After a week of travelling in Peru I arrived in La Paz, Bolivia to start my journalism course. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the city since I had heard very little about it. The first thing I noticed was the topography. Looking down from the airport in El Alto, the city of La Paz dips down like a crater filled with small red brick buildings. Being at 3,500m above sea level it is a very dry city; and the rock formations poking out between the buildings are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Another striking feature is the fashion of the cholitas paceñas, the indigenous women of La Paz. They are characterised by their bowler hats, wide pollera skirt and colourful shawl used to carry goods or their babies. The bowler hat was shipped over from England intended for the Bolivian railway engineers. But when they found out that the hats were too small, they marketed them to the women saying that it was the high fashion in Europe. Today they’ve been adopted into the traditional dress, and rest just on the top of the cholitas’ heads. Funnily, if the hat is worn in the middle of the head, it means the cholita is married, and if it’s tilted to the side it means she is single or windowed. The skirt accentuates their hips and only shows the ankles, both traits which are considered attractive in their tradition.
Once discriminated against for their indigenous roots, cholitas have now become much more integrated into Bolivian society. They are in many ways a symbol of women’s empowerment as they have fought hard to be accepted into society. Today they occupy well-paid jobs such as radio presenters, lawyers and journalists and even wrestlers. While most are street vendors, they can earn a surprising amount of money and live very comfortable lives. This new ‘burgesia chola’ (chola bourgeoisie) does not believe in status symbols and flashing their money, so they often choose to live modestly. Despite this, they are willing to spend a lot on traditional celebrations, and ‘Miss Cholita’ outfits, which can cost up to USD$2500 (as seen below).
In general though I have noticed poorer cholitas selling food and bits and bobs on the street or even begging for money. It seems like just like in normal society there is a divide between rich and poor. There is still a lot of controversy over cholitas, their role in society and how they are viewed. It’s worth reading a few articles on this, as they are more informed than me.
I would recommend going to El Alto market, which is a cheap market with everything you could possibly need from car parts to cholita skirts and hats. It’s 5km long and very overwhelming, but worth it for the view.
Luke Henriques Gomes
Abigail Alves Murta