La Chola Cuencana, with capital C


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You’d have to be blind not to admit it: Cuenca wouldn’t be the same without them. Watch them striding from sidewalk to street to square, colors flowing from their wafty, wavy clothes, and you could be excused for thinking – as you would in any other part of the world – that this was some kind of feminine fashion statement. But here in Cuenca, it’s part of everyday life.

Squatting across from the churches selling their empanadas to passing pilgrims or workers; enveloped in fragrant blooms in the Plaza Carmelita; swishing the backs of women with a bunch of herbs in the midst of limpia sessions in the market; spooning mote pillo from an adobe window; chatting on a cellphone; dialing New York collect; calling their migrant husbands whom they haven’t seen for perhaps five or maybe ten years… Quite apart from their persistent ubiquity, the Cholas Cuencanas always seem abubble and abuzz, their daily hustle and bustle the reason everything ticks over as it does.

But just who are these women, always in a rush, who busy and scheme so? Although the noun chola exists across the Latin American continent, the Cuenca version is notably different. The clothes she wears today as part of her heritage set her apart from the rest of the women of Cuenca and Ecuador.

Photo: Jorge Vinueza.

She sports a narrow-brimmed hat with a black band which she regularly sends to headgear cleaners who dedicate themselves exclusively to the trade, where she’ll pay three dollars to return home resplendent from head to toe. The two long plaits of her obsidian black hair can often reach down to her waist. Her flouncy skirt, the pollera, her most distinguishing fashion item, is in fact two: one on the inside with its fine embroidery, called the centro, and one on the outside, known as thebolsicón. Her shoulders are draped with a knotted ikat-style shawl, the macana. Crescents or rings, glinting gold or silver, hang from her earlobes. Her blouses billow with lace and frills… Each and every element of her dress is a work of love and wonder. And a nod to a remote past.

It’s hard to shed light on the distant origins of these components. Although they could hark back to “indigenous clothing” of the pre-Hispanic era, most agree they were developed during Colonial times. According to the research of Diego Arteaga, there is an obvious link between the straight-cut anaco skirts of Indian women and the ‘polleras of Castille’. The straw hat is also, undoubtedly, a much more recent addition.

This element of racial mix or mestizaje in her dress chimes with the very figure of this woman, with her place in the world, if you will. The Chola Cuencana has, one way or another, capitalized the first letters of identity, vindicating her mixed-blood heritage, elevating it to new heights.

Getting the Chola Cuencana look is an investment worthy of Parisian haute couture. The whole outfit can set her back over a thousand dollars, depending on the quality and detail of each piece. It’s little wonder the tradition is losing ground. While some cholas wear intricate macana shawls, others simply no longer use them, or don machine-made versions.

Photo: Yolanda Escobar.

Today, for example, it’s rare to find lligllas, beautiful shawls with hand-embroidered sequins. They no longer make economic sense to confection, or are simply too expensive for their farm-dwelling clientele to afford. And there’s an irony here, since it’s this rural reality that is key to understanding the Chola’s roots, her identity: she’s an undisputed expert in all matters agrarian, in herbal medicine, in the agricultural calendar of sowing and harvesting.

But she’s also recognized as a great commuter, making her way from her countryside world to the big smoke, arriving with baskets brimming with her produce to sell across the parks, squares, pavements and streets… her extended homestead. Looking upon these scenes, you can’t help but feel that this great southern city is, in many ways, a very Chola city.

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