LA PAZ: Under a bright, highland sun, Esther Rodriguez became the talk of La Paz when her delicate good looks and sartorially splendid attire, complete with derby hat and layer-cake skirt, won her the city's beauty contest for indigenous women.
Her coronation as Miss Cholita Paceña - a reference to the Cholas, or Indian women, of La Paz - was celebrated in all the daily papers. But soon after, the same papers “unmasked” Rodriguez after it was revealed that she never wore her pollera (pronounced po-YEH-rah), the flowing skirt that had helped her win, to her university classes, touching off a mini-scandal in a country where countless women spend their days toiling in traditional clothes.
“No one is obligated to dress in one particular way,” Rodriguez, 23, said, putting up a spirited defense.
The episode spoke of a little noticed but significant trend in Latin America's most indigenous country - a new generation of indigenous women, urban and professionally ascendant, who honor the customs of the past but embrace modern Bolivia, Western dress and all.
“My mother wears a pollera, so does my grandmother,” said Rodriguez, sitting for an interview in her winning green pollera at the food market where she works. “I don't wear it, only because I study here in the city.”
The clothing of highland Indian women - the pollera, the 19th-century European hat and the silky shawl known as a manta - have long been a curious sight in Bolivia and Peru. Tourists trekking through the Andes are as charmed by the colorful skirts and brightly colored hats as by colonial towns and the rugged mountains where ancient Indian civilizations thrived.
The custom is a throwback to colonial times, when the Spaniards who ruled here required the Indians, after a series of uprisings, to abandon their traditional dress clothing and wear the garments then popular in Spain. The practice continued even after revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy, evolving in accordance with the fashion style of the day.
By the early 20th century, said David Mendoza, a sociologist who studies indigenous culture, women had settled on the clothing of turn-of-the-century Spain. Bolivia's 1952 revolution, which was largely spearheaded by Indian miners and overturned the old social order, only cemented the tradition.
The clothing may clearly have European origins - the stovepipe hats some women wear are a dead giveaway - but the Indians saw the adoption of old-fashioned skirts and hats as an act of empowerment that has only expanded as Bolivia's Indian culture has flexed its political muscle in recent years.
“Because it's part of our culture, we wear this,” said Maria Eugenia Roque, who is in her 30's and often wears the pollera. “That's where we're from. That's our story, our identity.”
But even in this country - Latin America's most indigenous, where perhaps 70 percent of its nine million people are of Indian descent - the future of the pollera and derby hat is far from certain.
No one is predicting the demise of the tradition, but with indigenous women increasingly residing in cities, and a growing number of young Indians even breaking their way into universities and professional jobs, the clothing of the past is being set aside for special ceremonies and parties.
“If a young woman wants another life, if she wants a law degree or to go to medical school, she cannot go dressed as a Chola,” said Mendoza, who is director of the Tambo Kirkincho cultural museum in La Paz, which includes an exhibition on Indian dress. “If you're successful, most women just do not wear the pollera.”
For some young indigenous women, the belief that they will face discrimination or be taunted as rural hicks has prompted them to drop the traditional garments. But the shift has as much to do with style and a modern sense of fashion, which has touched even the insular world of Bolivia's Quechua and Aymara Indians in this most isolated of countries, landlocked in the middle of South America.
“I would not dress like that,” said Alison Cruz, 17, who works in her father's shop, Princess Hats, selling the derby hats so popular among her people. “I would maybe do it to see what it looks like in the mirror. But I would never go out that way.”
Cost is also an issue. If a Chola really wants to dress to impress, the price can be prohibitive.
A top-of-the-line hat can cost $200, more than most Bolivians can earn in a month. And a trendy pollera can go for as much as $50. All Cholitas also know that the attire must be accompanied by the most elaborate of gold jewelry, adding yet more expense.