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Indigenous pride. Bowler hats. Meet an all-female Bolivian skateboarding crew

Bolivian women skateboarders — wearing traditional garb — demonstrate their skills on the half pipe.
Ben de la Cruz
/
NPR
Bolivian women skateboarders — wearing traditional garb — demonstrate their skills on the half pipe.

It’s a rather unusual skateboard lesson.

Little girls are lined up to learn to balance on a board on a half-pipe ramp. The teachers are young women from Bolivia, in their teens and 20s, wearing traditional garb as a tribute to female strength. Their outfits do not seem as if they are ideal for skateboarding: Each skateboarder wears a beribboned bowler hat and a poofy skirt. Among the eager disciples is Poppy Moore. She's only 2, she’s from Virginia and she’s brought her own helmet for her very first skateboarding experience.

The scene was on the final day of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The theme: "Indigenous Voices of the Americas." There was skateboarding and more: kite-making, marimba-playing, textile-weaving, singing and dancing. The Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol framed the festival tents on a breezy, blue-sky July day.

Members of a female skating collective from Bolivia offered lessons at the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival.<br>
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
/
NPR
Members of a female skating collective from Bolivia offered lessons at the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival.

For Goats and Soda coverage, we focused on the Latin American contingent since we cover countries of the Global South. As we interviewed the artisans it became clear that they aren’t just local talents. They reach out far beyond their homelands, touching hearts and minds — and even mentoring a new generation of skateboarders.

We spoke to some of the artists who shared their voices at this year’s festival. It was an honor to meet them and witness their creativity. And we’d like to introduce them to you.

Hats off to these hat-wearing skateboarders

In their white bowler hats and Bolivian pollera skirts, the Indigenous all-female skateboard group ImillaSkate showed off their moves at the Folklife Festival —- and also taught beginner tricks to visitors.

“Imilla” means young girl in the Aymara and Quechua language. The skaters, from Cochabamba, Bolivia, say they formed the skating group in 2019 and were inspired by their mothers and grandmothers to wear the traditional garb, along with long twisted braids.

Bolivian skateboarders get ready for a demo.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
Bolivian skateboarders get ready for a demo.

“We inherit the clothing,” says Deysi Tacuri Lopez, “and also the struggle and strength that they give us.”

“We want a lot of young girls and boys to join in on skateboarding and at the same time, to recognize their cultural identity,” she adds.

Pamela Moore brought her family to attend the Folklife Festival and her daughter Poppy went to skate for the first time at the skate workshop.

Moore's family is Bolivian but she was born and raised in Virginia. She was delighted to see the Bolivian contingent at the festival and to see her daughter skate with the group. She says Poppy, who turns 3 this summer, was very proud of her achievement.

Guys appreciate the skaterboarders, too. Aaron Davis of Washington, D.C., a member of the skateboarding nonprofit The D.C. Wheels, praised Imilia Skate’s ability to transcend cultural and gender barriers to illustrate the best of the skateboarding life.

“It’s a way of life, and I relearned that from watching,” says the 28-year-old. He was impressed that, even though the Bolivian skaters don’t speak English, they were able to share “the foundation” of skateboarding with folks so they “can go on and express themselves in their own ways with their skateboard.”

Along the way, there are skateboarding life lessons to impart, too.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you fall,” says María Belén Fajardo Fernández. “The important thing is that you stand up and continue trying.” — K.T.

A song of survival

We’re still here.

It’s a universal theme in song lyrics — remember Elton John’s 1983 hit "I’m Still Standing"? And “Survivor” by Destiny's Child. And of course Gloria Gaynor’s "I Will Survive."

This past Monday afternoon, two young men from Brazil’s Indigenous peoples sang their survival song. It was composed by the grandfather of Tambura Amondawa, one of the performers.

 Tambura Amondawa (left) sports the bright yellow-orange feathers of the macaw that is their symbol of his clan. At right is Tupi Kawahin, who wears the deep blue feathers of his clan's mutuanaguera bird symbol. Together they sang a song, composed by Tambura's grandfather, celebrating the survival of their Indigenous community.<br>
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
/
NPR
Tambura Amondawa (left) sports the bright yellow-orange feathers of the macaw that is their symbol of his clan. At right is Tupi Kawahin, who wears the deep blue feathers of his clan's mutuanaguera bird symbol. Together they sang a song, composed by Tambura's grandfather, celebrating the survival of their Indigenous community.

The singers each wear a meaningful tiara of feathers — Tambura, whose last name is the name of his clan, sports the bright yellow-orange feathers of the macaw that is their symbol. Tupi Kawahin, from a neighboring clan, is crowned with the deep blue feathers of his clan’s mutuanaguera bird.

They blow into what look like wooden flutes but are in fact hollow tubes to amplify their voices and echo the sound of the wind. And they sing in their native language:

"The sun is going down and coming up. The sun is still rising. We are still here."

For these men, the words speak of a life-and-death situation for their clans, who live on the Uru Eu Wau Wau land in central Brazil bordering Bolivia. In the mid-1980s their community had what Tambura says was its first contact with “non-Indigenous” people. These interlopers wanted the rubber and wood from trees grown on the Indigenous lands. They wanted the land, too.

There were conflicts, Tambura says. And the Amondawa people were exposed to diseases they’d never encountered.

Members of the clan died in skirmishes but mainly, says Tambura, from disease. He thinks the clan’s numbers dropped to about 20 people. “We suffered a lot,” he says.

But … they are still here. And rebounding, marrying and having children. No one knows exactly how many Amondawa there are now, he says — his guess is about 150. Tambura, 33, and his wife have three kids. The clan has lost some territory but the government guaranteed their right to traditional lands in the '80s and '90s.

Today, they farm and hunt to sustain themselves. And their immune systems are able to fight off diseases, aided by vaccines — the Brazilian government has made vaccination of Indigenous people a priority. Tambura boasts that he’s even had the COVID vaccine.

As he describes the clan’s life, Tambura mentions a recent leader who was a woman. I say that’s a progressive sign. He says matter-of-factly that she was the smartest person in the village — "that’s how leaders are chosen — who knows best."

His grandfather who wrote the song he sang is proud that Tambura sings it but was a bit worried when Tambura took off for Washington, D.C., to head to the festival in faraway Washington, D.C. “He doesn’t like his family to go away. He likes his grandson to be there with him.” A universal grandfatherly trait.

An anthropologist is translating Tambura’s Portuguese into English during the interview. (She does not speak his Indigenous language.) She says she’s going to ask him a question herself — some people in Brazil criticize Indigenous people for heading to the hospital at the slightest sign of any symptoms of illness.

Does he think his clan is too quick to seek medical attention? "With what we have been through," says Tambura, "we are very cautious." -M.S.

Bobbin and weaving

It takes a lot of concentration to weave myriad threads into a textile of many colors.

 “I’m better at dyeing,” admits Diana Hendrickson of Peru, who helps run the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, a Peruvian city. Hendrickson, whose dad is American and mom is Peruvian, works to find a bigger market for the weavings.

 Master weavers from Peru wear their creations as they demonstrate the art of weaving at the Folklife Festival.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
Master weavers from Peru wear their creations as they demonstrate the art of weaving at the Folklife Festival.

Part of the weaving contingent at the Folklife Festival, she inspects the big bubbling cauldrons of water where color is extracted from native plants – and crushed beetles.

The beetles congregate on cacti, she says. Women weavers used to harvest the bugs by hand. Now as weaving has become more of a business, bags of crushed beetles are sold at local markets.

The women, some of whom cannot read and write, learned to weave from older family members, says Hendrickson. They not only earn a living but also put children and grandchildren through school – although the economic crisis in Peru has taken a bite out of their income.

“We support ourselves with that work,” says Marina Maza Huaman. “Sometimes we make more and [sometimes] there are no buyers.”

Their labor is more than a vocation. “Our lives, our history gets poured into what we make,” says Hendrickson.

And they take great pride in their creations. Huaman is wearing a multicolored woven vest with … many buttons. How many?

“Eight hundred!” she says with a broad smile.

The magic of the marimba

A 16-year-old stands over a wooden marimba, wielding a mallet in each hand, striking the wooden bars to create a cheerful melody .Hollow mini-gourds beneath the keyboard amplify the sound.

Kevin Cabrera Sanchez, who lives in Virginia, was at the Folklife Festival representing his Guatemalan roots. The marimba is said to date back to the 1500s in Guatemala and in 1978 was declared the country’s national instrument.

Sanchez learned to play the marimba from a teacher who now lives in Guatemala and by watching videos. He doesn’t use sheet music —- “it’s very difficult to hold onto the music,” he says.

Like many musicians, he says that muscle memory is the key to his fast and fluid musicianship, with weeks of practice.

The xylophone-like instrument originated in Africa and crossed the ocean as enslaved peoples were brought to the Americas.

The wooden marimba is not your typical instrument, Sanchez adds. To keep it in tune, he says, the wooden keys must be shaved a bit.

The deft musical hands of 16-year-old Kevin Cabrera Sanchez play a tune on a Guatemalan marimba at the Folklife Festival. It's the national instrument of Guatemala.<br>
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
The deft musical hands of 16-year-old Kevin Cabrera Sanchez play a tune on a Guatemalan marimba at the Folklife Festival. It's the national instrument of Guatemala.

Sanchez says he’s grateful to be at the event and excited to learn more about how different cultures represent themselves at the festival.

“I’m always open to new cultures,” says Sanchez. “It’s always interesting to learn how civilizations express themselves through art and music”

I ask for one more song and he gladly obliges, taking the music in his head and turning it into sweet and mellow notes that fill the Washington, D.C., air. “Do you want to be a musician?” I ask. The realist in him says that’s a difficult dream and he says he’s not sure he will pursue it. -K.T.

A kite is born

A giant kite is being born.

And it’s causing a bit of stress for Ubaldo Sanchez.

Ubaldo Sanchez is about to launch a traditional Guatemalan kite at the Folklife Festival.<br>
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
Ubaldo Sanchez is about to launch a traditional Guatemalan kite at the Folklife Festival.

An artist from Guatemala who now lives in Virginia, he’s intently putting the finishing touches on a colorful, six-sided giant kite — a barrilete gigante — at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It’s about 5 feet by 5 feet and is emblazoned with the theme of the festival — "Indigenous Voices." He's painting 20 symbols to represent the Maya calendar and mark the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum is depicted in the kite's center as is the Smithsonian logo.

When I visit him in his festival tent, he is painting a bright red tree of life.

Sanchez came to the U.S. in the year 2000 at the age of 16.

 This painting, "Dance of the Deer" by Ubaldo Sanchez, depicts a traditional Maya ceremony held before hunting deer. The characters in the painting are Sanchez's grandfather (at left wearing the deer head); his young nephew Kevin Cabrera Sanchez (also in a deer costume) and Sanchez himself dressed as a jaguar.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
/
NPR
This painting, "Dance of the Deer" by Ubaldo Sanchez, depicts a traditional Maya ceremony held before hunting deer. The characters in the painting are Sanchez's grandfather (at left wearing the deer head); his young nephew Kevin Cabrera Sanchez (also in a deer costume) and Sanchez himself dressed as a jaguar.

Recognized as a gifted young artist in his home country and then in his new American high school, he has gone on to make not only kites but murals, sculpture, pottery and paintings. President Barack Obama selected one of Sanchez’s paintings, New Dawn, a portrait of Obama, for the White House collection.

As Sanchez dips his brush in bright acrylic paints, he explains that in Guatemala, giant kites are flown on the Day of the Dead, November 1, to send love and support to community ancestors.

He does finish the kite before the festival closing hour of 5:30 p.m., but there aren’t enough skilled kite flyers to ensure a safe launch. "We really have to have seven or 10 people to hold it when the wind is strong," he says. But he does send a smaller kite soaring into the skies.

 At the Folklife Festival, Ubaldo Sanchez painted Maya symbols on a giant kite honoring the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of the American Indian. Its building is depicted in the center of the kite, which is being donated to its collection.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
/
NPR
At the Folklife Festival, Ubaldo Sanchez painted Maya symbols on a giant kite honoring the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of the American Indian. Its building is depicted in the center of the kite, which is being donated to its collection.

Though he’s been in the U.S. for over 20 years, Sanchez says he maintains strong ties with his homeland. Earning his living by painting houses and doing his art as well, he’s set up a fund to provide scholarships for kids in Guatemala. In 2017, the government honored him with the presidential medal called the “La Orden del Quetzal” (the name of the national bird of Guatemala) for his art and his community service.

And if I may share a personal note: I see on Sanchez’s bio sheet that he went to the high school in Arlington, Va., where my wife, Marsha Dale, for years taught English as a Second Language to hundreds of students. They’d often write her notes at year’s end thanking her for helping them learn the language they needed to succeed in their new home and expressing gratitude that she insisted that they do their homework.

I ask if perhaps he was in her class.

Ubaldo Sanchez’s face lights up with a big grin: "I remember Miss Dale!" He says he wouldn't have been able to do what he's been doing without his English teachers, including my dear wife. -M.S.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Marc Silver
Kahwit Tela