Strength and Resilience: An Interview with Liita Gonzales, Cholita Escaladora
26 Jan, 2024 | Zofia Todd
Liita Gonzales grew up in El Alto, splitting time between the bustling city and the agricultural community of Cañaviri, an hour and a half away, nestled in the valley between the mountains of Condoriri and Huayna Potosí. Her father was a mountain guide, and her mother a cook on his tours. She recounts her parents returning from mountaineering trips, tired and dirty. As a child, she always asked her father when she could join them on a trek, wondering what made it worth the struggle up a mountain.
When she was 28 years old, her father gave her an answer: he told her that a group of women were climbing Huayna Potosí, and that he would take her to join them. On the journey, she discovered what it felt like to be part of the clouds. Climbing with the group of indigenous “cholitas”, Liita felt a sense of community and support. She found motivation with them.
For many outside of Bolivia, the word “cholita” may be unfamiliar. It is a local term for the indigenous Aymara and Quechua women of Bolivia, and has been reclaimed as a mark of pride in recent years. One particular group of such women, the Cholitas Escaladoras, or ‘Climbing Cholitas’, has gained international attention, including from National Geographic and other global media outlets. These women climb mountains in traditional attire, including their large skirts and shawls, only replacing their famous bowler hats with safety helmets.
I sat down to get to know Liita, who today is one of the famous Cholitas Escaladoras. She says she learnt what it means to be a cholita from her mother and grandmother, recalling what hard-working women they were. In many households in Bolivia, women are expected to dedicate themselves to their family: to cook, clean, and generally keep house. As a proud cholita, Liita seeks to break this mold, wearing her big skirt with pride because of the strength and resilience it represents.
As an Aymara woman from the Andes, what does the mountainous landscape mean to you?
The landscape here has always represented work. My community is at the foot of the mountain, and as a child, when we worked the fields, we could see the mountain. The mountains have always inspired me with their height.
My grandmother used to tell me, “The mountains are like beings that have life. They give us water first, then we grow things there, we sow, they give us food. We always have to have faith in them.”
For me, they are the landscape, but they are also beings. The mountains have life. They are like grandfathers to me.
The mountains are also where I feel best. They are my community, where I feel free, and I feel happy. It’s my favourite place.
What power does climbing in traditional clothes give you?
Climbing in traditional cholita clothes is a form of vindication, a way to say that we can do it, to send the message that women can break boundaries. Women stay at home, especially Aymara women. But the moment I started to climb, it was as if I were changing that.
What values do you hope that the Climbing Cholitas pass on to young Bolivians?
First, to have dreams, and reach for them. My dream was always the same: to climb mountains. I’ve become more dreamy, challenging myself even more. Young people can achieve anything. You have to let go of shyness, of fear. Even now I feel fear, but you have to find the courage to try. Nothing is lost by trying.
Also, to take care of the planet. I see the Cordillera Real, what was once white is now all black. It saddens me. It is so important to respect the environment, and those around you.
Last, I would say to always remain humble. Even if you are a skilled climber, the mountain will teach you to be humble and to keep your head down. You never know what is going to happen up there, and there is always risk. Go with lots of humility and respect.
What’s next for you?
My dream is to climb Mt. Everest. But that not only requires physical training; I have to learn English as well. I am taking English classes, as well as a High Mountain Guide course. I learn a lot from it. I’m already preparing myself, and perhaps will be able to go the year after next. But it is difficult to find sponsors in Bolivia. In some countries, it is easy, as they have the money, the equipment, everything. Here we don’t have that support, but still I will achieve it. Everest is my biggest dream!