Let me take you to La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital known for the unique and dramatic way it rises and falls over steep ridges. Here at 3,250-4,100 metres high you’ll be greeted with thin and cold air, hot and comforting street food, and the colourful, local cholita women.
To walk down or up the streets of La Paz, to wander through marketplaces, visit the massive central square, or even climb to one of the many lookout points is to see the cholita women, easily identifiable with their full pollera (skirt), shawls, aguayo (carrying cloth), long braids and black bowler hats.
As recently as a decade ago, these indigenous Aymara and Quechua women were belittled and ostracised, banned from using public transport and moving about freely through certain public spaces such as Plaza Murillo or suburbs such as Zona Sur. In fact, the term cholla was a derogatory term used to describe someone of mixed Spanish and indigenous ethnicity.
In South American Spanish, adding ‘ita’ onto the end of a word can be used to refer to something or someone with tenderness. It's with this linguistic trick that these women began to reclaim the term. In the same way they took the European clothing forced on them by the Spanish and molded it to their own liking.
A turning point for the cholita women was Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, coming to power in 2005. As with the vast majority of governments, his was not without debate and disagreement about his actions, however, during his time he made changes at an administrative and constitutional level that acknowledged the rights of indigenous peoples. During his time, Bolivia was declared a multicultural nation for the first time, and established Quechua and Aymara as official languages alongside Spanish.
On top of this, he promoted the revival of indigenous culture, such as mandating the learning of languages and offering more opportunities for employment. Combined with changing sentiments towards the role of women and a rise in tourism, these actions have begun to slowly shift the perspective of these colourful and hard-working women.
Now, while discrimination still exists, the cholitas have moved from being ‘the maids of the middle class’ to bold and successful people in their own right, confident to walk, work and speak as they like, even partaking in sports such as wrestling and skateboarding, all while wearing their iconic dress.
Wandering the streets of La Paz these colourful characters are everywhere. The women are spotted running stalls in bustling marketplaces, serving up piping hot stews and snacks, carting babies and children on bursting buses, and sitting in city squares, their glinting, mischievous eyes surveying the hustle and bustle around them.
A local guide I met spoke about these locals and their unwavering work ethic, their steely expression and loyalty, and unwavering sense of humour. In today’s age, the cholita women and this unique expression of place and dress is in an interesting transitory period. As tradition meets modernity, younger people are exposed to different ideas and modes of expression, with many choosing to depart from the previous generation’s choices, while others are returning to history with a desire to revive it.
Such topics of human rights, discrimination, governmental influence and cultural expression are complex and ongoing, but to visit this colourful and stark city I was touched and comforted by the presence of the cholita women. No matter the place they were easy to pluck out from the crowd with their unabashed colourful dress, and could often be counted on to greet those passing by with a well-worn, non-nonsense expression that was quick to break into a laugh, sharing a barrage of words I couldn’t understand and a hot and delicious meal or plump piece of fruit to fuel the exploration of the city.