Being a Cholita:
Tradition That Lives On
Photo : Walter Sanchez INIAM
Dressed in a puffed pollera and colorful blouse Justina cleans the house of the Antezana family. She is one of the many Cholita women in Bolivia. Everywhere you go in this country you can recognize women who are wearing long skirts and colorful skirts as Cholitas. Justina has been a Chola since she was five years old. Although it was not always easy, she is proud to be a Chola.
Cholitas live in Bolivia, but you can also find them in Peru and in Ecuador. These women have been in Bolivia since the colonization of Spain. A lot of them have Spanish blood or are adopted. The ones from Spain married someone who is indigenous and became a mestizo (mix). These mestizo’s did not feel at home in Bolivia. They had no rights and felt like they were not part of the society. The result was that they started to create their own culture including their own unique dressing style. The hat they are wearing was introduced in Bolivia around 1910. This bowler hat was imported by local business houses and made in American and European factories. Ten years later it became fashionable amongst the Chola women of La Paz. The scarf they are wearing was popular in Spain during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The poor, indigenous people accepted these outfits and once they have accepted them, they don’t leave them easily. The introduction of the skirt (pollera) was around the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The Hispanic skirt was a part of the outfit with the scarf and the hat. This outfit was an emblem for the identity of a Chola. It has changed during the years to make it more fashionable. With this typical skirt, hat and shawl they will always be recognized as a Chola.
Five layers of heavy clothes
Justina is a Cholita and works as a housekeeper in the house of the Antezana family every Friday. Justina’s boss is Nilda. She is 76 years old and knows a lot about the life ways of being a Chola in Cochabamba. She has always had, and still has, Cholitas employed to clean her house. They like to tell Nilda a lot about their culture, which Nilda finds really interesting. So that’s why she knows everything of their lifestyle and the way they are dressed. 'As Chola you wear a pollera. This is a puffed skirt with a lot of different layers'. Justina showed how much layers she was wearing. 'I have always dressed like this, since I was five years old. In my family every woman wears a pollera. It is a family tradition. But for some people it is difficult to keep going with this tradition, because the pollera’s are really expensive. One pollera cost around 600 Bolivianos (90 dollars), and then you do not even have the other layers. I am only buying a new pollera at La Cancha twice a year. It is also really heavy. The fact that it is so expensive and heavy is the reason why a lot of women decide to not wear a pollera anymore.'
Being Cholita is a family tradition
Being Cholita is not a decision you make by yourself; it is a family one. Besides that, it is not a big problem if you decide to not wear the pollera anymore, according to Nilda Antezana and Justina. 'In Cochabamba I do not think it is a problem, but maybe this is different in La Paz and Oruro. The Cholitas there are more conservative. The family would be disappointed, but they do not force you to wear the pollera.' There are a lot of other differences between Cholitas in different cities, according to Nilda. As mentioned the Cholitas in La Paz (Cholita paceña’s) and Oruro (Cholita orureña’s) are more conservative; or what the Cholita’s paceña’s say:’ the Cholitas in Cochabamba (the Cochabambina’s) are less indigenous.’ The pollera of the Cholita in La Paz is longer and they are wearing an eye-catching bowler hat. The biggest change is in Santa Cruz. According to Nilda the indigenous people in Santa Cruz are losing their culture. The granddaughter of Nilda, Alejandra, said that she used to dance in every city dressed in their typical dresses. When she was going with her dance crew to Santa Cruz she was always wearing something completely different.
Keep going with the tradition
Justina does not want to lose the tradition. 'If my children want to wear a pollera I will be happy, but it is their decision. When they do not want it, it is also fine.' There are also Cholitas who do not let their children wear a pollera. According to the research Realidades Solapadas, published in 2015, Cholitas don’t let their daughters wear a pollera because they want to protect them for bullying and insult. On the other hand some Cholas force their children to wear the pollera because it is part of their identity. Without clothes you will not be recognized, and it is really important for the Cholas that other people can recognize you as part of the community. Clothes are even so important that there are also pseudo- Cholitas. There is even a restaurant in La Paz where every employee needs to be dressed like a Cholita. This is because they want to preserve the Chola lifestyle.
Cholitas can work everywhere
Justina is proud to be a Cholita and loves to get attention. But ten years ago this was different. Before the law against racism in 2010, Cholitas were refused work everywhere. This was because everyone in the city thought the Cholitas could not speak any Spanish. Since the law against racism in 2010 Cholitas can complain when someone refuses them at a job application. Through this law Cholas can work everywhere; from the bank to the government. They can achieve anything. They can show who they are and be proud of who they are.