Bolivian skateboarders use Indigenous attire to battle discrimination

These women athletes are making a statement with their ancestral clothing.

Skateboarders from a women’s group whose performances promote Indigenous identity ride at one of their preferred spots, a road on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia. The tree-lined road is close to agricultural fields where many Indigenous people work.

Colorful polleras are symbols of cultural identity in Bolivia’s countryside. The history of the voluminous, traditional skirts worn by Indigenous Aymara and Quechua women is complex: Dating to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, polleras were imposed by colonial rulers to reflect a style worn in Spain.

The skirts eventually were adopted as part of Andean attire, most commonly associated with cholitas—Indigenous women from the highlands. Polleras inspire cultural pride, but they’re also a reminder of rural oppression.

Now a group of women athletes in Bolivia has brought pollera fashion to the city, donning the skirts during skateboarding exhibitions to celebrate the heritage of cholitas and put a modern face on the ancestral garments.

“The pollera is associated with the countryside, with ignorant people without resources,” says Daniela Santiváñez, a co-founder of ImillaSkate, a skateboarding troupe that has made the skirts a centerpiece of its performances. “We want people to understand that there is nothing wrong with wearing a pollera—we have them in our roots. If anything, we need to feel proud.”

Just as their ancestors gave the skirts their own identity by mixing them with patterned blouses, local jewelry, and hats, the skateboarders modify their polleras.

“The polleras are very valuable to me,” says Deysi Tacuri López, 28, another member of the skating group, which was founded in 2019 in the city of Cochabamba. “I wear them with pride.”

Tacuri sees the polleras as not only a cultural expression but also a form of empowerment. In the Americas, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Bolivia has one of the highest proportions of Indigenous people. Nearly half of Bolivia’s population is of Indigenous descent.

Tacuri and fellow members of ImillaSkate are among those with Indigenous ancestors. Some of their relatives still wear polleras.

“They are my mother’s and my aunts’ clothing, and I see them as strong women. Here in Bolivia, many women in polleras are the head of their families,” Tacuri says. “For me, women in polleras can do anything.”

Tacuri and her teammates spend hours practicing moves at Ollantay Park, one of two places in Cochabamba with ramps and other structures designed for the sport.

The polleras billow and twirl with every turn, jump, and occasional tumble. Riding—and performing complex tricks—in the heavy layers was not easy at first, Tacuri admits. But it’s unique.

Santiváñez, 26, one of the original ImillaSkate members, learned to ride as a child from her brother. At the time, it was “rare to see girls on skateboards.”

In Bolivia, skateboarding has been popular for about two decades. But without women role models to follow in the sport in Cochabamba—and having grown tired of listening to her mom’s complaints about her bruises from falls—Santiváñez stopped riding when she was a teenager. She took it up again after college, where she earned a degree in graphic design. By then, she’d discovered she was not the only woman with a passion for the sport.

“One day I was having a conversation with the girls about why all the boys get together to skate—why don’t girls do that?” recalls Santiváñez, who now is studying commercial engineering at the Domingo Savio Private University. After finishing this degree, she hopes to launch an audiovisual production company.

The group’s name captured its aspirations: Imilla means “young girl” in Aymara and Quechua, the two most widely spoken Native languages in Bolivia. The founders began practicing together, and that attracted more members.

During the past three years, ImillaSkate has grown to nine skaters. Being an active member means weekly practice and shared respect for diversity and tradition.

The group is based in Cochabamba, but through social media it has garnered an audience well beyond Bolivia. ImillaSkate has more than 24,000 followers on Instagram, 8,000-plus followers on Facebook, and a YouTube channel where some of its videos get thousands of views. It also has a presence on TikTok, with about 4,500 followers.

Santiváñez notes that members wear polleras only for performances: “We do it as a demonstration, as a cry for inclusion.”

Skateboarding “brings all kinds of people together,” she says. “It’s a community, and we’ve taken advantage of this to make the world a kinder place.”

Tacuri says ImillaSkate has also helped its members embrace their own roots.

“We ourselves have decided to get to know our culture and our identity. We have decided to revalue our clothing and encourage new generations,” says Tacuri, who took a leave from her carpentry job to devote herself full-time to training for a national skateboard competition that took place in November 2021 in Tarija, in southern Bolivia.

Once the skaters decided to use polleras to show the pride they feel for their rural heritage, they faced a challenge: getting more acquainted with the elaborate skirts themselves.

They didn’t know where to find the polleras, so they turned to their grandmothers for help. The young women then went on a hunt for stores in the city that sold them, as well as hats to wear and ribbons to put in their braided hair. When they showed up at the Mercado de Punata, a market for food and used clothing in Cochabamba, “everyone was surprised that we were going for this kind of clothing. We are young and from the city. People didn’t understand why we wanted to dress like this,” says Santiváñez.

“We try to explain that this helps us understand our mothers, our aunts, and grandmothers,” Tacuri adds. For her, the stigma attached to polleras changed somewhat with the election of former president Evo Morales in 2006. Under Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, voters approved a new constitution that formally recognized 36 Indigenous languages and also empowered the nation’s Indigenous people with rights such as communal ownership of land. Morales stepped down in 2019 amid protests and accusations of attempts to undermine democracy to extend his nearly 14-year rule.

Tacuri feels the group could push for more cultural recognition of Indigenous people.

“The polleras are worn at events and cultural exhibitions. Women are becoming more empowered, but it is a work in progress,” she says.

For now, the imillas see a shift in their city.

“When I was a little girl, it didn’t cross my mind that girls would skate,” Tacuri says. “In fact, that’s why I stopped for a few years. Now, with ImillaSkate, we have achieved a network. It’s not so rare anymore to see a girl skateboarding.”

Seven members of the group even embarked on a trip to the interior of Bolivia to record a short documentary. In the six-minute trailer posted on YouTube, they wear their colorful skirts as they skate in industrial zones, rural areas, parks, and other spots.

“Our goal is to promote and encourage the practice of skateboarding, to expand the sport and at the same time open new spaces to practice,” says Tacuri. “But we also want to send out a message: Let’s not forget our roots.”

This story was updated on December 9, 2022.

Luisa Dörr is a Brazilian photographer whose work is mainly focused on the feminine human landscape. See more of her work on her website and on Instagram.

Paula Ramón is a Venezuelan writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her work @paulacramon.

A version of this story appears in the January 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Read This Next

What drives elephant poaching? It’s not greed
How old are you, really? The answer is written on your face.
The rise of vegan safaris

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet