The Colorful Characters of La Paz

La Paz is filled with vibrant characters. Among them, a few stand out as the most unique and noteworthy: Las Cholitas, Las Cebras, Yatiri & Brujas, and Los Lustres.

Cholitas

Out of the thousands of street vendors in La Paz, almost all of them fall under the category of cholita. These women are members of Bolivian Aymara and Quechua indigenous groups and their occupations and clothing style are what distinguish them. Most notably, they dress in many layers of puffy, colorful skirts and shawls, and top their heads with traditional bowler hats.

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Once discriminated against in Bolivia, banned from certain transportation, restaurants, and public areas, cholitas now have more respect than ever, partly due to their increasingly important role in the Bolivian economy. Their signature bowler hats are the same ones which were popular for European men 100 years ago, and through a series of imperial influences, they’re now a fashion staple for cholitas.

While purely for show, they provide no sun protection and are hard to keep on, but some say that the hats have helped these women achieve better health than others, as the difficulty to keep the hats on promotes good posture, and their backs and internal organs benefit from this.
They wear several different size skirts layered over one another to exaggerate their hips, as a sign of their capacity to bear children. How important is this to show off? Well, when the average rural family has 8 kids, and city family has 4, it’s pretty important. According to our guide, when a man see’s a cholita’s “thick brown shiny calf, he goes absolutely crazy.” Physical strength and good health are incredibly sexy to them (think evolutionary advantage), and the opposite is not. When an anthropologist showed a Barbie doll to rural people of Bolivia, the people appartently freaked out and described it as hideous.
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This stand at the El Alto market sells all different colors of cholita-style skirts.
Most Cholitas work as vendors of food, clothing, and other goods in La Paz’s street markets. The prices of the food on the streets are regulated by the government, and the quality of the goods doesn’t vary much from one stand to the next, so the cholitas compete based on social interactions. They form relationships with clients, who become loyal to particular vendors for everything a vendor sells. For this reason, we were urged by our tour guide to not try to “spread the love,” by shopping from several vendors, as many tourists instinctually do out of good intentions to support multiple vendors, because the sellers get very jealous, and this causes drama amongst them.
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The reason these women sometimes seem cold to foreigners is that they value hard work above almost anything else, and they assume that tourists are wandering their streets out of laziness, rather than working in their home country.
We also learned that some of these women are incredibly rich, as they have their hands in money laundering from the cocaine industry in Bolivia, but it’s almost impossible to tell which women are rolling in the Bolivianos (the local currency), because they continue to work at the same fruit stands as the others, wearing the same outfit, behaving the same way. The one way to tell is to see their homes, which are extravegently built modern, multi-story buildings in El Alto (link), including such amentities as swimming pools, saunas, and ballrooms, most of which are unheard of in Bolivian homes.
As if the cholitas weren’t already interesting enough, there is also a weekly WWF-style wrestling match featuring the cholitas, where hundreds of locals and tourists gather to watch them act out an absurdly unrealistic fight.
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Las Cebras

Los cebras (zebras) are Bolivia’s macots for positive change. A few years ago, the Bolivian government set up a program where school children and teens dressed up in zebra costumes to help patrol traffic in La Paz’s often chaotic streets. Before the program, some drivers in La Paz were so oblivious to traffic laws that they would ignore traffic lights altogether. Part of the zebras work has been to teach the drivers what the red, yellow, and green lights mean. While it’s almost comically sad that this was needed, the program has been effective and the streets are supposedly much safer now.
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The success of this effort led to the adoption of similar programs across other Bolivian cities, and soon the zebras were used for other projects as well, such as healthy lifestyle programs in schools and local communities.

Brujas & Yatiri

When the average person in La Paz has an ailment, like a common cold, a recurring headache, menstrual cramps, or a serious flu, their first stop is the Mercado de Brujas (Witchs’ Market), to purchase homemade herbal remedies. Operated by women of the indigenous cultures, the brujas not only sell the remedies, but also prescribe them.

You can see why it may be hard to decide, out of the many, which is best to take…

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Photo: Rough Guides

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Photo: Most Beautiful Places

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They also sell many supplies for ceremonies used by the indigenous religious groups to worship the earth and its embodied spirit, Pachamama. Such supplies include candles, candy, alcohol and lama fetuses (which are apparently from natural deaths like stillborns or mother lamas leaving their young, but we weren’t convinced), used for alters and pyres to offer sacrifices to Pachamama.

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For more intangible problems, like poor luck, trouble finding love, or a bad relationship, a yatiri is sought. Yatiris are the witch doctors who people believe can cast healing spells (positive) and curses (negative) and read and influence fortunes.

In order to do something which takes away from the natural state of the Earth, like constructing a large urban building, a sacrifice must be made to Pachamama. The larger the building, the larger the sacrifice. For something as big as a multi-story apartment-building, a human sacrifice is required. One famous method for obtaining the human sacrifice is for a yatiri to find a homeless person, offer them free liquor (or distilled rubbing alcohol if they’re desperate enough, which often they are), and then bury the drunk alive.

To this day, contruction workers in the city are very suspicious, and support the sacrifices, because they fear that if Pachamama doesn’t get her sacrifice before the project begins, the workers may taken as the sacrifice, via a construction accident claiming a life.

I visited a yatiri with a tour group, who read our fortunes and gave us blessings from his tiny quack in El Alto. I had been cautioned not to take pictures without permission or do anything else that may upset a yatiri, because they can curse a passerby, necessitating a cleansing ritual involving dead animals (which I had been assured I really didn’t want to go through)… so I was sneaky and only took a few.

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Traditionally, to become a yatiri, a man has to be struck by lightning. To become an official 21st century yatiri in La Paz, one has to go to a school for witch doctors and become certified on paper, like ours had.

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My yatiri asked my name and birthday, which I told him, and after a few minutes of arranging and interpretting some coca leaves, he read my fortune: my love life and money will be good, but I need to find a woman born in June or October or else we won’t get along when were married. Not everyone else in my group was so lucky. One woman was told she’d never find love and would be lonely the rest of her life. The guy next to me was told he should stop trying to pursue his career because he would never have success.
Before we left, someone noticed this knife on the wall, and asked if it was for anything specific.
“Yes, for animal sacrifices,” the yatiri replied.
Our guide later explained they kill dogs, cats, rabbits, and other small creatures for sacrifices.
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Los Lustres

On just about every main street in La Paz, you can find lustres, shoe-shiners sitting on the groud or on small stools, with ski-masks covering their faces, hands covered in grease, ready to polish the many leather shoes of the city with brown or black oil.
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Photo: BBC 
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Here police officers are in line to get their shoes shines by los lustres downtown.
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While at first I assumed the masks are worn to guard against the fumes of the oils, I later learned that it’s purely a way to concel their identities. The job is looked down upon by many, as feet as considered unholy by the local culture.
Near Plaza San Francisco downtown, there’s a long wall decorated with graffiti as a tribute to los lustres.
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