While most recognize the cholas or cholitas– Bolivian women wearing full skirts buoyed by petticoats, embroidered shawls and felt bowler hats over their long braids– the image of wrestling cholitas is more recent. But it has not gone unnoticed. The New York Times and National Geographic among others have published pieces about the cholitas luchadoras in recent years.
Traditional chola clothing is a hybrid of colonization and Andean personality
Nineteenth-century colonists imposed the Spanish clothing style of the time: full skirts, mantillas, and embroidered blouses. That way of dress was called chula, which eventually became chola.
The bowler hats supposedly came into use after a men’s hat salesman, unable to sell his wares, started a rumor that wearing the felt hats guaranteed fertility. Today’s pleated skirts, or polleras, are made of eight meters of fabric and have as many as five embroidered underskirts.
By dressing in these traditional garments a woman is de pollera. It speaks of worldview and of socio-economic status.
Cholita dress is characteristic of indigenous and mestizo people, from cities and rural areas
Sadly discrimination against cholitas is common, although 55% of Bolivians identify as Aymara or Quechua and an additional 30% as mestizo.
Since Evo Morales came to power, indigenous peoples have gained rights and visibility, with women in traditional dress in government and on television. In 2013, the mayor of La Paz declared the bolivianas de pollera a cultural icon.
The Andean wrestling style: lucha catchacanista
The word catchascanista comes from the English catch-as-can. Bolivian wrestling, or lucha libre, combines Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, and martial arts. It incorporates figures of mythical Andean culture and tradition.
Like professional wrestling in Mexico, a likely origin for Bolivian lucha libre, it is a combination of sport, choreography, and comical theater.
Wrestlers fall into the camps of rudos (or brawlers) and técnicos (good guys). Their professional identities are often overt archetypes, such as Yolanda la Amorosa (the Passionate) or Claudina la Maldita (the Damned). The rudos are tasked with representing the dark side of humanity.
Cholitas in the ring
According to most accounts, cholas started participating in Bolivia’s lucha libre scene in 2001 or 2002. A promoter from Los Altos, a million-inhabitant city overlooking La Paz, put out a call for women fighters, in the hope that luchadoras would revitalize a waning attendance.
It worked. Cholitas fighting each other or fighting men, became among the most heavily attended bouts. Foreign tourists are especially keen. Tours are specifically organized to attend the matches, which take place every Sunday.
Some propose that women wrestling originates in tinku, where men and women from different communities engage in ceremonial combat fights.
If you’re fond of ambiguity you might appreciate that tinku means encounter or meeting in Quechua and physical attack in Aymara.
They climb into the ring because they love wrestling and their fans
The wrestlers don’t make very much money, except on tour abroad. From profiles of wrestlers, it is clear that everyone, men and women alike, has to have another job. Some make costumes or masks, some have stores or taverns, and others teach or are journalists. Many female wrestlers come from wrestling families, or bring their families into the business.
As discussed by Carmen Rosa la Campeona and Yolanda la Amorosa wrestling is a matter of pride for being de pollera. However, being a wrestler is not traditional and it is often hard to combine wrestling with their family life and to be paid equitable wages.
The matches are choreographed
They enact stories that frequently turn social expectations upside down, especially when women and men fight, like the History Channel special where they faced up against ice road truckers.
Choreography doesn’t mean wrestlers don’t train or that they don’t get hurt. It is a performance, but a very physically demanding one. And the stories they tell may be simple but they aren’t empty. Their success lies in providing their fans an opportunity to escape their very difficult lives and inspiring their admiration for their toughness and strength.
As one spectator said:
Our husbands make fools of us, but if we were wrestlers we could express our fury.
Whether you like to watch people fighting or not, cholitas luchadoras capture the imagination
This fascination is reflected not only by the following in Bolivia but by the international attention.
At least three documentaries- Fighting Cholitas, Las Mamachas del Ring, and Cholita Libre: If you don’t fight you’ve already lost— explore the challenges of the cholitas luchadoras, from family expectations to pay equality.
Cholitas luchadoras prove that being a woman does not mean submission
This is particularly important in Bolivia, which has the highest rate of violence against women of Latin America. 64% of women are survivors of violence from a partner or family member. It is second in Latin America in maternal mortality.
Wrestling is certainly not the only way to speak up. Yesterday November 25, thousands of cholitas marched to protest violence against women in La Paz.
We can only hope that, whether in peaceful marches or flying through the air in mock choreographed combat, they are heard.
How do the cholitas luchadoras inspire you?