One of my favorite parts of Bolivian culture are the Cholitas: the indiginous women with bowler hats and fancy skirts and shawls, carrying huge parcels of goods tied to their backs in colorful blankets. They are strong, proud women with a great sense of both style and social justice.
I was already fascinated by my dealings with cholita street vendors before I talked to my temporary roommate Dan Keane (the local AP reporter) about the cholita culture. Cholas was a generic term for country women, but the cholitas were a cultural statement that was adopted by both the poor women from El Alto and outer environments (where they worked the fields and do other tough labors in the middle of nowhere in their colorful garb) and many urban women, who would bling out their ensembles with the finest shawls and jewelry. And in both cases, they’re strong women who don’t take shit from anyone and who form an important backbone to the indiginous social movements that swept Evo Morales to power.
On Wednesday night, when I took the overnight bus from Cochabamba back to La Paz, I gained a new appreciation for the cholitas. There were two of them a row back and across the aisle from my front top row seat. They had huge parcels of stuff wrapped into their blankets — most likely bound for the Thursday market in El Alto — which they used to make a nest for themselves in their cama bus seats. They lounged, talked, and chewed their coca as we waited for the trip to begin.
Across from me were a young Canadian guy doing volunteer work in Bolivia and his visiting mother. They didn’t speak much Spanish, so when a women from the bus company appealed to them, I (who understands probably less than half of what people tell me at any given time) had to translate, surmising from the words debajo and enferma that she was asking them to move to seats in the bottom of the bus because sick people needed these front seats. They grudgingly complied and two healthy-looking young men took their places. “They don’t look sick to me,” the mom said as they left, but what’s done was done.
A few minutes later, the woman came to me with the same spiel, but I resisted. I already knew from the Canadians that I’d paid more for my ticket than them, and when I bought mine in the morning, the bus company women made a point of noting that my seat — in the front with nobody next to me — was one of the best ones. So I made my points and waged my objections as the woman resorted to the pleading, almost childlike tones common in Bolivian beggars and the guy next to her (who was behind me and I couldn’t see, and whose rapid fire Spanish I couldn’t understand) tried to talked me out of my seat.
That’s when the Cholitas intervened, telling the pair that it was my seat, I bought it, and that they should leave me alone. There was something resolute and unmovable in their tone, as if they were in charge here and not the woman from the bus company. And after a few minutes, they won the argument. I don’t know for sure, but I got the sense that it was a ruling class man who wanted my seat and had coopted the company to help him get it, and that offended the cholitas’ sense of social justice. Whatever the case, after it was over, I offered the cholitas a sincere “Muchas gracias,” and they smiled at me as if we had together won a small victory and then they went back to their coca and their conversation.