South America

Who are the Cholitas of South America?

Laura Pattara

Laura Pattara  |  1 October 2019

With their distinctive bowler hats, long braids and colourful pleated skirts, the Cholitas of South America have come to be considered the most iconic symbol of the Central Andes and, in particular, of Bolivia. Yet as revered as the indigenous Aymara women may be to outsiders, and as admired as they may be for rocking indigenous fashion like the true native treasures they are, Cholitas have had an arduous journey to recognition in their own home country.

Having suffered decades of discrimination, this incredible tribe of proud women is currently enjoying a resurrection of sorts and at Viva Expeditions, we are immensely proud to be a part of their journey to reclaim their rightful place in South American history. Everything from the stunning dresses to their luscious locks and unique hats, once viewed as a source of backward embarrassment, is now finally recognised with tremendous pride. This is one of South America’s most important cultural assets and, in a world that’s modernising way too fast, preserving it is of the utmost importance.

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The Cholita’s distinctive dress

Bowler hats – or Borsalino as they’re known in Bolivia – may not be unique to the Cholitas of South America but no one could argue they don’t wear them with more flair than anyone else ever has – Churchill included. They may well be an English invention dating back to the 1800s but since their introduction to Bolivia – by British rail workers stationed there – they’ve taken on a life of their own in this stunning stretch of the Andes. How the British bowler hat ever made it atop Bolivian women’s head is a bit of a mystery and something that’s isn’t precisely known.

The most plausible explanation is that the hats were ‘marketed’ as the latest European trend to Bolivian women, once it was clear that the men wouldn’t buy and wear them. Being proud of their appearance and, let’s face it, fashionable icons since way back when, the Cholitas were easily enticed to add them to their wardrobe, thus starting a tradition that’s nowadays become an inherent part of their indigenous culture.

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The precise positioning of the Borsalino on the head showcases the woman’s marital status – straight on if they’re married and on a sideways tilt if they’re single or widowed.

When it comes to those gloriously colourful dresses, uniformity is less prominent across the Andes. Regional distinctions dictate the colours and fabrics used. Generally, however, voluminous layered skirts, called pollera, go down to below the knee and are worn above a puffy underskirt (enagua), all teamed up with cotton shirts (blusa) and a single-coloured warm woollen shawl (manta), usually made of alpaca or llama wool, over the top.

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Cholitas today

When the term ‘cholita’ was first coined, it was meant to be derogatory - the female version of ‘cholo’ meaning a half-cast mestizo that, last century, denoted a person of lower socioeconomic status. The negative correlation of the term has now all but disappeared, the resilient Cholitas of Bolivia gaining newfound respect in their own country and now seen as symbols of national pride. Although you’d only see older women wearing their traditional dress just a decade ago, the trend is picking up momentum among the youngest generation today and has even given rise to modern fashion trends that incorporate traditional dress elements. In essence, the Cholitas have become respected fashion icons in a land that used to treat them appallingly.

The 2005 rise to power of Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president, Evo Morales, has brought about a tremendous social change in Bolivia, something which single-handedly spearheaded the spectacular resurgence of the country’s Cholita community. The gradual disintegration of long-held elitism in Bolivia has benefitted the indigenous population as a whole, giving rise to grassroots movements aimed at improving the social status of what once were minority groups. The changes and improvements have been mostly of a social nature although economic improvement to the lives of Cholitas and their families is also on the rise.

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Culturally, the Cholitas are recognised for being hard-working entrepreneurs and for following their traditional Aymara credo that states that hard work, of any kind, is better than idleness. Visit Bolivia today and you’ll notice that most small businesses are run and operated by Cholitas: they run street-side stands, convenience stores and small restaurants and, even though this is something they have always done, their work has been made easier thanks to the work of microfinancing schemes which have increased exponentially over the last few years.

At Viva Expedition, we are proud to take an active role and contributing to microfinancing enterprises that provide much-needed assistance to Cholitas in Bolivia. The empowerment of women entrepreneurs, most especially indigenous ones, is something we take to heart – traditionally, they have been the most overlooked and discriminated-against minority and if we can help even just one woman open her own business and find success, then we will consider our mission accomplished.

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