A Photoessay by Delphine Blast
I’d been in La Paz for two weeks when I finally located the Hotel Torino, a big colonial hotel where Bolivia’s first cholita modeling school holds classes. Cholitas are the indigenous Aymara women, strong and powerful despite the affectionate diminutive of the name. Rosario Aguilar Rodríguez, a lawyer and local politician, founded the school about two years ago. She tells me she is proud to wear the pleated skirt known as the “pollera,” the ample bright skirt typical of the Aymara culture.
As I wait for my interview with Aguilar, fifteen students file in to participate in today’s class. They are all beautiful in their bright outfits, with black or brown bowler hats, long black braids, adjusted corsets and puffed skirts and shawls.
The first time I met a cholita was ten years ago in city of Sucre. I was there for tourism; I had always wanted to go to South America and Bolivia was my first trip as a tourist to the new continent. That was in 2006, right after the indigenous leader Evo Morales had been elected president. These Aymara women already impressed me then. They were both tough— faces sometimes weathered by the harsh altiplano climate—and delicate. I knew then, that I had to come back and tell their story.
What was taking place in front of me at the Hotel Torino every Sunday was perhaps unimaginable ten or twenty years ago. Cholitas have suffered a long history of racial and social discrimination. Forced into servitude under colonial rule and later relegated to the margins of society, Bolivia’s many indigenous peoples were long excluded from mainstream society. Until the 1990s, wearing a pollera or a poncho to a government office would have been unthinkable. The term “cholita” in colloquial Spanish, very pejorative then, referred to a poor country girl, deprived of all her rights. With Morales’ election, things changed. Once denied access to public and private spaces such as walking in important squares in La Paz, but also kept out of restaurants or even taxis, many of these elegant women are now permanent fixtures in political and broadcast venues or run profitable businesses of their own. Rosario Aguilar explains, “We must value Evo Morales’s influence in this change, reminding me of his decision to promote both parliamentary power and social dignity for the women of the pollera across Bolivia. This contributed to the rise of the cholitas, by increasing disposable income and encouraging entrepreneurial spirit amongst the cholita bourgeoisie.”
Now the pollera is not so much associated with rural women of the indigenous communities as it is with a high-end fashion phenomenon, the skirts sported by Aymara and non-Aymara women alike. “Even women who usually wear dresses wear the pollera on special occasions to show off,” Aguilar tells me.
These past few years, I’ve focused on making photographic essays about Latin American women. I wanted to go back to Bolivia to meet the cholitas again, especially the new generation, to understand what it means to be a cholita today. Spending two months in Bolivia, I met dozens of them, first at weekly street festivals and then at the modeling school. I explained my project quite simply and invited them to come and sit for portraits in a studio I had set up in the center of the capital. I usually don’t work with artificial light, but for this series, I wanted to work differently—for me but also for them. I had the chance to set up my studio in one of the most beautiful monuments of the country: the San Francisco Museum. During ten days, the women came to the museum to pose in a studio that I had created with artificial light and traditional and colorful fabrics. I took the portraits against a backdrop of traditional woven Bolivian textiles in colors chosen to echo the bold hues of the whipala indigenous flag. In postproduction, I choose to give this background a circular shape, representing thus the Pachamama, the Mother Earth, emblematic of the Bolivian culture.
Some days only one or two cholitas came to the studio, but other days, there were ten! I chose the color of the background to best match their outfits. Many showed up with with elaborate clothes reserved for special occasions such as weddings or festivals. These extraordinary ensembles are shown off at events like parades, or La Paz’s yearly Gran Poder festival, which brings the cities’ wealthy Aymara merchants out in force. Sometimes, some of the jewels women wear are so pricey that they reportedly employ bodyguards to follow them throughout the day. Indeed, no part of their costume comes cheap: a Borsalino—the most famous brand of bowler hat—costs roughly US$500 and a standard outfit commonly costs the same amount.
No outfit is complete without earrings and a sparkling brooch to fasten the shawl and another adorning the hat. A fine set may run around US$1600 —but the best can be well more than US$7000.
Bolivia is still one of Latin America’s poorest countries, but its economy has grown rapidly in recent years because of high mineral and gas prices, and the government’s pragmatic economic policies. That growth has stimulated a commercial boom in La Paz and the neighboring city of El Alto, where Aymara merchants—many of them women—play important and lucrative roles. I remember talking with one cholita at the studio who owns a small store in La Paz. She explained to me that in her business, like all others in the fashion industry, she has to change fashion collections quite regularly to keep up to date and lure her clients in a very competitive environment. During one of my first photo sessions at the studio, Patricia, a dentist, remarked that she would never be able to work dressed in traditional garments like the ones she was wearing. If other cholitas came to the studio with more casual garments, the signature bowler hat remained the same. Whatever the case, the trend caught on and, along with the layered skirts and shawls, the Borsalino became an integral part of traditional dress and cultural identity. As legend has it, the popularity of the Borsalino hat arose from a mistake. At the turn of the 20th century, a large shipment of hats was ordered from Europe for railway workers, but they were the wrong color (brown instead of black, which was the fashionable color for gentlemen at the time). Rather than send them back, the hats were given to the local women, the Aymara and Quechua women who had recently migrated to the cities and were in search of an aesthetic and cultural identity. Some versions of the story say the women were told wearing the hat would help with fertility, others claim that a savvy hat merchant marketed them to the women as being all the rage in Europe.
After ten days of shooting, I emerged with a final series of 35 portraits. My goal with this project is to highlight the cholitas’ very special outfits, inspired by Andean traditions, but above all to reveal their femininity, elegance and dignity. I also want to counteract the stereotype of the traditional Bolivian woman. Little by little, the new generation of cholitas has acquired a new status in Bolivian society. Today, they wear the colors of their origins with pride. Between tradition and modernity, they manage to express their cultural heritage, but also their quest for recognition among the urban society.
Spring 2017, Volume XVI, Number 3
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