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The Stripping of Tradition, One Pollera at a Time

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Editor’s note: Missioner Allison Dethlefs reflects on the parallels between the stripping of Christ’s clothing with the societal stripping of the cultural dress that she has witnessed in Bolivia.

As I reflect on the Stations of the Cross in preparation for our coming Lenten season, my thoughts have come to dwell on the Tenth Station—Jesus is stripped of his clothing.

It is in this moment on Jesus’ road of suffering that the last shred of his dignity is torn away. Picturing the scene, I can only begin to imagine the pain He must have felt: the physical pain of wounds re-opened, the emotional pain of suddenly being thrust into complete vulnerability—without a shred of security or cover—and the shame of being seen by crowds in this wounded, exposed state.

Strangely, my thoughts immediately turn to another form of stripping that occurs all too often in Bolivia: the cultural stripping that the indigenous population has undergone for centuries. Here in a world where “progress and development” are seen as preferable and superior to the “backwards ways” of the past, I have witnessed this form of oppression in the lives of so many of the indigenous people that I work with on a daily basis.

One concrete example is the societal pressure to switch from wearing the traditional dress that indigenous women wear, the pollera, to modern clothing. Living in the city, the power and privilege dynamics between those who have left tradition behind and those who still wear polleras are clear and challenging.

Walk into the marketplace and you will see that the majority of women who are selling—especially from carts or piles on the streets—are ones who still wear polleras. Look at the buying population, and that percentage drops significantly. Walk into a private hospital, a pricey clothing store, or a supermarket, and I guarantee that the number of polleras you will see is next to none.

Geno is one of the nurses from the staff of the health foundation I volunteer with who is originally from the campo (rural area.) After years of conforming to the marks of her status and move to the city by wearing modern clothing, it was a huge deal when she decided to switch to wearing a pollera again. In her, I saw the reclaiming of lost dignity, an acceptance of her cultural richness and roots, a conscious and defiant decision not to let her society strip her of what was rightfully hers—her worth as a person with a history and a people of immeasurable value.

I leave you with one last image. In many churches that I have visited here in Bolivia, especially those in rural areas or more marginalized communities, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. When one looks up to the altar to see the image of Christ crucified in the States, they most often see a dying Jesus with only white rags left to clothe him.

But here, the crucified Jesus bears something else as his last scrap of dignity: the colorful traditional skirt of a pollera.  

Reflection Question: Is there something that society is pressuring you to give up? How can you help to defend human and cultural dignity?

Allison has been serving in Cochabamba, Bolivia since January 2016.

Allison has a wide range of interests and loves including art, dance, long-distance running, baking, literature, and languages. She graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, NE, where she studied Spanish, studio art, and justice and peace studies. After serving and studying in Honduras, Peru, and the Dominican Republic during her university years, she chose to to dive into the new experience of long-term mission abroad.