It’s hard not to notice a cholita. On the streets of La Paz, they are everywhere: driving buses or selling flowers at Mercado Rodríguez; serving choripanes at stands or carrying children at Plaza Murillo.
The importance of women’s role in Bolivian society – and, more specifically, these women’s role – is increasingly more evident. So much so that now they are seen differently – the term itself used to be a pejorative way to refer to their mixed-race heritage.
These days, they are seen as keepers of a tradition, and younger generations are proudly retrieving it. Incidentally, modeling agencies that place value on the garments of Amerindian women are popping up around the country. After all, the clothes are just part of their culture – yet the most ostensible part.
Here’s a guide to understand the wardrobe of cholitas.
Legend has it that these distinctive hats were adopted in the early 20th century, when a cargo ship arrived from Europe for railway workers. The accessories, however, were too small for men’s heads and were distributed among the women.
A fun fact: rain doesn’t stop the cholitas from wearing the hats – but they put them in plastic bags for humidity protection. It’s a very curious look, to say the least.
Under the hats, the cholitas’ black locks are parted at the nape of their neck and woven into two braids. At times, they use dark alpaca wool to add volume, length, and weight to the locks (traction keeps the hairdo in place).
Not all cholitas are chubby. Their voluminous aspect comes from their skirts, one of the most important parts of the garments: incidentally, polleras, as they are called, is also a term to refer to the complete costume. Underneath, there are many layers of petticoats to enlarge their hips, a characteristic associated with fertility.
Aguayos are the traditional rectangular cloths used in Indigenous communities. Perhaps it’s the most significant piece of clothing in the cholitas’ culture, and not just because of its bright colors, also present in the Whipala flag of Amerindian peoples. It’s worn around the shoulders as a protection against the cold and, oftentimes, laid out on the floor to display items for sale. In addition, it’s used to carry all types of things on your back – including flowers, potatoes, and even babies.
Aguayos are sold as souvenirs at such places as Mercado de las Brujas. Some women substitute them for decorated shawls.
Jewelry like earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings also compose the look of wealthier cholitas. But the brooches are used to keep the blankets and shawls in place on their shoulders. Usually, they are big and shiny. Wealthier women even hire bodyguards when they participate in shows or parades.
Simple and plain. This is the definition of cholitas’ shoes, which are similar to pumps, with their round design. Comfort comes first, as they are always going up and down the hills in Andean cities.