Although Cuenca has celebrated the Chola Cuencana tradition for centuries, no chola had ever held the office of mayor or vice mayor until this week. Marisol Peñaloza assumed the office on Tuesday when the municipal council voted to replace Pablo Burbano, who had been elected to the position in May.
Defined as a mix of Spanish and indigenous heritage, cholos and cholas are noted for their colorful dress and dedication to tradition in the South American Andean region. Despite their Spanish connection, cholos tend to identify more strongly with their indigenous roots.
Despite the fact that Peñaloza’s replacement of Burbano was made under court pressure to put a woman in a leadership position on the council, Mayor Pedro Palacios says that Peñaloza is imminently qualified for the position. “Marisol has two university degrees, is well traveled and has a strong record of community service in the Cuenca area,” the mayor said.
Born in Sayausí, Peñaloza says her Chola Cuencana ancestry is central to her identity and the work she has pursued in public live. “I wear the chola skirt, the embroidered blouse and necklaces with great pride,” she says. “Although I only dress up for special occasions these days, my mother and grandmother are in chola dress all the time. I am proud of my roots and proud to wear the costume of my people.”
Beyond advocating for women’s rights, Peñaloza says she wants to change the stereotype of cholos as symbols of rural Andean life. “For much of our history, cholos have lived in small, rural communities and were known mostly for our fine crafts and domestic service work,” she says. “I want to change that perception by proving we can be effective leaders in city and national governments. Besides my university education, I am a mother, an entrepreneur and community leader and look forward to serving all the people of Cuenca.”
In Sayausí, Peñaloza is the founder of “Yaku Verde,” an association dedicated to training rural youth and is the co-founder of Cosechando Sueños, a financial savings cooperative providing loans to community residents. She is also a volunteer with the non-profit Kallpa Warmi [Female Force] network that produces a variety of crafts for community sale.
Peñaloza is a strong supporter of efforts to control mining and protect clean water sources in Azuay Province.