“Cholas” are the indigenous women of Andean Bolivia who wear their hair in two long braids along with a bowler hat, a blanket, an aguayo that allows them to carry things on their back and a wide pleated skirt with a petticoat underneath.
What place do Cholas have in Boliva? How are Cholas depicted in Bolivian media? What is said about them in schools? What do they do when they participate in fashion shows? What is their place in electronic parties? What political positions are they offered, after Bolivia’s first indigenous president has now been in power for over a decade?
“Being chola is fashionable” replies Bolivian feminist Chola Yolanda Mamani. In fact, she published a blog with the same name at the end of 2015 to compliment her YouTube channel called “Chola Bocona” which she started in early 2019. Yolanda explains as if she were a primary school teacher and reports like a journalist, and also provides forensic feminist analysis about the role of the cholas in Bolivian society.
In the first minute of her first video uploaded to YouTube she explains:
“When I fought for my rights, my employers told me: “Why are you so outspoken? Why are you such a mouthy imilla? Why don’t you be quiet when I speak? I am paying you, you should listen, you shouldn’t speak’.” So I decided to reclaim the word bocona or outspoken’. I am an outspoken Chola. If I weren’t outspoken, I woud be here telling my story. .
“Imilla” means girl in Aymara and it can also be used in a derogatory way. Bocona is someone who talks a lot and always demands more. She was known as “complaining girl” by her employers when she was a domestic worker and claimed rights such as respecting her work hours, continue to wear her skirt that symbolizes her identity, going to school, accessing social benefits, or going to university.
“They want to treat Cholas as ornaments”
Yolanda recounts in the video how the image of the Chola has become popular at the same time as her way of life is being discredited. Cholas are invited to participate in political life, but their opinions or projects are not considered. Their images are used to suggest progressive politics and validate campaigns.
She also comments that when this happens in the world of entertainment, such as in fashion shows or parties that try to sell the concept of fusing the Andean with the electronic, the cholas are treated as folklore and their role is limited to providing dances to adorn the show. She explains how any activity that cholas do outside of domestic work is treated as newsworthy, such as being legislators, public officials, skateboarding or starting a YouTube channel, like she has. Yolanda also claims that schools talk about Cholas from an external and superficial viewpoint.
On the other hand, “there are women who use the skirt for convenience”, Yolanda write in her blog. The entry is titled “The women who disguise themselves”. Yolanda asks them why they use the pollera (a specific type of skirt) to model or to access public offices and to be sweepers or domestic workers. Given how the skirt can be used as a costume, Yolanda emphasizes that for her the true significance of being a Chola, is to struggle.
The significance of Chola traditions
She also describes what it means for cholas to braid hair, barter, participate in planting and harvesting. She argues that these customs promote harmony and challenge machismo, the desire to be white and consumerist visions of development.
In explaining about braids, she discusses how braiding hair makes time for talking and seeing oneself among a group of women, and how it is as a way to relax combing each other’s hair. Because of the importance of braids, cutting a woman’s braid is a form of public punishment, for example, for adultery. However, there are no consequences for men, she says.
In an entry in her blog entitled “Sowing and harvesting, an ideological encounter”, she explains that it is a space in the community where locals and migrants come together, as well as men and women, and can talk about their political views and learn national and international news. These activities are different from political assemblies where the hierarchy ris in charge and where women are laughed at if they dare to speak.
Another blog, on bartering, discusses the exchange of food between farmers. This now involves retailers who use expired canned goods to barter. They are tricking the farmers by giving them products that make the community sick and take the best crops.
Chola, feminist and journalist
Yolanda Mamani writes and speaks in the first person. She is above all Chola, but also a member of the feminist movement “Mujeres Creando”, a sociology student and manager of the Chola Bocona YouTube channel and the blog Ser chola está de moda (Being chola is in fashion). She is also the producer of Warminyatiawinkapa, “the women’s news” in Aymara, a program broadcast on Fridays in La Paz by Radio Deseo de Mujeres Creando.
On the same radio station, the program “Trabajadora del hogar con orgullo y dignidad” (Domestic worker with pride and dignity) was broadcast. This was done by Yolanda with two colleagues from the Home Workers’ Union of Sopocachi. They, along with women, had taken a radio training by Women Creating.
When Yolanda Mamani was reporting for her first radio program, she decided to cover VIII March of the TIPNIS, indigenous territory and a national park in northeast Boliiva where the government had planned to build part of a road that would link up the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. That experience led her to study sociology.
She asked to go to school and was fired when she wanted to go to university.
“The world is not possible without bocones (outspoken women)”
Yolanda Mamani, whose mother tongue is Aymara, learned Spanish when she migrated to La Paz at 11 with her aunt, who made her work as a nanny in exchange for lodging. She has been employed since 12 as a domestic worker and she worked in that for 11 years. She received less than USD 50 per month and had no social benefits. She asked to go to school and was fired when she wanted to go to university. When she was a child, her father took her to school on a donkey as it was an hour and half walk. Yolanda was born in Warisata, 15 kilometres from the east coast of Lake Titicaca.
Yolanda’s life is marked by the struggle to be a Chola who goes to school, migrates to the city, speaks Spanish, is a domestic worker, doesn’t stop wearing a pollera, is unionise, and a politicised feminist. She now goes to college and is a feminist youtuber. Whatever, her next step is, this Chola bocona will continue to provide with her first-person analysis of the spaces of power and sharing what she finds. Nor surprisingly she ends her videos by saying: “The world is not possible without bocones”.
About Bolivian Cholas
Cholas are the most exported Bolivian cultural icon. Historically, they have been discriminated against. From vetoing their political participation in their own communities, to the prohibition of public spaces or transport services, to domestic work - as one of the few job opportunities open to them - when they migrate to cities. All of Which is often intertwined with conditions of slavery, exploitation and sexual, physical and psychological violence from their bosses. In fact, giving up their dresses is one of the strategies they have been forced to accept in order to access better opportunities.
Currently, after at least 60 years of social struggle, their place in society has gone from being systematic marginalization to increased efforts to value what they represent. However, they still have fewer opportunities than non-indigenous women to exercise their rights of access to education, health, justice and decent employment.
Although colonialist ideas still persist today, such as enslaving Cholas erasing them from the social world and demanding that they do not use traditional dress, it is increasingly possible to see them occupying spaces as legislators, public officials, journalists and television conductors, business women, teachers, university students, carpenters, chauffeurs, road guards, actresses and models. That taking on such roles is news confirms the multiple levels of discrimination they still experience.
This article was originally published in Global Voices. Read the original here