You’ll spot her gliding through the busy streets and parks of Cochabamba, her long braided hair trailing behind her. She pulls off an ollie and then slides down a ramp, into a food market, swerving around blue plastic sacks of watermelons, before reaching a skate park where the walls are tangerine, pink and emblazoned with street art.
When Zusan Meza skateboards through town, many people stop and stare. Not just because she’s a young woman in a male-dominated sport. But because she skates in a pollera (brightly-coloured full skirt) worn by cholitas (the indigenous women of Bolivia).
We want to feel proud of who we are and where we’re from
“We get all kinds of reactions to skating in traditional clothes,” she tells me. “Some people are like ‘wow’ or ‘what the f**k?!’”. Sometimes we skate in the market where there’s a lot of women wearing their polleras and we get a lot of support because they still use this clothing daily.
They compliment us or clap or say “bonita cholita” (beautiful cholita). Unfortunately, a lot of women have stopped wearing traditional clothing in Bolivia because of the stigma. There’s a lot of prejudice and they feel embarrassed about wearing it. But that’s part of why we’re doing what we do – we want to feel proud of who we are and where we come from. We don’t have to be embarrassed of our heritage.”
Until recently, Bolivia’s Cholita women were ostracized
Zusan is part of ImillaSkate, a collective of female skateboarders who formed in 2019 to use the sport to reclaim their indigenous roots (imilla in Quechua means “young woman”).
As recently as ten years ago, Bolivia’s indigenous Aymara and Quechua women were socially ostracized and systematically marginalized. Known for their full skirts, bowler hats and intricately plaited hair, they were banned from using public transport and entering certain areas of the city. Their career opportunities were severely limited, too.
Being in ImillaSkate has taught me to value my heritage
But their movement was invigorated by Evo Morales’ election as Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006, and now groups such as ImillaSkate are embracing their cultural identity.
Zusan’s abuela (grandmother) was a cholita. She takes down a picture of her from her bedroom wall to show me. Zusan says she didn’t realise how much discrimination her ancestors faced until she started wearing the traditional dress herself.
“Being in ImillaSkate has taught me to value my grandma,” she says. “My mum used to wear polleras, but then she went to the city and started wearing trousers. It makes me think of the things she must have gone through. So, I wear this clothing with a lot of emotion, because I know this battle is not only hers, but also mine.”
At first, skating in the traditional pollera skirt wasn’t easy
Zusan started skating in 2017 with a friend’s boyfriend. “The first time I got on a board, I fell down. But I loved it,” she says. “Initially it was just a means of transport, but then I started learning tricks. The boys had a lot of skateboarding groups, so me and some other girls thought ‘Why not us?’”
At first, skating in a pollera wasn’t easy. “When we started it was all really new and a bit difficult,” she says. “I need to see the position of my feet on the board, but the pollera is big and doesn’t allow you to see your feet so you have to rely on muscle memory. In the beginning, we would use knee pads. But we’re more comfortable now and don’t need them any more.”
She dreams of traveling to the US or Chile to skate
At the moment, Zusan has only had the chance to travel around Bolivia for skateboarding competitions. But she dreams of traveling to the US or Chile to skate. “They have skateparks close to the beach there,” she says. “I follow some skaters on Instagram and they post videos of skating at sunset with the beach behind and it’s super beautiful.”
Imillaskate are also helping the next generation of girls learn the sport. “We have set up a small skate school in the public park in Cochabamba,” she explains. “For us, it is amazing to be part of their journey. I think all of us would have loved to know how to skateboard when we were kids but we didn’t have the chance. These girls have a lot of energy. They fall but they’re not scared, and that’s what makes them different from the rest. They keep trying. They’re very strong.”
In 2020, she broke her fibula in four different places
Those words could apply to Zusan, too. In 2020, she had a bad fall which nearly ended her skating career. “I broke my leg and the doctor said I wouldn’t be able to skate anymore because the fibula was broken in four different places,” she says.
“I spent two months in a cast and then began a very long process of physical and psychological recovery. It was like starting from scratch with my skating. It’s been very difficult for me because right before it happened I was at the highest point in my career. But I’ve come back from it and I’m more excited than ever to be skating again.”
Zusan says that now she’s got used to wearing traditional dress, she loves it. “The polleras, hats, plaits and laces allow us to show our more feminine side, because usually we’re always wearing big baggy T-shirts and we have more boyish looks,” she says.
We want to be feminine and pay tribute to the women of our past
“We love seeing ourselves as more feminine. But more than that, we want to be more inclusive and show the world who we are and the traditions of our country and our city, and to pay tribute to the women from our past.”
With that, she grabs her board, puts on her heavy skirt and her trainers and heads back out to the skatepark, leaving the picture of her abuela hanging next to her skate medals on the wall.
Zusan Meza spoke to Kate Wills, author of A Trip of One’s Own, for Female SOLOists – a monthly column for SOLO on women exploring the world their own way. Catch up on the other interviews with Rahel Stephanie, Jessica Nabongo, Cecilie Skog and Leilani McGonagle now.
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