Youth culture | Bolivia

“Cholitas” on skateboards

Young indigenous women skateboard through Cochabamba wearing traditional dress. Daniela Santiváñez explains what sparked them to form the collective ImillaSkate and how they stop their hats from flying off in the wind
A young woman in traditional clothing skates past shopkeepers who stare after her in amazement

Interview by Gundula Haage

Mrs Santiváñez, you founded ImillaSkate, a collective of indigenous women in Cochabamba who skateboard together. How did this come about?

I’ve been skateboarding since I was a little girl. My brother passed me a board at some point and I was hooked. That’s rather unusual, because the scene in Bolivia is very male-dominated. My friend Huara and I thought that was a shame and wanted to encourage other girls to try this sport.

“By wearing these outfits, we young female skateboarders aim to honour all these women, our ancestors”

A few years ago, we founded a group for this very reason. We just wanted to have fun together and develop a sense of belonging through skateboarding. We all have indigenous ancestors, in particular Quechua and Aymara. That’s why we called ourselves “Imilla” as a group - it’s a Quechua word and means “young woman”. At a big city festival in 2019, we came up with the idea of celebrating our indigenous identity by wearing traditional clothes that are not usually associated with skateboarding. There was an incredible response to our outfits, so we decided to stick with it.

A skater with a hat on her head skates through the air

Deysi Tacuri López has won medals at skateboard competitions in Chile and Bolivia - and manages not to lose her hat even when she does stunts


You wear knee-length, multi-layered skirts, embroidered white blouses blouses and high hats. Why do you opt to dress this way?

Many Bolivian women with indigenous roots wear these clothes in everyday life, so it's a completely normal sight in Cochabamba. However, the story behind it is complicated: during the Spanish colonisation, the polleras, these skirts with several layers of petticoats, were imposed on Bolivian women as a kind of uniform. But even after our country became independent many continued to wear them and reinterpreted them into a kind of symbol for indigenous women. This clothing is a part of everyday life for many mothers and grandmothers of the young women in our collective. It is part of our cultural heritage.

By wearing these outfits, we young female skateboarders aim to honour all these women, our ancestors. They have survived colonial violence, they have emerged from the imposed coercion and have created something of their own. We celebrate their courage. Most of us also have Spanish ancestors. It is important for us to remember the complex history of our country, instead of trying to forget the past.

“I’ve been skateboarding since I was a little girl. My brother passed me a board at some point and I was hooked”

How did people respond to your outfits?

Many people were very surprised to see “cholitas” on skateboards. That’s a term for indigenous women who wear this clothing in Bolivia and Peru. When we’re out on our boards, people look out for us, whistle and cheer us on. Many women in particular think it’s really cool that we celebrate our heritage in this way. But we also get criticised from time to time. Some older people, who are even more strongly rooted in tradition, have accused us of wanting to provoke or make fun of cholitas. But the exact opposite is true!

Three women stroll across a market

Members of ImillaSkate out and about at the La Cancha market in Cochabamba, one of the most popular markets in South America


What is usually associated with this style of dress in Bolivia?

Many people who dress like this typically come from the countryside and are not wealthy. There is this prejudice that women in polleras are a bit backward, that they can't do the same things as women in the city. But as a skating collective, we want to show girls from economically precarious backgrounds in particular that they can do anything they want. For a long time, skating in Bolivia had the reputation of being an elitist, US-American sport, only for gringos, for white men. But skateboarding is also a lot of fun! We are proving that anyone and everyone can skate through the city, including indigenous women.

Six skaters stand in a row, holding their skateboards and looking proudly upwards

Members of the ImillaSkate collective from Cochabamba wear the typical clothing of Bolivian indigenous women, consisting of multi-layered skirts and embroidered blouses

In the photographs that the Brazilian photographer Luisa Dörr took of your collective and which we show here, your outfits look spectacular - but they are not exactly the most practical clothing for this sport. Doesn’t the wind constantly blow your hat off your head?

(laughs) Yes, it really isn’t the most suitable outfit. You can’t see your feet because of the many layers of skirt, which is actually very important when skating. And our legs are uncovered. When you’re doing tricks, you often get a hard skateboard edge on your shin, so you're better protected if you wear trousers. If we wear the high hats, we have to tie them with a strap under our chin and can’t do some tricks and jumps.

But we also take care of the precious polleras, a few Imillas have been given very special ones by their mothers or grandmothers. Deysi and Brenda, for example, have been given some very nice ones by their mums. Of course, they wouldn’t wear them for everyday training so that they wouldn’t get sweaty or tear. We only actually wear the full cholita outfit on special occasions - when we’re travelling through the city as a group or shooting a video for social media. If we just want to practise a few tricks on our own, we also wear trousers, shirts and baseball caps. Then we look just like how you imagine girls on skateboards would look.

Do you have the impression that Cochabamba’s skateboard scene has changed in the years since you started the collective began?

Yes, the scene has become a lot more diverse over the past few years. There are significantly more women on boards. And I think we’ve also helped to disprove the cliché that skating is only for gringos. More and more people are trying out new things and doing their own thing.

Five women skate along an avenue lined with trees with orange and green leaves

This street in Quillacollo, on the outskirts of Cochabamba, is one of ImillaSkate's favourite places because it is lined with colourful trees and plants


What particularly fond memory do you have from your last few years at ImillaSkate?

Unfortunately, I’m working full-time at the moment, so I cant skateboard as often as I’d like. It’s mostly only possible at night after a long day at work. So I enjoy it all the more when the nine of us from Imilla skate through the city together, revisiting our different favourite places. It’s simply magical! I also love teaching young girls how to skate. Watching how much fun it is for them when they stand on a board for the first time – that makes me incredibly happy.

Translated by Jess Smee