Cholitas – the traditional women of Bolivia and Peru. Are they on the way to disappear?
From an outsider’s point of view, what defines a cholita is her outfit. It is what distinguishes them and gives them their iconic identity.
Colourful skirts. Two long braids in the back, decorated with colourful tread and tassel in each braid. Gold teeth, for demonstrate that they have money. Gold accessories, like earrings, necklaces and rings. And different hats, depending on where in the country you are from.
In Cochabamba, where I live, the traditional white hats are made of plaster. While in La Paz, the cholitas use a black bowler hats. This hat is very expensive, and you can see the women covering it with a plastic bag when it is raining for not getting water on it.
Traditionally, this hat was not part of the costume. It all started with an English business man that sold hats. He had many bowler hats that he could not sell, as the Bolivian men felt it was too small. However, by claiming that this hat was the latest fashion in London, it lead to that all the wealthy women in La Paz, wanted such a hat. The rest is history, and now the hat is a part of the wear of almost every cholita you find in La Paz.
Clothing for cholitas is very important. Furthermore, if not following the fashion, you cannot be fully recognized as being a cholita. However, the cholitas themselves claim that family is what makes a woman a cholita. The mom dress their children in the traditional clothes and accessories, just like her mom did with her. It all comes down to a cultural tradition. A family tradition.
Before Evo Morales became the president og Bolivia the cholitas were very discriminated. Men were yelling: “Chola” after them at the street. A name that is illegal to use in a negative way today. They were kept out of universities, which left them with the stigma of no education. However, now, with an indigenous president things have changed. Today, discrimination against cholitas rarely exists.
Despite this, less and less cholitas dress their daughters in the traditional clothes. They dress them in more modern clothes because they want to give them greater opportunities later in life.
I have many friends where their mothers or grandmothers are cholitas, but they are not. If you go to the university for example, you will not observe one woman dressed as cholita. No students, nor professors. That being said, you can still see some children down to the age of 7 that use the traditional costume other places around Bolivia.
Cholitas are actually a kind of tourist attractions in Bolivia. The cholitas was what I found most amazing and interesting while first arriving to the country. Due to the interest of tourists, they have made a wrestling show with cholitas in La Paz. This show attracts many tourists.Furthermore, it attract many locals. When I was there, the cholitas in the audience where the once laughing the most and loudest. However, I questioned if the “cholitas” fighting, actually are real cholitas.
That being said, what I really love about Bolivia, is that it is still so traditional. There are not many places in the world where you find the culture so well preserved, today. And it is amazing that so many people still use the traditional clothes, on a daily basis. However, as already mentioned, a very small part of the young generation are cholitas. Most will never be. They use western clothes. I have asked myself many time, how the future of Bolivia will look like. Will there in 30 years be any cholitas left?