Globe, Latin America, United Kingdom

The indigenous women wrestlers of Bolivia

In Latin America, professional free-style wrestling or lucha libre is an incredibly popular sport largely due to the distinctive costumes and theatricality of some of the fights. It involves “wrestling cholitas”, braided women wearing multi-layered skirts, stepping into the ring.

 

Photo: Wikipedia

Viviana Días Frias

 

In Bolivia, going a little bit beyond but symbolising, nevertheless, a gradual but authentic female empowerment, particularly of indigenous or cholas women.

This social sector takes part in cholita fights or cholita wrestling, a variation of lucha libre where braided women wearing multi-layered skirts step into the ring.

Combining the practices of professional lucha libre and Mexican lucha libre, these cholitas fight every week wearing their traditional Aymara cultural dress: bowler hats, multi-layered pollera skirts and colourful embroidered shawls.

This phenomenon started in 2002, when, for the first time, these women started to enter the ring.

Their participation was gaining popularity in Bolivia and on an international level, which, in turn, reinforced the practice of this sport by the cholitas and which affiliated them with lucha libre associations.

As time went on, cholita wrestling went from being popular entertainment to a tourist attraction, and today it is one of the main reasons that thousands of foreign visitors come to El Alto and La Paz.

Similarly, this activity has become a sign of empowerment and pride; the cholas women have sought to combat the discrimination that these communities have suffered historically.

Photo: Wikipedia

Also, it has been a way to re-define the term Chola (previously a derogatory term used to describe indigenous women) as well as gaining notoriety and earning a bit of money.

It is a growing business?

With the rise of cholita fighting, Bolivian businesses have considered promoting this activity and making it one of the tourist attractions in the city of El Alto.

Dennys Sanjinés, general manager of the business Andean Secrets, was one of the people who saw the appeal of this battle of the skirts and decided, in 2005, to create the wrestling cholitas brand to promote this unique sport.

“We’re a group of businesses and have been working for many years to promote alternative tourism in this city. From there and more than a decade ago, we started to promote cholita fighting as the first tourist attraction of El Alto”, Sanjinés explains.

According to the businessman, tours of cholets, distinctive colourful buildings of Aymara architecture, have joined this initiative.

However, for Sanjinés, his work with this sport goes beyond its touristic potential. “We are projecting an image of the cholita from La Paz, showing her as a strong, fighting, empowered woman. They have become a global icon of the strength of Aymara women in Bolivia”, he explained.

An experience, a testimonial

Many women work in shops or as dressmakers and have to carry out this work alongside training and domestic life in their role as mothers and wives.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mary Llanos has been competing for 19 years under the name Juanita la cariñosa and is the current champion of “Cholita de oro” (Cholita of gold), an annual fighting competition.

“I started when I was 16 years old and I fell in love with this sport which I did alongside my work as a trader”, she explains.

Thanks to her participation in lucha libre, she has been to Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and the USA, places that they have gone to introduce themselves and where they received an excellent reception from the public.

They train three days a week, and at least two to fight in either the Villa Dolores Colosseum in El Alto every Sunday or in a tourist show which takes place every Tuesday.

“It’s not always a show”, Mary explains, “it’s lucha libre, we therefore need to train and be psychologically ready for any strike or trauma that we may experience during a fight”. Mary confirms that what attracted her to wrestling is the adrenaline of that moment in the ring, the moment when they are applauded or booed, but also the moment in which they are the protagonists. (PL)

(Translated by Corrine Harries. Email: corrine.harries@ch-translations.com)

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