By Yasmin Khan
Abelina Botello gave me a sideways glance from behind a tangerine-spotted skirt and a white lace petticoat.
“My daughter’s not here. She’s the owner. We can’t do an interview. Where did you say you were from?”
Why waste time with me? I was a stranger, and probably wasn’t going to buy anything. I present a contradiction for most Bolivians. I have a brown complexion similar to most indigenous people here, but my stop-and-go, Chicago-accented Spanish often gives me away as a gringa. People often ask, “Why are you brown, but you speak like a gringa?”
My admiration for the polleras (pol-YEH-rahs) — the traditional multilayered skirts worn by Cholitas in Bolivia — and the wide, spangled and fringed mantas —the shawls that accompany the skirts — must have convinced her of my potential as a customer because within minutes, Abelina, whose daughter owns “La Orquidea” pollereria in La Paz, Bolivia, had clipped my microphone to her manta and was telling me all about this year’s style.
“Bright, light, young,” said Abelina as her younger daughter hung a zebra-striped pollera next to a bright blue skirt embroidered with golden sunflowers. “Last year was dark.”
The Cholita outfit is one of Bolivia’s most interesting cultural costumes. Tough-looking women wear their waist-length hair in braids connected together at the ends with tassled tullmas. They hurry about the busy streets of La Paz decked out in quadruple-layered underskirts called centros, bright polleras, little patent-leather or clear plastic slip-on shoes, fringed mantas neatly folded and worn across their backs, and small felt bowler hats balanced on top of their heads.
In the chilly winter or rainy summer, they throw on a pair of alpaca leg-warmers and sometimes wrap their hats in plastic bags, but still manage the muddy streets in their Cinderella-style slippers.
Primitiva Lima de Perez, owner of “Creaciones Primi,” noted that styles change slightly every two or three months. Primitiva, with her gold-capped teeth and custom-made, fuzzy sea-green manta, proudly opened her “most fabulous” creations to show off the newest fabrics and styles. She also explained more subtle changes in Cholita style: hat height varies a centimeter or so year-to-year, and how you form your braids describes your social status. Cholitas wear their braids “normal,” and women de vestido — those who don’t wear polleras —braid in reverse. She pointed out that my braids were wrong.
I always marvelled at the exotic-yet-familiar look of the Cholita’s outfit. The blue, gray, or black bowler hats, patent-leather shoes, intricate gold and pearl jewelry, and the distinctly European embroidered shawls. But when wrapped around the strong, stout bodies of Andean women in the frantic Bolivian markets — selling plucked chickens or bloody skinned lambs, carrying huge loads of coca leaves on their backs, sitting behind mounds of purple and pink potatoes, frying puff pastries and serving purple corn drinks — the look is anything but European.
Where Cholitas Come From
The Cholita’s outfit has remained basically the same since the 18th century when it was adopted from the closets of high-class Spanish women — the only people who could afford the expensive fabrics and stylings.
Cholitas borrowed the style to separate themselves from indigenous people who lived in the country, called “campesenos.” Now, the pollera and manta are uniquely Bolivian, demarcating Mestizawomen with Spanish and indigenous blood who live in the city and who sometimes speak more Spanish than their native languages of Aymara and Quecha.
Mestizos were historically looked down upon by both the Spanish and the 100-percent indigenous. The rejection of Mestizos in Bolivia is exacerbated by the fact that pure indigenous groups of the Andean country consider the Spanish to be pillagers of their silver, gold, land, and other natural resources, as well as destroyers of their religion and language. The arrival of the Cholita costume coincided with the initial commingling of the Spanish and indigenous peoples, and the first Mestizos may not have had a way to distinguish themselves. And since the pollera was not prevalent among Spanish settlers but was still part of the Mestizo culture, it may have been a natural progression for Bolivian Mestizos to adapt the costume to their own culture.
Despite their struggles, Bolivian Cholitas have risen in social status in recent years. They are known for their don’t-tread-on-me attitude and for huge protests and fearless street blockades in La Paz and other urban areas when they need the government to listen to them.
In January, Bolivia’s new president, Eva Morales (the country’s first indigenous leader) pointed out that the plazas were full of Cholos and Cholas and Asmara Indians from the country — the same people who weren’t allowed to walk on the sidewalks of La Paz 50 years ago.
Where You Can See The Latest Styles
The Cholita dress doesn’t come cheap: The underskirts run about 250 bolivianos, polleras each fetch 500 to 750 bolivianos, shawls cost 350 to 400 bolivianos, and the hats can cost from 250 to a whopping 4,000 bolivianos. All together an outfit can run from 1,350 to 5,400 bolivianos — the equivalent of $168 to $675, a huge investment for a people whose average monthly salary is $200. Some Cholitas have taken to attaching their pricey hats to their hair with bobby pins or elastic straps to foil thieves who snatch them in the city crowds.
Some may think the Cholita outfit is a materialistic extravagance for such a traditionally hardworking and poor country to embrace. But perhaps that is exactly why there is such an obsession. In many indigenous cultures, the ceremonial costume is extravagant, featuring rare bird feathers or animal skins, embroidered silk kimonos, sequined and gold-threaded saris. There is a desire to exhibit a degree of wealth, even if it doesn’t exist. Even in North American culture, people plunge themselves into thousands of dollars of debt to look the part. The abject poverty of South America’s poorest country may contribute to the desire to appear well-turned-out and polished. Needless to say, Cholitas don’t wear their most expensive garb on a daily basis any more than Americans wear $2,000 Manolo Blahnik shoes to the grocery store. The outfits are reserved for dancing, weddings, and other ceremonies, Primitiva explained.
“Some Cholitas have up to a dozen different outfits for dancing,” said Primitiva, who added that for each dance you need one outfit for practicing, one for the convite, or last practice, and one for the dance itself. “Some have one very nice outfit, but they just don’t dance as often.”
She pointed out that Cholitas dance all year long in festivals and in “Cholita clubs” that play cumbia, morenada, and other dance music. Their spinning dances, reminiscent of whirling dervishes with braids, show off their costume’s candy colors and long macramé fringe.
This month, Abelina and Primitiva are busy selling the latest fashions for the last days of Carnival in La Paz. They haven’t even started making the newest skirts for the festival of El Gran Poder in May since they are waiting for even newer fabric to arrive from Korea.
Primitiva invited me to return the next day and dance in the last celebration of Carnival with the Cholitas. She even invited me to wear a kantuta manta and promised to lend me a hat. “And we’ll fix your braids,” she added with a gold-capped grin.
Yasmin is a 28-year-old journalist from New Mexico living in La Paz, Bolivia with her Bolivian drummer boyfriend. She broke away from working for mainstream newspapers New Mexico to write about culture and politics in South America. Her work can also be seen as a weekly blog in the Santa Fe youth culture magazine U Mag at www.theumag.com. Email Yasmin at firstname.lastname@example.org for info on her freelance works.