The colorful polleras are a symbol of identity in the Bolivian countryside. But these voluminous, traditional skirts worn by Indigenous Aymara and Quechua women have also been the object of discrimination, some seeing the appearance at odds with modern identity. Now a group of women athletes has brought them back to the city—donning them during skateboarding performances—to celebrate the cultural heritage of the cholitas.
"The polleras are very valuable to me,” says Deysi Tacuri López, 27, a member of ImillaSkate, founded in 2019 in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city. “I wear them with pride.”
Tacuri sees in the polleras not only a cultural expression but also a form of empowerment. Bolivia has the highest proportion of Indigenous people in the region, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. More than half of Bolivia's population is of Indigenous descent.
Tacuri and fellow members at ImillaSkate also 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,” she said in a telephone interview. “For me, mujeres de polleras [pollera wearers] can do anything."
Tacuri and her teammates spend long hours practicing moves at Ollantay Park, one of two places in the city with ramps and other structures designed for the sport.
The knee-length skirts billow and twirl with every turn, jump, and occasional tumble. Riding and performing complex tricks in the heavy layers, Tacuri admits, isn’t easy. But it’s unique.
ImillaSkate was founded by Daniela Santiváñez, 26, and two friends. She learned to skate as a child thanks to her brother, though it was “rare to see girls on skateboards.”
Skateboarding has been around in Bolivia for about two decades. But without women role models to follow in the sport in Cochabamba—and growing tired of listening to her mom’s complaints about her bruises from falls—Santiváñez stopped practicing when she was a teenager. She took up skateboarding again after college, where she got a degree in graphic design. By then, Dani, as her friends call her, 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 is now studying commercial engineering at the Domingo Savio Private University. After finishing this second degree, she hopes to launch an audiovisual production company.
The group’s name captured their aspirations: The word imilla means "young girl" in Aymara and Quechua, the two most widely spoken Native languages in Bolivia. The founders began practicing together and that led to competitions and then more members.
Over the past three years, ImillaSkate has grown to nine skaters. Being an active member means making time to practice every week in order to be able to participate in competitions, and also sharing the same principles of acceptance of diverse groups and traditions. Although the collective is based in Cochabamba, the group has generated a wider audience on social media beyond Bolivia, with more than 5,000 followers on Instagram. They also maintain a Facebook page with more than 7,000 followers, and a YouTube channel where some of their videos get thousands of views.
Santiváñez clarifies that they wear the skirts only for performances, not necessarily as their street clothing. "We do it as a demonstration, as a cry for inclusion,” she says.
For these athletes, the skateboard is an ideal vehicle to drive change.
"Skateboarding is inclusive, it brings all kinds of people together,” says Santiváñez. “It's a community, and we've taken advantage of this to make the world a kinder place.”
Tacari says they first challenged themselves to 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 the national skateboard competition, scheduled for the last week of November in Tarija, in southern Bolivia.
Origin of polleras
The polleras’ origins date back to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Orginally imposed by colonial rulers as a way to easily identify the native population and also have the attire conform to what was being worn in Spain by the poorer people, the skirts eventually were adapted as part of traditional Andean attire, most commonly associated with cholas—Indigenous women from the highlands. Just as their ancestors gave the skirts their own identity by mixing them with patterned blouses, local jewelry, and hats, the skateboarding imillas are making their own modifications to the garment—and trying to remove a stigma.
"The pollera is associated with the countryside, with ignorant people without resources. We want people to understand that there is nothing wrong with wearing a pollera—we have them in our roots,” says Santiváñez. “If anything, we need to feel proud.”
Their plan to use the skirts as part of their expression required the skaters themselves to get acquainted with the garment, since they had lost touch with the tradition. The group didn’t even know where to get the elaborate skirts, so they turned to their grandmothers for help.
Not all of them jumped on board immediately, concerned they would be stigmatized. Even as the descendant of a mujer de pollera, Luisa Zurita struggled with getting her family to understand the premise behind the wardrobe. Only after she was invited to participate in a local television program for a skateboarding performance did her grandmother give Zurita her blessing—and her favorite pollera.
"In my house, only my great-grandmother was a mujer de pollera, so it made it harder for me to get one to wear,” she says. “But several of the girls got polleras from their moms, aunts, and grandmothers, and we would borrow them. At first, we felt a little sad because these skirts were old and expensive—they had several layers, they had a value—and we were embarrassed that they would get stained or torn."
The skaters then went on a hunt for stores outside the city that sold cheaper versions, as well as the hats and the ribbons to put in their braided hair. When they showed up at the Mercado del Cerrito, the largest outdoor market for 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.
"But we try to explain that this helps us understand our mothers, our aunts, and grandmothers," adds Tacuri.
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, that voters approved a new constitution that formally recognized 36 Indigenous languages and also empowered the nation’s Indigenous people with broader and other rights such as communal ownership of land. Morales stepped down in 2019 amid protests and accusations of attempts to undermine democracy to extend his 14-year rule.
Even with that progress, Tacuri felt they could push for more cultural recognition.
"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."
Several members of the group even embarked on a trip to the interior of Bolivia to record a short documentary. In the six-minute trailer, released on social media in September, they’re seen skating with their colorful skirts in industrial zones, rural areas, parks, and other sites.
"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."
Paula Ramón is a Venezuelan writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her work @paulacramon.