Elena and her friends knew it wouldn’t be easy. Elena and Alicia are cholitas: Indigenous Bolivian women who speak Aymara or Quechua as their first language and wear ‘traditional’ clothing typical of Indigenous Bolivians, such as wide flowing skirts, bowler hats, and long braided hair (I use ‘traditional’ in quotations because much of this outfit was shaped by Spanish colonisation).
The word cholita is derived from cholo, a term that has been used to describe Indigenous Bolivians in a derogatory way; until recently, cholitas were effectively banned from entering certain public spaces, including many restaurants, city plazas, and buses. While, since the early 2000s, Indigenous Bolivians have led a massive movement reclaiming their Indigeneity, there’s still a long way to go. Intersecting sexism is also still alive and well, especially for cholitas.
Elena, Alicia, and their women friends and family were right: it wasn’t easy. When they started planning to climb the 6,088m Huayna Potosí, many male climbers resisted. Veiling their fear that climbing cholitas would threaten their work, male climbers invented myriad claims to stop them. They suggested that climbing as women in polleras – traditional skirts – would be dangerous. They even claimed that a woman’s presence that high on a mountain would spontaneously melt the glaciers or trigger avalanches, endangering others on the mountain.
Their protests were met with deaf ears: Elena and Alicia continued working towards their goal. After months of planning, training, and knocking on doors to gain supporters, their team had raised enough money to rent equipment. But they faced one last setback: the climbing boots that they found were too large – all of them made for men’s feet.
Nonetheless, after months of persistence, Elena and her team of family members and childhood friends – all cholitas – were finally ready to pursue the summit of Huayna Potosí in late 2015. Along with high-tech trekking clothes for warmth, the cholitas wore their resplendent polleras.