A woman dressed in a heavy multi-layered skirt delivers a series of overpowering slaps to her opponent before dragging her across the ring by her long braids. She then spits water on her face before smashing the bottle on her head. The audience boos and jeers, while the referee intentionally looks away. Suddenly, the victim makes a surprising flip and pins the villainous wrestler down. The referee counts to three, and the commentator announces the triumph of good over bad. The audience bursts into cheers and applause!
El Alto is roughly 4,000 meters above sea level and overlooks the capital city of La Paz. Every Thursday and Sunday, a group of woman wrestlers known as Fighting Cholitas fight each other in a packed arena as hundreds of people including locals and foreigners come to see the fight.
In the El Alto colosseum, the commentator announces the next fight. Loudspeakers blast Andean dance music at an ear piercing volume. Smiling Cholitas in colourful pollera skirts, bowler hats, and fringed shawls make a dramatic entrance. They dance and circle around in front of the spectators who cheer and clap for them. After few moments, the music stops, and the air around the hexagonal ring becomes tense. The Cholitas take off their hats, shawls, and jewellery, and put them aside before they enter the ring. Their smiling faces now in anger and disgust; eyebrows squeezed and fists clenched. The musty arena is deathly silent. Jaws crunching popcorn in the front row suddenly stop moving. All the eyeballs are on the women inside the ring. The fight is about to begin!
History of Cholitas
The word Cholita comes from the Spanish word “cholo” (chola for females) meaning mixed-race. It is a derogative term which refers to people of indigenous heritage with some Spanish blood. Cholos are people with one Amerindian parent and one second-generation Spanish parent. Cholita is an affectionate term for Cholas. The diminutive “ita” in Spanish indicates small and is used affectionately.
When the Spanish colonialist arrived in South America, they only consisted of men. Women didn’t travel with them back then. The Spanish men established liaisons with the local Aymara women, giving birth to mixed race children. To retain their racial supremacy, the Spaniards introduced a complex caste system (sistema de castas) that ranked people according to colour and race. The idea was based on the degree of purity of blood (white Spanish vs non-white Indigenous). People with whiter skin and a higher degree of Spanish blood were ranked higher and enjoyed a better socio-economic status while the people with indigenous ancestry and darker skin were ranked lower and treated as inferiors. In this caste system, Cholos ranked as the lower middle class and were discriminated in the society for a very long time–centuries.
As women from a socially marginalised community, the Cholitas have faced not just social, economic and political challenges but have also been made to suffer because of their gender. Until recently, Cholitas were subject to a lot of social prejudice and bigotry, especially in big cities. Those who moved from rural areas were ridiculed for attempting to move up the social ladder. Considered as the “maids of the middle class” they were barred from getting the higher education, not allowed to use public transport, or enter restaurants, and wealthy suburbs in La Paz.
After the Bolivian gas conflict of the 2000s, a movement led by rural peasants and the election of the country’s first indigenous president Evo Morales in 2005, there have been landslide efforts towards social change. And while poverty and economic challenges remain, there have been improvements. New policies and laws focus on ending racial discrimination and elitism. The Cholos are now permitted to enrol in universities and apply for white-collar jobs. But unfortunately, only a few are able to find permanent jobs. The historic discrimination by fellow Bolivians still exists.
Conditions are much worse for the Cholo women – their status is not equal to that of men. Domestic abuse and divorces as means of punishment are common. The reported incidence of emotional and physical violence and sexual abuse is at 70%. Even though they are paid less than men, employers don’t hire them in order to avoid giving health care benefits. The streets of La Paz and El Alto are full of hardworking Cholitas selling goods, dressed proudly in their traditional garb, their babies tied on their backs.
However, the Cholitas haven’t given up. A group of Cholita Fighters is now setting a new example for their community by fighting against the patriarchy inside as well as outside the ring with an objective to reclaim the respect and prove that women can do anything men can do.
When the organisers of wrestling in El Alto, introduced women wrestlers as a marketing ploy to regain audiences during the civil movement, Cholitas jumped to the opportunity. This was more than a chance to earn; wrestling matches that involved men and women wrestlers gave them a chance to prove their strength and bravado in a society that prized machismo. The fighting Cholitas in their elaborate attires became an instant hit. The women saw it as a symbol of empowerment.
There were a lot of challenges as well, like exploitation and financial discrimination at the hands of the organisers and were not even covered for injury-related medical costs. More recently, the Cholitas formed an independent association and now they manage their own fights.
The Cholitas way of wrestling is called “Lucha Libre”, literally translated as “free fighting”. Lucha Libre is known for free-style combat and aerial acrobatic moves that execute a good-versus- evil fight, with a dramatic story line.
One wrestler plays the role of a “bad guy”–the nasty antagonist who uses unfair means in their attempts to win the fight. The opponent plays the “good guy”–the protagonist who is polite, follows the rules and uses elegant and highly technical moves to counter their opponents. The good guy is gentle and fair fighting wins the support of the audience who root and cheer them on in the match. While, the bad one is often helped by the referee, who wilfully ignores the unfair moves and tactics. As is the case with most stories, the good always wins over the bad; leaving the audience satisfied as they feel that justice has been done.
It takes about one year of practice and training for a Cholita to become a luchadora (fighter). A fighter can be anywhere between 16-70 years of age. A Cholita Luchadora earns about 20-25 USD for one fight. This meagre income makes it impossible for them to afford medical insurance. Although the fight is scripted, the moves and falls are real. There have been times when the wrestlers were seriously injured and had to spend days in the hospital at their own expense. Therefore, most Cholitas also have other jobs, aside from their wrestling careers.
Unlike the WWF women wrestlers who wear tight, athletic and revealing garments, the Cholitas prefer to wear the same dress inside the ring that they wear outside. The dress consists of a pollera (high waisted multilayered colourful) skirt, an embroidered shawl, braided hair, a bowler hat and ballerina shoes. The Spanish forced the European garb upon the indigenous Aymara population in the 18th century as a way of caste classification.
The distinctive pollera dress is now a symbol of the Aymara identity and the Cholitas take pride in it. The figure- concealing, neck-to-ankle dress embodies modesty; an important trait in the Bolivian culture. For the Cholitas, wrestling in a ladylike dress is also a statement; women do not have to compromise on their identity to compete with men.
Cholitas chose particularly colourful skirts for wrestling to look fierce. Surprisingly, despite their heavy skirts and bulky bodies, the fighters are very agile. The aerial manoeuvres they perform can be tiring for any professional wrestler. Not to forget that these fighting manoeuvres are performed in a region that’s at the altitude of over 4000m.
The unusual fighting attire captures the attention, their regular physiques and femininity make the spectators marvel at their strength. But the wrestling Cholitas, are not about appearances. Their fight is not about a toned body or stunning good looks. In fact, their fight is not even about the wrestling match inside the ring at all. Their fight is outside the ring. As women from a socially disadvantaged group, they have come forward to fight their way literally – into the mainstream. They fight to demonstrate strength, to elevate their social status as equivalent to men, and to literally and symbolically stand against the machismo society.
The Cholitas have now become a visual symbol of Bolivia, perhaps the most famous one – alongside the salt flats. They have attained celebrity status, with documentaries, calendars, photo essays and even music videos featuring them. Their sense of fashion has become conventional. And even though the present numbers are low, they are finding their way into universities and better high paying jobs. They took the chance to take up a job traditionally marked for men and then used it to promote their own identity, their strength, and their fashion. Their fight is a statement – against social and gender discrimination, exotification and objectification. And though things are looking up, they continue to fight to show that when justice is not served, it has to be fought for.
Behind the scenes
I have been in La Paz for 25 days now, my longest stay in any city during the tour. During the last few weeks, I have been trying to learn about these impressive women, their lives, dreams and what drives them. It has not been easy.
Bolivians generally don’t like to be photographed by random strangers. It’s understandable. Just because they appear exotic does not mean that they can be photographed at all times. However, it was a constant struggle to try and win the trust of the Cholitas. They welcomed me to the arena and were happy to be photographed during and after the wrestling matches, but they simply did not want to talk about their lives.
In this post, I share what I have learnt about them from my discussions and observations.
More photos are on Facebook.