The emblematic bowler hat, the long black braids that protrude from underneath, and the fitted corset with skirts of bright colors: their outfits are known throughout the world. The mythical cholitas are a strong symbol of Bolivia.

In the familiar Spanish, “cholita” means simply a young Bolivian woman. It usually refers to someone who self-identifies as a member of an indigenous culture. These women have maintained a style of dress typical of the Aymara tradition that hails from the Altiplano, the high plain surrounding the country’s capital, La Paz.

For decades, however, the cholitas have suffered from severe racial and social discrimination. The term “cholita,” which became very pejorative, also indicates someone who is poor and deprived of many of her rights.

Yet everything changed again in 2006 with the election of Evo Morales. The first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia, he valued the status of the cholitas and brought them to the front of the stage.

Over the past decade, they have become more present in politics, on television, and even in the field of fashion. Hitherto unthinkable, they are now very present in Bolivian culture. Between tradition and modernity, they are now an integral part of Bolivia’s national identity. They symbolize the renewed dignity of the Indian population.

After dedicating several works to the situation of women in Latin America, I wanted to go to Bolivia to meet these women and to understand what it means to be a cholita today.

I spent two months there and met dozens of cholitas. To pay tribute to them and to keep a record of their culture and their particularities, I chose to create a photo studio in the center of the capital. Many women came to pose against a backdrop made from traditional Bolivian fabrics.

The objective of this series is to highlight their unique outfits, inspired by the Andean traditions, but above all to reveal their femininity, their elegance and their dignity. I also wish to counterbalance the stereotype of the traditional Bolivian woman and reconsider the (dated) Western vision of this population. The clothing and decorative indices of each cholita carry significances related to identity affirmation and social evolution.

—Delphine Blast

Editor’s Note: Blast’s project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2017—don’t miss the work from all 44 of the outstanding, international talents! You can follow Blast’s work on her personal website or Instagram account.