How a Bolivian construction worker became an online star from her Va. garage

This ‘cholita’ is trying to preserve Indigenous Quechua language and culture, one live stream at a time

Dressed as a cholita, María Luz Coca Luján is keeping her Indigenous culture alive in the United States, one TikTok at a time. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)
10 min

Before she can begin filming her online radio show, María Luz Coca Luján must first transform herself into “K’ancha,” a digital persona dressed like the Indigenous “cholitas” of her native Bolivia.

So on one recent afternoon, she hustled back home to swap out her construction attire for that traditional outfit — a colorful, billowing skirt, dangling gold jewelry, a bowler hat atop her neatly braided hair — and then started live-streaming.

“Muy buenas tardes, aquí vamos de nuevo,” she told the viewers, at first just a few dozen of them, watching her in her garage in the nondescript D.C. suburbs. “Good afternoon, here we go again!”

Soon there were hundreds tuned in — from Madrid, Chile, New York — as the 32-year-old launched into a chatty monologue that rapidly became a vocabulary lesson in Quechua, the Indigenous South American language she has been battling to keep alive.

“Tell me all the words that you all use to convey anger,” she told them. “Let’s build our dictionary in Quechua, yeah?”

In Northern Virginia, home to the largest Bolivian population in the United States, this regular broadcast has helped Coca Luján, a.k.a. K’ancha, fashion herself into something between a social media influencer and cultural preservationist for this community of 40,000.

She is there at birthdays, baptisms and graduation parties, emceeing the festivities and broadcasting them to family members a continent away. She helps run an Instagram account that promotes Quechua to English-speaking youths. Her radio show, streamed live on Facebook and TikTok most weekday afternoons, features a mix of music and off-the-cuff commentary in both Quechua and Spanish for a combined following of more than 180,000 people.

Equal parts linguist, content creator and nightlife correspondent, she is iCarly meets Yalitza Aparicio — if one of them worked in a hard hat, wrote poetry and managed her growing online presence from a garage in Manassas Park.

“She’s not presenting it for an outsider. She’s tailoring it to the people who are part of the culture,” said Karen Vallejos, a Bolivian American who grew up in Northern Virginia and now runs an area nonprofit for undocumented youths. “She’s using slang, she’s using nicknames, things people from the community would understand. … [Young people] see her dressed up in the clothes their grandma would wear, and they want to know more.”

A handful of other Bolivian women play a similar role in Northern Virginia, each with their own social media radio show and following across the diaspora. They all self-identify as cholitas, or women who claim their Indigenous Andean heritage and preserve this style of dress.

But K’ancha, who studied Quechua in graduate school before coming to the United States, has seemingly been the most intent on using her microphone and ring light as tools to keep her heritage alive.

“The objective that I started with has always been to maintain our culture within our community,” she said in Spanish. “Being able to dance in the cholita skirt, jumping, having fun — it’s like a whole new sensation. It makes me feel more connected with my family, like I am at home.”

And for younger generations born in the United States or elsewhere across the Bolivian diaspora, she hopes it can foster that connection, too.

From stigma to celebration

Growing up in Bolivia’s Valle Alto highlands, Coca Luján rarely wore the outfit that has become synonymous with the region’s cholitas — especially not the pollera, or long skirt.

Although Bolivia has one of the largest Indigenous populations in South America — more than two-thirds of the national population, by some measures — that type of dress and the heritage it stood for were often looked down upon and stereotyped.

In a country governed by people with mostly European ancestry, these Indigenous women were relegated to the fringes of society. (The word “cholita” derives from “chola,” a term for Indigenous women that took on a derogatory tone.)

Cholitas were banned from using public transit or entering government facilities, including public schools. Coca Luján’s mother left school in the third grade to keep wearing her traditional skirt instead of Westernized clothing.

Coca Luján’s family could only afford to rent her this clothing for a few special occasions. In her young eyes, the pollera would draw unwanted attention anyway.

When a grass-roots Indigenous movement spread through Bolivia in the early 2000s, though, conditions for cholitas finally started to change. That push culminated in the rise of the left-wing leader Evo Morales, who repealed laws targeting cholitas and required all public-sector workers to learn an Indigenous language such as Quechua.

“What I started understanding is that there was something in me that was connected to the culture and to Quechua,” Coca Luján said. She dove into her native tongue, even enrolling in graduate school to further study the language she had once shunned.

Yet, it wasn’t until she moved to the United States in 2017 to work as an au pair — first in Colorado, then in Florida, then finally landing in Maryland — that she came to see the value of the traditional fashion.

All alone in an unfamiliar country, she struggled to feel at home and find other South Americans. But her home in Maryland was not far from Northern Virginia, where Bolivians from the Valle Alto — the same area where she grew up — had built a thriving community of folkloric dance groups and weekend fundraisers for neighbors in need.

Here, she discovered, the cholita outfit was celebrated, not stigmatized.

Two connected communities

For many years, life in the Valle Alto region of Bolivia has been centered around the practice of moving elsewhere, if only temporarily, to improve one’s livelihood. People would move to Cochabamba, the nearest metro area, or to farther-off cities such as La Paz to send or bring money back home and then eventually return.

Some left for Chile or Argentina or even Spain. And starting with the sky-high inflation of the 1980s, some Valle Alteños moved to Arlington, where a growing outpost of Bolivians had started opening restaurants and bakeries along Columbia Pike and organizing weekend soccer leagues in Pentagon City.

“There’s this idea, ‘We are a people that have to move because our circumstances are difficult,’” said Marie Price, a geography professor at George Washington University who researches Bolivian migration. “But people found this was a good place, and once they got settled, others came.”

Northern Virginia and the Valle Alto developed such a strong connection, she said, that young people even in tiny, isolated towns spoke of making their way not to the United States or the D.C. area, but to the specific Arlington intersection of North Glebe Road and Pershing Drive.

Census figures show there are about 40,000 Bolivians in the D.C. area, although some researchers and community leaders say that number represents only a fraction of a population that has shifted to Fairfax and Prince William counties and maintained a host of traditional cultural practices.

Coca Luján was so astounded at how much Bolivian culture was present locally that she started live-streaming community events on her personal social media accounts.

“I would say, ‘Wow, a chicharrón!’ or things like that. I would take photos and post them or make a video,” she said. “They dress, they dance, they sing, they do everything like in Bolivia.”

A friend encouraged her to make those videos public — and a few months later, K’ancha was born.

Daring to go online

Coca Luján had always been painfully shy, she said, even when first getting involved in the local performance scene. But when a Bolivian DJ asked her to speak in Quechua on his Facebook Live radio show, she did not hesitate.

“If there is something about this country that I have to highlight,” Coca Luján said, “it’s that perhaps it has taught me to dare to do many things, to have a lot of courage.”

She went to Best Buy to purchase a laptop, practicing over and over in live-streams that only she could watch. She adopted the name K’ancha, which translates to “light,” just like her name in Spanish. Soon, she found such an enthusiastic fan base that she launched her own radio show.

“All of us feel very proud to see María Luz wearing the skirt,” said Carlos Claros, 30, a photographer and construction worker who helped K’ancha go solo. “We see it as a family thing. She’s keeping a tradition alive.”

All the while, K’ancha never stopped filming at community events, through “kermesses solidarios” — fundraisers for Bolivians who had ended up in the hospital with covid-19 — and then at the surge of in-person baptisms, weddings and graduation parties that followed.

“The broadcasts are a way to link families across different places — to say, ‘We are here,’” she said. “Maybe you’re a bit far away, you can’t hug each other. But you can share in this good time and send greetings.”

At some events, she recalled, someone might grab the microphone from K’ancha’s hands and say, “Dad, can you see me? I want to say hi.”

Cholita pride

On one Saturday last month, K’ancha put on a lime green and yellow dress, packed up her microphone and ring light, and drove to a nondescript office park near Fairfax City for another broadcast — this one, at the first event of the Carnaval season.

Small flakes of colored paper dotted the carpet, where the crowd sitting on metal fold-up chairs around the room sipped from plastic cups of beer. A DJ set up in a corner booth blasted copla music over the speakers.

One by one, he would turn to address a corner of the room and call on a “comparsa,” a social club often associated with a specific town or region in Bolivia.

And one by one, they got up and headed to the dance floor in the middle, the men wearing matching vests or button-down shirts emblazoned with the name of their crew. The women, dozens of them, were all decked out in billowing skirts, braids and heels.

“¿Dónde están las cholitas?” the DJ asked over the loudspeaker. “Where are the cholitas?”

The women cheered and jumped and raised their hands in the air, as K’ancha stood in the center of the crowd broadcasting it all on a live stream. She approached a group of teenage girls from the Comparsa Villa Mercedes, all dressed in purple skirts and white heels, and asked each one to spin around for a video.

“Some people might say, ‘Oh, they don’t like that because they were born here,’” she said right into the camera. “No sir, they are proud of being able to wear this beautiful outfit.”

And just maybe, K’ancha had something to do with that.

Story editing by Jennifer Barrios. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video by Hadley Green. Copy editing by Paola Ruano. Design by J.C. Reed.