Cholitas in the Mall, La Paz and Cusco Compared

Bolivia has a strong impact on the area of Cuzco, Peru, even though many elites wish it were not so.  People know of the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and are fascinated with the changes that have taken place since Morales came to office.

One of the biggest was forging and implementation a new constitution that broke ideas of multiculturalism, such as those on which Peru officially works, and replaced them with a plurinational state. It also broke established norms of how ethnicity and race fit into space and social status.

At the time, no one really knew what plurinational meant other than the suggestion that Bolivia’s varied indigenous peoples now were accepted with their culture and ways. They had official standing. While multiculturalism also granted them status, it was as minorities subjugated to a unitary state with a dominant culture and population. Plurinational promised to change that.

This all comes to mind because of something I saw the other night. 

I went to the massive, relatively new mall, the Mega Center, to see a movie. The mall is at the end of the yellow line of cable cars, teleférico, whose other end is on the edge of the massive, highland city of El Alto, La Paz’s large sister known for its new Aymara culture. The cars run full of people pouring down to visit this mall, even though there are new malls in El Alto as well.

The Mega Center, though, occupies a large space in Irpavi, part of the Zona Sur, the old elite area below the main city of La Paz. It was not an place into which the family members of the people in El Alto would have entered some forty years ago other than to work.

The massive food court had many tables of cholitas—the iconic “indigenous” woman of La Paz–sitting, conversing, and eating. In their bowler hats and shimmering bright skirts and shawls they rolled through the crowds, as much part of the mall scene as any one else.

Costumed in Traditional Dress in Cusco for a Feast (Walter Coraza Morveli)
Costumed in Traditional Dress in Cusco for a Feast (Walter Coraza Morveli)

You see the same thing in Cuzco, although with a difference. Its Plaza Real Mall also has women dressed in traditional clothes enter, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. Cuzco has seen its own barriers to the movement and presence of mamachas, as cholitas tend to be called there. 

Here is the difference. Other than for feasts when people dress in traditional dress, the mamachas tend to be older, representatives of a different time and place. In La Paz, they can be older—the grace and charm of the older cholita is not to be denied. However they can also be younger or middle aged women. There is a wider range of women wearing the pollera, the heavy, pleated traditional skirt, and hat of the cholita.

While this speaks to the economic and social value of La Paz’s cholitas such that the dress maintains status, it also speaks to a pride that you find here where once young people were ashamed their friends might find out their mother wore a pollera.

I think one of the key issues in Cuzco is that the multicultural model still subordinates the indigenous woman to a secondary status (a minority) in relationship to their sisters and daughters who adopt commercial dress, like that found in the malls, while plurinational status recognizes the cholita as a key to Bolivian identity, along with other traditional women and men defined in the constitution as the constituent people of the country.

Cholitas Protesting Efforts to Keep Them Out of Mega Center
Cholitas Protesting Efforts to Keep Them Out of Mega Center

As this idea plays itself out in all kinds of levels of Bolivian life it also means that women who rise in economic standing do not have to abandon traditional dress. They update it, modernize it, and make it very lavish. They ostentate their economic standing and ethnicity, conspicuously. 

At the same time, they are consumers in an international market like any other person. No longer does their ethnicity keep them removed from that market and its notions of freedom through purchase.

In closing, here is a prominent slogan formally posted in restaurants and other public buildings throughout La Paz: “We are all equal before the law” (Todos somos iguales ante la ley).

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