The first time French photographer Delphine Blast saw cholitas in Sucre, Bolivia about a decade ago, the clothing the indigenous women wore struck a chord with her. Ironically, the same typical dress that Blast considered so elegant served as a symbol of oppression for generations. Since colonial times, Aymara and Quechua women have balanced bombín hats atop their heads and worn long layered polleras.

Some accounts say that indigenous women – modeling themselves after Spanish women – adopted this look at the tail end of the 18th century in hopes that they could climb the social ladder. Others say that Spaniards forced indigenous peoples to wear the clothing in an attempt to “curb their subversive airs.” Up until recently, restaurants, taxis, and public buses routinely discriminated against cholitas. These women couldn’t even walk around wealthy parts of La Paz without facing harassment.

38-year-old Elisavet Ticona still remembers when business owners asked her and her father to remove parts of their dress before entering. “When we’d visit different offices they’d tell us to remove our hats or abarcas that those who come from the countryside typically wear,” she told Univision.

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In recent years, cholitas have fought and succeeded in changing these social attitudes. The election of Evo Morales – Bolivia’s first indigenous president – in 2005 has also fortified their efforts. Shortly after he began his tenure, he updated the constitution to give indigenous population increased recognition and autonomy. It’s been a period of progress, but it’s not as though all inequality and bigotry has vanished. Discrimination against cholitas continues to rear its head. Norma Barrancos, who’s in her early 30s, has seen these changes firsthand. But when she first started working for a radio station, she had to continuously prove that she belonged. “At the beginning, it wasn’t common to see an Aymara journalist,” Barrancos told El País. “Security guards would detain me, thinking that I was trespassing when I was just trying to do my job.”

However, when Blast first saw cholitas, it was still unthinkable that they could become lawyers, journalists, government officials, or enroll in universities. Even as an outsider, Blast saw a shift when she headed to La Paz, Bolivia years later. She wanted to capture it the best way she knew how – through photography. And that’s how her cholita series was born.

Focusing on a younger generation of cholitas, Blast photographed women who proudly celebrate their Andean heritage. According to the National Geographic, Blast met the women at festivals as well as a cholita modeling school and invited them to her studio for photographs. Taking a cue from the Wiphala flag that represents the indigenous peoples of the Andes, Blast had the women pose in front of bright colors. In post-production, she made each background into a circle to pay tribute to Pachamama – Mother Earth.

Blast’s stunning photos are a testament to the strength of cholitas. Despite outside threats to their culture, this rich part of Andean history endured and thrives. Head to Blast’s site, www.delphineblast.com, to check out the rest of the images. Or check out more behind-the-scenes moments on her Instagram.

[H/T National Geographic]