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Young women in La Paz, the mountain capital of Bolivia, compete in pageants that are quite different from the bikinis and cosmetic surgery of Miss Universe. They’re called the Cholita Paceña contests. In them, young women wear bowler hats and long skirts with petticoats and show off their knowledge of traditional dances and indigenous languages.
In a cobblestoned plaza in central La Paz, 14 women compete in a sort of beauty pageant. They’re doing all the usual stuff, wearing pretty dresses, dancing, answering questions. But the women are being judged on more than their looks.
They’re competing for the title of “Cholita Paceña.” Cholitas dress like their great-grandmothers, wearing embroidered shawls, long skirts and a bowler cap. The outfit is one of the iconic images of Bolivia, where cholitas, and the older women called cholas, still dominate the country’s thriving sidewalk markets.
Each contestant comes on stage to the music of a Bolivian folk song, performs a traditional dance, and then gives a short speech in an indigenous language and answers questions about Bolivian culture.
One contestant nervously lists the ingredients of three local dishes. The La Paz chairo is made from carrots, turnips, spinach, chard and all sorts of vegetables. Then, mashed dried potato, wheat berries, pig skin, and some mint are added to give it a special flavor.
At this time of year, there are nine of these pageants across the city. Neighborhoods send their best dancers to a citywide contest. Winners earn privileged positions in religious processions.
Ramiro Burgos, the mayor of central La Paz, was one of the judges of tonight’s contest. He said the popularity of these contests is growing.
“It was beautiful,” Burgos said. “I think we had more participants than we were expecting. There were 14 participants and last year there were just six.”
Burgos said that when he was young, events like this didn’t exist. “Years ago, the national culture wasn’t valued,” he said. “Customs from outside were preferred. Now it’s different. There is a change in attitude. That’s why many public institutions make a point of promoting our national culture.”
Patricia Ortega works as a receptionist at the museum that helped put on this contest. She said there are three key parts to the cholita outfit. You need the long skirt, an embroidered shawl folded into a triangle, and of course, a bowler hat. There are four colors of bowler, Ortega said. You can get one in brown, gray, beige or black.
Contestants say the events aren’t just a way to fight back against discrimination, but are also a way to stay in touch with their family traditions. Dionicia Quispe, a petite woman in her early 20s, said she wears cholita clothing even when she goes to work at a bank.
“Our mothers wore these skirts,” Quispe said. “This is who we are. In the past, there was a lot of discrimination against those who wore the traditional clothes.”
She said these contests have happened before over the years, but that traditional people have become more assertive since the country elected Evo Morales as president. He is the first indigenous president since Bolivia was founded.
“When this president came in, who is more in favor of us, the Aymará indigenous people, that allowed us to say, we can do it, we can even become president,” Quispe continues. “We all have the capacity to make it.”
And what happens when there is a new president? Quispe said the next president may well be a chola.