Skin Deep

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REUTERS / Alberto Lowe
Miss Bolivia Irene Aguilera Vargas takes part in the Miss Universe National Costume show in 2003.

Bolivia and Peru have disagreed on a number of modern issues–energy policy, border control, drug enforcement. The tension between these South American neighbors reached an unprecedented level in August 2009 when Bolivia accused Peru of stealing. Bolivian officials were so outraged that they threatened to take the matter to an international tribunal at The Hague.

The item that Peru stole that was so upsetting to Bolivia: the idea for an outfit worn by Miss Peru at the Miss Universe pageant in the Bahamas.

As part of the competition, each contestant parades across the stage in a gown or costume that represents her home country. During the 2009 pageant, Miss Mexico appeared in a tight mariachi outfit and Miss India wore a revealing, sparkly sari. Miss Peru’s costume featured an elaborate cape and horned headpiece, inspired by an ancient Andean ritual known as La Diablada, or the Devil’s Dance. Bolivian government officials immediately cried foul, claiming that the dance originated in the Bolivian city of Oruro. They also considered the costume an act of cultural theft.

The controversy played out in the media like a catfight between diplomats as public relations officers from the two countries exchanged barbs in the press. Eventually, the feud faded. But even when the conflict was at its height, no one bothered to ask the obvious question: Why was Bolivia so upset over a beauty pageant?

Anyone who’s been to Bolivia knows that beauty contests are a big deal there. Newspapers lead with stories about the pageants, and the winners often become national heroes. “Beauty queens and models are our precarious royalty,” says Edmundo Paz Soldán, one of Bolivia’s best-known novelists.

Paz Soldán speaks from firsthand experience. He had the misfortune of judging one of the most controversial pageants in the country’s history, the 2008 Miss Bolivia contest. Historically, winners of this contest have come from Media Luna, a region known for its tall, light-skinned, European-looking women. But in 2008, breaking decades of tradition, the judges selected a woman from Cochabamba, a city in the heart of the indigenous Quechua culture. Shortly after the new Miss Bolivia was crowned, a riot erupted. Fists flew and several people were injured. It took security nearly an hour to quiet the crowd. Fearing for his safety, Paz Soldán fled out the back door.

As the 2008 contest demonstrated, Bolivia is a nation still deeply divided by racism. It never truly freed itself from the values imposed by the Spanish empire centuries ago, when Indians were viewed as second-class citizens. Sadly, they’re still seen that way today, despite the fact that whites represent only 10 to 15 percent of the population.

Bolivia’s white minority is largely concentrated in Media Luna, where the people consider themselves separate from the rest of the country. It’s an attitude summed up by 2003’s Miss Bolivia, Gabriela Oviedo: “Unfortunately, people who don’t know Bolivia very much think that we are just all Indian people,” she says. “I’m from the other side of the country. . . . And we are all tall, and we are white and we know English.”

The racial divide is so deep that the Media Luna region constantly threatens to secede and form its own independent nation. It almost succeeded in 2008, after Bolivian President Evo Morales announced plans to change the constitution. That year, Santa Cruz–a department in Media Luna–held a referendum on autonomy that received a whopping 85 percent of the vote. The motion, previously deemed illegal by the courts, ultimately failed.

Despite the racism in Media Luna, there are signs that Bolivia is coming together rather than splintering apart. President Morales has helped bring into question long-held notions of race and beauty.

For example, he named the first cholita–an Indian woman who wears traditional dress–to serve in the cabinet. It was seen as a bold, controversial move at first, but since then the country has slowly rethought the value it places on its native culture. Once marginalized, cholitas are now becoming role models. They anchor the nightly news and host their own television programs.

These days, cholitas also walk the runway as part of the annual Miss Cholita La Paz pageant, which celebrates the beauty of indigenous women. They appear not in bikinis, but in bowler hats and colorful ruffled skirts, their freshly scrubbed faces free of makeup. Their choice of traditional shawl and their ability to speak the native language of Aymara factor into their scores. Impostors are strictly forbidden. The 2007 winner was stripped of her title minutes after receiving it when the judges learned that her long braids were actually extensions.

The Miss Cholita pageant is hugely important to the Indian people, but it’s still small potatoes compared to the prestige of the Miss Bolivia pageant. To date, an indigenous woman has never competed for the title of Miss Bolivia. (The winner of the controversial 2008 contest wasn’t from Media Luna, but was of European descent.)

In the end, the big question is not whether an indigenous woman will hold the title of Miss Bolivia some day; it’s whether Bolivia can treat people of all races with fairness and dignity.

It’s an ambitious task, but one that President Morales has committed to. Only time will tell if he earns his crown.

Reprinted from mental_floss (July-Aug. 2010), a riotous magazine that fulfills its mission to “educate and entertain.”

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