The crowd cheers. One wrestler slams another to the mat. The fighter stands and adjusts her skirts. Her opponent yanks her braid. These cholita wrestlers embody a puzzling combination of female empowerment, tenacity and exploitation.
Juanita pulls her bright fuchsia fringed
shawl together at her chest and flattens
the lap of her flowing, layered pollera.
A brown bowler hat adorned with small
gold chains that swing and sway with
her every move balances perfectly on
top of her thick, black braided hair falling down
the length of her back over the vibrant rainbow
of her clothes. A wide mouth can't contain her
Sitting in the Hotel Europa in La Paz, Juanita and her friend Ángela look like many other women seen all around Bolivia who carry large baskets and sacks filled with market wares and food, and whose traditional dress is featured on countless postcards and tourist pamphlets.
They are national symbols.
But they're also fighters.
In the ring they are Juanita la Cariñosa and Ángela la Simpática, cholita wrestlers and part of Bolivia's lucha libre culture – a younger sibling of Mexico's famed free-style form of wrestling and a distant cousin to the flashy, roid-roused theatrics of the United States' pro-wrestling circuits.
But cholita wrestling is more than entertainment, spectacle or sport. It's a source of both Indigenous women's empowerment and a part of the larger cultural changes underpinning Bolivia's shifting identity – two corners of the same ring.
Fighting for identity
Within themselves, cholitas represent a clash of race and class in Bolivian history. They are the descendants of lust and cruelty as Spanish conquistadors and colonists swept onto the variegated South American landscape at the expense of the many Indigenous peoples and cultures already living there. Many scholars of Latin American history see them as the urban, working-class mestizos who replaced the Native populations decimated by European invasion. They melded their Indigenous roots with European culture to create their own distinct styles and customs, which the women, as culture bearers, have maintained through the last 200 years, despite pressure from upper-class colonial elites to modernize.
But the cholitas choose to identify with their Indigenous heritage. They feel a deep connection to Pachamama, the name for the Aymara and Quechua mother earth. To them, the polleras, bowlers and braids are emblems of the oppression of their ancestors, the struggles of their present and the confidence in their futures. "There was a lot of discrimination for the pollera women," said Ángela, whose real name is Leonor Córdoba Torres. "The term cholas was used with disrespect. But now we're proud to call ourselves cholitas. We show them what we know and what we can do. And we're very elegant, too. Our clothes, hats and jewelry are very expensive."
Though these women wrestlers seem like an
oddity or a novelty to American eyes – documented
by both the famed photographers of National
Geographic and the amateur handheld cameras
of YouTube – to the predominately workingclass
Indigenous audience their fighting isn't so
"Since Aymara culture is mostly rural culture, countryside culture, it appreciates hard work; you have to be tough," said Dr. Waskar Ari, an Aymara Bolivian and professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Nebraska. "So that's why wrestling is seen as something good. … Many people who are followers of the wrestlers, they know agricultural work or they were involved in the agricultural work, and they can appreciate being tough."
Strength and resistance have always been a part of Bolivia's Indigenous culture, as Indigenous families wrestled with nature to produce crops of coca, potatoes and barley. Cholitas set up markets in the middle of bustling cities or took their families' produce out into the countrysides to sell. In doing so they created and maintained their own economies, bucking the traditional Spanish patriarchal system – which demanded they stay within the private sphere of the home. It was the Cholitas who organized into labor unions in the 1920s and '30s to grapple with the colonial elites for better working conditions. And it was the cholitas who founded the National Confederation of Rural Women, or Confederación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas, in 1980 to defend the rights of and fight the discrimination against Indigenous women.
And so it is with this historical sense of independence and tenacious spirit that cholita wrestlers like Juanita and Ángela climb into the ring. "To be a fighter means that there's no shame, no racism," said Juanita, whose real name is Mary Llano Sarez. "I'm proud to show the rest of the world that idea. I feel very proud of that, and I feel complete."
Stepping into the ring
The origins of cholita wrestling are ambiguous, and its history is vague. Locals in La Paz say the Indigenous luchadoras first entered the rings about 10 years ago. The exact numbers of wrestlers isn't known. Juanita's best guess is simply "several." Word began to spread from friends to neighbors to relatives to other friends. People were noticing the women fighters.
"I have a friend, and she got me an interview at Hotel Laisun," said Dina la Reina del Ring, a 35-year-old wife and mother who cleans offices in La Paz during the week. "And so that's how I met cholita Marina. She encouraged me to train for this and practice, and now I've been practicing for five years. They were missing cholas to do the fighting, so that's why they invited me for an interview."
Being chosen can mean big things, including trips to Argentina, Perú, Chile and even the United States. The extra bolivianos — anywhere from 40 to 300 per fight — and a chance to physically work out the dayto- day pressures of life is enticing in a population at the bottom rung of one of the poorest ladders in Latin America, where 60 percent of Bolivia's population lives below the country's self-determined poverty line.
"To me, the fight is good because it helps me release my stress from my job," Dina said in Spanish, a gold tooth flashing behind her serious face. "So, yeah, I love the fight! When I'm up on the ring, I feel stressrelieved, and I feel really good."
But the wrestlers say it's not easy. It takes a lot of practice time — and a little wine — to perfect very intense, physical moves that can involve real pain and result in real bloodshed. It takes a special kind of commitment and a lot of training in the gym to get past the tryouts and impress a manager.