When my husband and I told our new friend Pati, the daughter of the former president of Bolivia, that we were going to El Alto to see the Cholitas Luchadoras, she suggested I keep our five month old daughter strapped to my body at all times.
“Children have been kidnapped from daycare centers and returned a week later with a scar and a bandage where a kidney used to be.” Our friend, Eric, who worked at the U.S. embassy, asked how we’d be getting there from La Paz since taxi drivers, who are afraid of being shot point blank in the back of the head by a would-be passenger, refuse to drive into the rough sprawl.
Okay, got it. El Alto is a scary town. It’s cold, treeless, thirteen thousand feet above sea level, and home to one million people, many of whom fled to the city over the past three decades to escape the countryside’s increasing droughts, floods, and heartbreaking privation. The lucky ones find trade work in La Paz; the others make ends meet in the mines or the mercado.
I sincerely thanked our friends for their concern, but nothing was going to stop me from seeing the Cholitas Luchadoras.
A chola (-ita is added as a form of endearment) is a Bolivian woman of Quechua or Aymara decent who wears two long braids and traditional clothing. Her unique style is a mash-up of indigenous, Spanish Colonialism and early 20th century British attire. She wears numerous petticoats underneath a sateen skirt called a pollera —pleated if she’s married, not pleated if she’s single. She covers her upper half with a blouse or sweater, a colorful shawl, decorative jewelry, and the iconic tall bowler hat placed atop her head with a practiced slant. On her back, she ties a piece of hand-woven fabric, the only part of her attire that’s indigenous, used to carry either goods or small children. The colors and designs on the fabric indicate from which region of the Andes or Altiplano she hails.
A luchadora is, simply, a female fighter.
Put them together and you have the Cholitas Luchadoras— or the Fighting Cholitas—badass women in fancy skirts duking it out.
Wrestling has been popular in Bolivia since the 1950s, but fifteen years ago, it got good–really good–with the extraordinary creation of the Fighting Cholitas. These pile-driving ladies have given new life to Bolivia’s own version of Mexican lucha libre, a free-form dramatic spectacle somewhere between a wrestling match and a telenovela.
The show consists of multiple rounds with various match-ups. Man against man. Man against woman. Woman against woman. Two women against man. Yet, within each variation, the tecnicas (goodies) always fight against the rudas (baddies) in what is understood to be the fight of good against evil—or, in Bolivia, freedom against oppression, indigenous against imperialists, women against the ages.
Although the fight sequence allows for much spontaneity, the winners are predetermined; the cholitas always win. The hard working people of El Alto don’t save up bolivianos all week and spend the equivalent of $2.50 USD to watch their beloved cholitas, embodiments of all that is sacred —tradition, family, indigenous culture, and motherhood – lose.
I knew this, rationally, but when the 1980s horror film villain, Jason, came out with a chainsaw intent on hacking up the beautiful cholita, Carmen, I emotionally lost it. She ran from him and beseeched the audience to intervene. “This is unfair!” she shouted in Spanish. “He’s going to kill me! No! Please! Help me! This isn’t right!” After chasing her for a few minutes around the stadium, Jason corners her in the ring and throws her to the ground. She lands with a thud and her legs go up, ruffled knickers bob in the air. I had to choke back the tears.
The audience yells obscenities at the mad man and throws popcorn and shoes at him, but he pays no attention. He throws Carmen out of the ring. The referee starts the count—uno, dos, treis…quince—but then, in an act of lunacy, the maniac goes after the ref.
In the nick of time, Carmen musters her strength and climbs back into the ring. She puffs out her chest and taunts the psycho to come hither with her hand. “You touch me, you die!” she yells, looking to the audience for support. They stand and cheer, “Go cholita!!!!! Kill him!!!!” He charges, but she’s too nimble, smart—fierce. She runs to the corner, climbs on the ropes, and launches her body in a high-flying swan dive to sack him to the ground. He’s down for the count.
The crowd goes wild. I search to meet other eyes around me to silently say, did you just see what I saw!? I quickly lock eyes with a British woman (I’d thought this impossible while traveling in London), and we both say, “that was amazing!” at the same time.
As we left the coliseum, I wondered why I’d been so moved by the cholitas’ performance. And not just me, the entire audience was impassioned, as if we all had skin in the game.
Watching the El Alto crowd, in fact, is as engaging as watching the show. Although the ringside seats are reserved for tour groups full of gringos like me, the fighters play for the stands. The intensity of real emotion in the coliseum—both in and out of the ring—belies the knowledge of each fight’s fixed outcome.
It’s impossible to know what each person was thinking, but I asked one chola holding a baby the same age as my daughter why she comes every week to see the show when she knows the cholitas always win. “We don’t always win,” she replied, matter-of-factly.
Ostracized for generations, cholitas were stereotyped, denied education, health care, and entry into some restaurants, taxis, and even public buses. Over the last fifteen years, however, these proud women have begun to reassert their place from “the maid of the middle classes” into Bolivia’s economy, politics, and mainstream culture.
Quite beautifully, the journey of the Fighting Cholitas since their creation demonstrates this shift in the public mind.
In 2001, as show turnout severely dwindled, Juan Mamani, wrestler and president of the all-male Titans of the Ring, began to think of creative ways to recapture public interest. Mamani first thought of introducing fighting dwarves, then moved on to wrestling women. His intention was more freak show than gender equality.
Today many of the cholitas have asserted independence from Mamani and the Titans, and now their event sees over a thousand fans enter its doors each week. Despite their diminutive stature, the women have reached an equal or greater skill level than the men to the extent the male fighters are just a warm-up act for cholita wrestling.
“Men used to mock us, but we have shown them that we have come further than male fighters,” said la cholita, Carmen Rosa.
In the case of the Fighting Cholitas, the medium is the message, one we should celebrate today on International Women’s Day and every day forward.
As a mother, especially of a daughter, I honor the Fighting Cholitas for at once upholding their tradition and pushing it to evolve. They’ve broken gender norms and asserted themselves in a man’s sport without being forced to adopt the male identity construct. They are proud to be mothers and wives, proud of their indigenous culture, but they are also proud to be wrestlers, women wrestlers.
Stevie Magdelena Trujillo is a permanent nomad slow-traveling around the world with her family of three. So far they’ve driven through eighteen countries and counting. Follow her blog, Nomadly in Love, where she writes about her travels, alternative-living, road-schooling, recovery, and personal transformation. She aims to make you laugh, cry and live inspired.