PHOTOS: How this Bolivian all-female skate crew is celebrating their indigenous roots ~ NPR

April 17, 20227:00 AM ET

Malaka Gharib headshot


Members of the all-female skate crew ImillaSkate in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The athletes wear polleras, skirts traditionally worn by Bolivia’s indigenous Aymara and Quechua women, when they skate at tournaments. “Many girls who see us skating feel proud to see us dressed [this way],” says skater Fabiola Gonzales. “Even our own families feel proud we’re showing our traditions.”
Luisa Dörr

No matter where skaters are in the world, you’ll likely find them wearing baggy jeans and faded T-shirts. 

Not so for this all-female skate crew in Cochabamba, Bolivia. They pair their Vans sneakers with their mom’s and grandma’s polleras — colorful, layered skirts worn by the country’s indigenous Aymara and Quechua population. 

And they’re not just doing it for the fashion. The crew — called ImillaSkate (imillameans “young girl” in the Aymara and Quechua languages) — want to pay homage to their heritage and call out the persecution that the Aymara and Quechua people, majority ethnic groups in Bolivia, have long faced. During Spanish colonial rule, land in Bolivia was taken from indigenous people, leaving them impoverished and marginalized. Over the years, many women in these groups abandoned their cultural costumes to avoid discrimination. 

“By skating in polleras, we want to show that girls and women can do anything, no matter how you look or how people see you,” says Daniela Santiváñez, who founded ImillaSkate with two friends in 2018. “The message is to be yourself and be proud of who you are.” 

Skateboarding is a big part of that. “It teaches you confidence, self-love, to get up from falls — and to be authentic, too,” she adds. 

Skater Huara Medina Montaño, 24, teaches a fellow skater’s mother how to ride a skateboard.
Luisa Dörr

Award-winning Brazilian photographer Luisa Dörr, who discovered the young women on Instagram, captured their vibe in a series of intimate portraits taken over two weeks in September and October 2021. 

“I was fascinated by their passion for their culture and the need to preserve it,” says Dörr. “Skating was just the excuse to bring up other issues.” 

The nine crew members, most in their 20s, meet regularly to practice. It’s especially important to them to wear traditional dress at public events like competitions and tournaments. 

“At first, I used to feel a little awkward” about wearing the pollera while skating, says ImillaSkate member Susan Meza. But now, she adds, she understands “the object of doing it and I feel more comfortable and free.”

Here’s a selection from Dörr’s photo series. 

Crew members skate in Pairumani Park on the outskirts of Cochabamba — one of their favorite spots because of its beauty.
Luisa Dörr
Skater Luisa Zurita, 32, wears her grandmother’s traditional pollera skirt while her grandmother styles her hair. “We dress like this to promote the acceptance of our [indigenous] culture within Bolivian society,” says fellow ImillaSkate member Montaño. “Dressing [this way] symbolizes strength, security, elegance.”
Luisa Dörr
Left: Deysi Tacuri Lopez, 27, gets her hair styled by Joselin Brenda Mamani Tinta. Traditionally, indigenous women in Bolivia wear their hair in two long plaits with the ends tied together with a tassled cord. Right: A detail of the hairstyle. “Pollera women give extra importance to their hair,” says Tinta. Her grandmother told her that brushing hair gets rid of sadness and bad energy.
Luisa Dörr
Zurita started skateboarding in 2016. At first, her family didn’t approve of her engaging in the sport. But they changed their minds after her grandmother saw Zurita skating on a TV program. When she realized it was her granddaughter’s passion, Zurita’s grandmother gave her the blessing to keep skating.
Luisa Dörr
Daniela Santiváñez, 25, is the co-founder of ImillaSkate. She says the group’s aim is to “grow” the sport in Bolivia and advocate for “more spaces to practice so we can participate in sports tournaments around the world as other athletes do.”
Luisa Dörr
Left: Skater Miriam Estefanny Morales, 23, at La Cancha market in the city of Cochabamba. In addition to the pollera skirt, she wears a traditional hat as part of the indigenous women’s attire. Right: Members of the crew look at braided hair extensions at La Cancha market.
Luisa Dörr
Deysi Tacuri Lopez, her mother and her aunt at their home in Cochabamba. “My mother has a saying: I was born wearing a pollera and I will die wearing one,” says Lopez. “I carry on her belief. I feel comfortable as I am, wearing a pollera.”
Luisa Dörr
This skate park is another favorite place to practice. The athletes say the view is amazing, and the park is calm because it’s far from the city.
Luisa Dörr
Left: ImillaSkate athletes show off their matching sneakers. Right: Lopez wears the medals she won from skate competitions in Chile and Bolivia. She started skating 7 years ago.
Luisa Dörr
María Belén Fajardo Fernández, 21, is a physiotherapy student and the youngest in the group.
Luisa Dörr
Ellinor Buitrago Méndez, 25, says that wearing the pollera while skateboarding sends the message to women that they can do whatever they like while preserving who they are.
Luisa Dörr
Méndez wears a pollera and a traditional hat. Fellow skater Medina says “some of the girls inherited their polleras from their mothers and grandmothers,” but each girl styles them differently according to their own personal taste.
Luisa Dörr
The girls dance at Pairumani Park on the outskirts of Cochabamba. “We are all unique and our differences make the world such a rich place,” says Daniela Santiváñez. “We should respect everyone for who they are. We want to show how beautiful Bolivia’s culture is.”
Luisa Dörr

Grace Widyatmadja and Ben de la Cruz photo edited this piece.

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