Bolivian cholitas

The colourful Bolivian cholitas: Bolivia is so very culturally diverse that it is not possible to talk about one “typical Bolivian clothing” but the cholita’s outfit (worn by indigenous or mixed women throughout the Andean highlands of Bolivia) is so widely recognizable that has come to be considered part of the traditional dresses and cultural identity. The cholita is an iconic symbol of Bolivia.

The Spanish word “cholo” (or chola for females) means mixed-race, with a pejorative meaning of “half-cast mestizo or half-breed”.  The tone and context can change the meaning to something usually derogatory, either related to ethnicity (being a mestizo), or to bad taste and lack of education. The diminutive “cholita” on the other hand has now an affectionate meaning and it is given to indigenous Aymara and Quechua women. These women wear a distinctive outfit with English-inspired high bowler hats (“Borsalino”, the way is worn on the head tells about the marital status of the woman wearing it – straight on if married and on a sideways tilt if single or widowed), long braids at the back, lacy blouses, long shawls (“manta”) and the famous “polleras”, coloured puffed multilayered skirts. They look like they have stepped right out of a late 19th century through a time machine. On the streets you will see Bolivian cholitas wearing an “aguayo” (traditional handmade weaved carrying cloth) of vibrant colors around their shoulders to carry everything from children to supplies.

Cholitas exist all across Bolivia (they migrated from the Andean region to the tropical Amazonian low lands as well), but the types of skirts and hats change across regions. Check out our Bolivia round trips and tailor made tours.

During colonial times in the 16th century the Spanish forced the indigenous people to adopt the European clothing of the era, the indigenous women from the Andes region moulded the outfit to their liking, something unique to them.

For centuries they have been the low working class, predominantly rural peasants who had migrated to the cities, searching for a better income and becoming servants and maids. In the last 20 years they have experimented a new empowerment, they are becoming more confident and proud of their culture, an ongoing socioeconomic transformation. They have always been hard working women but now they are gaining a new place in society,  entrepeneur women with better access to education. There are cholita runway fashion shows, cholita street festivals, Miss Cholita beauty peageant, cholita modeling schools.

Bolivian cholitas have now become more present in politics and on TV programs,  they participate in politics and they even do battle at wrestling night events in La Paz. During these events known as “Flying cholitas” (Cholitas voladoras) or “Wrestling cholitas” (cholitas luchadoras), the cholitas wrestle in their traditional polleras to entertain the public, a mix of locals and tourists. They climb into the ring to show us girl power!

We don’t offer tours to the “wrestling cholitas” but you can easily take the red teleférico line from La Paz to El Alto where these events are held, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

Don’t miss out the multi-award-winner Fighting Cholitas documentary film  from 2006. This short film received an honorable mention in Short Filmmaking at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. It won the Jury Award for Best Documentary at the 2007 Aspen Shortsfest, the Jury Award for Best Documentary Short at the 2007 Atlanta Film Festival and the award for Best Documentary Short at the 2007 Nashville Film Festival. It was also a finalist for a 2007 International Documentary Association award.

Another very cool example of cholita empowering are the girls from “Imilla Skate (video)” in Cochabamba. (Imilla is an Aymara and Quechua word that means girl). The goal of Imilla Skate, besides popularizing skateboarding in Bolivia and empower girls, is also to make a call to the whole society to reconcile cultural differences and century-old women stereotypes.

And let’s not forget the amazing cholita mountain climbers (cholitas escaladoras) of Bolivia. This group of Aymara indigenous women in their 40’s and 50’s  climbed the Huayna Potosí (6088 meters above sea level) for the first time in december 2015, after years of working as cooks and porters for groups of tourists climbing mountains. These tough women decided to change that and break stereotypes, no one is holding them back now while they climb to the top.

These tough cholita climbers wear their traditional “polleras” together with modern climbing gear. They already climbed other peaks such as the Sajama (6542 meters above sea level, Bolivia’s highest peak), the Illimani (6438m), the Parinacota (6342 m) and the Aconcagua (6961 meters above sea level, the highest mountain in the Americas). Their dream is to reach the top of the Mount Everest.

Cholitas are wearing their unique outfit with more pride than ever. This fashion is a symbol of cultural identity to celebrate their Andean heritage with dignity but also, their femininity and elegance. Once targets of discrimination, now a source of pride. This is what it means being a cholita today. We consider this quite an accomplishment in a world that’s modernising way too fast.