The Best Bolivian Beauty Pageants Are About Indigenous Pride, Not Cheesecake

A contestant shows off her traditional fringed shawl and skirt.

On a cold night in mid-February the city of El Alto was reveling in one of Bolivia’s favorite pastimes:

A beauty pageant. But instead of women parading in evening gowns and swimsuits the contestants wore bowler hats, colorful fringed shawls, tiered skirts buoyed by petticoats, and they had styled their hair in long black braids hanging down their backs in hopes of winning the title of Miss Cholita El Alto 2011.

El Alto is a fast-growing city on Bolivia’s high plains, and its residents are mainly indigenous Aymara who recently migrated to the city from the vast, flat surrounding countryside to find work. In Bolivia more than 60 percent of the population self-identifies as indigenous, and in El Alto it’s common to see Aymara women wearing traditional dress similar to the attire sported by the beauty pageant contestants. The El Alto pageant, which has been held for more than 10 years, seeks to find a cholita whose grace, beautiful presentation, amiability and civic pride make her a stellar representative of the city, and the popularity of the pageant speaks to the growing indigenous pride in this nation, and its struggle to reclaim its customs.

In a theater in El Alto, where hundreds of people gathered to see who would be Miss Cholita El Alto 2011, the mood was exuberant and light. Spectators waved balloons and cheered for their favorite as the contestants performed Bolivian folk dances and later answered questions on the history of El Alto. The contestants sparkled as they flicked their fringed shawls, charming the crowd. When the winner was chosen she spoke to the crowd in Aymara and accepted her new role with a smile.

The word cholita describes an indigenous woman from the highland cities who wears traditional clothes. While the word is used inside and outside of the indigenous community and is not considered offensive, the male form of the word, cholo, is an insult in Bolivia. “In rural areas the chola (cholita) isn’t present,” said Milton Eyzaguirre Morales, the director of outreach at Bolivia’s National Museum of Folklore and Ethnography. “Though the people there use similar clothes, Bolivians don’t call the women cholas, we call them indigenous, or campesinas. The term chola is more an appropriation of urban areas.”

Maria Pinto, 25, who was a hopeful for the title of Miss Cholita El Alto 2011, has always dressed traditionally, and sees more young women making the same choice. “Lately I’ve seen women changing from Western dress to the pollera,” she said. “I think that’s magnificent, because these are our roots.”

Mery Morales Flores, another contestant this year, says that if she has daughters she would dress them traditionally, but doubts many young women will make the same choice. For one thing, “dressing cholita” is costly and involves many pieces of clothing—it’s more expensive to dress cholita in Bolivia today than it is to buy an average pair of jeans and a T-shirt. The bowler hats alone can cost more than $300. The tiered skirts are also expensive, and must be buoyed up by four or five petticoats. The fabric and style of a cholita’s outfit can communicate a world of information, from the wearer’s social class to how long ago she moved from the country to the city.

Another reason Flores may be alone in how she would dress her daughters is that clothes have long been an important signifier in Bolivia, going back to 1781, when the Spanish government banned the use of traditional clothes following a massive indigenous uprising. Many indigenous people were forced to change their style of dress.
There are two schools of thought on how cholita style was born, Morales said. One popular theory is that the full skirts and shawls were an imitation of Spanish colonial fashions. The other is that before the arrival of the Spanish highland indigenous people wrapped themselves in long single pieces of cloth. The shawl and skirt, which has many layers, could be an extension of that earlier dress.

The cholita style as it exists today began in the early 1900s, as growing numbers of indigenous people from the countryside were drawn to cities for jobs and commerce. That modern style became the traditional look of urban highland indigenous women, and a point of indigenous pride and identity. But it was also an easy mark for racists. Indigenous people, especially those in traditional dress, were excluded from some jobs, schools and even government buildings through the 1980s. There are still hotels and restaurants in Bolivia where one rarely sees a woman in pollera, even though they are a common sight on every city street.

Following the election of indigenous Aymara President Evo Morales in 2006, discrimination against people wearing indigenous dress decreased as the government strove to stamp out centuries of aggressive personal and institutional racism. The contestants for the title of Miss Cholita El Alto, young women between 18 and 25, stress their pride in being cholita, despite the problems they still face. Several contestants say they have felt belittled at work by people who assume a cholita cannot hold a position of authority.

Just weeks after the beauty pageant, discrimination was again front-page news in Bolivia. Amalia Laura Villca, a law student from the Quechua indigenous group, discovered that her classmates had altered a graduation photo in which she appeared wearing the traditional blouse, knee-length skirt, braids and sandals of Quechua women. When the picture was taken Villca was surrounded by her classmates, who wore western-style clothing and long graduation robes. Later a copy of the photo emerged wherein Villca’s braids had been replaced with long, loose hair and her clothing covered with the black gown worn by the rest of the class. The Bolivian government responded, calling the deed a “flagrant act of racism and discrimination,” and called on authorities to apply the country’s recently enacted antiracism law.

In October of 2010 Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, approved the Law Against Racism. The law is a response to a long history of racism against indigenous people that began with their subjugation by the Spanish in the mid-1500s. Until Bolivia’s agrarian revolution in 1952, many indigenous people were obligated to work on large farms called haciendas. They could not vote and were excluded from most schools and universities. Although today more than 60 percent of Bolivia’s population identifies itself as indigenous, it was relegated to the edges of society and comprised the bulk of the country’s poorest citizens.

Even after gaining the legal right to vote and access education, Bolivia’s indigenous people were often regarded as biologically and culturally inferior by a society that valued white skin and European heritage. Even the word Indian, Indio in Spanish, became a racial slur and can still be considered an insult today. Indigenous organizations began to gain power and exert more political clout in the 1950s, but the new age of Bolivia’s indigenous people got its biggest boost from the election of Morales as president. Morales was born in a poor farming community and worked as a llama herder before becoming a powerful union leader and then president. With his election, the president, for the first time, reflected the reality of the country’s indigenous majority. To many of his indigenous supporters he is not President Morales, but Brother Evo. However, an Aymara president leading the country didn’t mean that racism ended in Bolivia. In fact, racism sharpened as some sectors of the country’s white or mixed-race wealthy class felt their control of Bolivia slipping away. As President Morales pushed for final approval of reforms to the country’s constitution in 2008, tensions reached a ferocious boil. That year in the country’s capital city opposition groups publicly beat and humiliated indigenous Bolivians, forcing them to kneel and crawl along the ground.

Even the pageant Miss Cholita El Alto points to the divide between women who wear the pollera and women who do not. The young women chosen as Miss Cholita El Alto 2011 will accompany the mayor of El Alto on his most important trips and events as a representative of the city. But later this year El Alto will elect another pageant queen in a competition that will feature women in evening gowns and swimsuits. The winner of that event will go on to represent El Alto in the Miss Bolivia pageant, and perhaps even on to international pageants, where polleras and bowler hats are never worn.