is more than an exercise in conspicuous consumption: forced into servitude under colonial rule and later relegated to the margins of society, Bolivia’s many indigenous peoples were long excluded from mainstream society. Until the 1990s, wearing a pollera or a poncho to a government office would have been unthinkable.

But attitudes started to change with the election Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president who took office in 2006.

“Before even recognizing oneself as Aymara was difficult. Really the reverse was happening – because the less Aymara you were, the more social mobility you had. Today it’s very different,” said sociologist Germán Guaygua, who works at the ministry of foreign affairs.

Model and TV personality Maria Elena Condori Salgado embodies both the entrepreneurial spirit and ethnic pride of this new Aymara identity. “I’ve worn the pollera since I was very small. My mother wears the pollera, and so did my grandmother,” she said.

“For us this is an art,” Condori Salgado said of her clothes and the message they send to the world. “We are going to conserve it – at least I’m not going to change.”

Republished from Guardian

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