In the spirit of International Women’s Day, a global celebration for the achievements of women, I bring you a quirky story I stumbled upon while traveling as a solo female travel writer on assignment in Bolivia….
With their long flowing skirts, braided pigtails and bowler hats, ‘Cholitas’ are easy to identify in the streets of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital city. It’s an antiquated look — compared to the skinny jeans and low cut tops seen across the new generation – but the Cholitas have become a symbol of indigenous tradition and culture.
That’s why I was so surprised to hear about the event that happens every Sunday in the mulifunctionary arena in El Alto, just twenty minutes outside of polluted La Paz. Here, in this humble arena, you can spot the Cholitas…wrestling!!
With long line-ups and fanatic fans, it’s a popular form of local entertainment, so I made my way outside of the city to explore this unusual female phenomenon.
The actual wrestling arena looked like a high-school gym, with basketball nets, wooden bleachers, and a makeshift ring in the centre. Ropes were wrapped with fraying electrical tape and the floor was a thin greying mattress. Depending on where I stood, the room smelled either of freshly popped popcorn or stale urine, the appropriate fragrance for a wrestling match.
To the tune of “Eye of the Tiger”, the Indigenous Bolivian women leapt on male contenders, flexed their muscles and rumbled in the ring…in skirts, no less. It was tradition in one corner, kitschy entertainment in the other.
I met Alicia Flores, a 17 year-old wrestler who wanted to improve the status of women. “We want to show that Cholitas are strong ladies,” she said in Spanish, “stronger than the men.” She told me that this local event not only amuses the masses but works to subvert Bolivia’s predominantly machismo society.
The Cholitas train twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays. “This is a dangerous sport,” she said. “You must train a lot.” She is sure to mention that she has just finished school and hopes to become a police officer one day.
Post interview, Alicia entered the ring and prepared to fight. Her opponent, a bare-chested man with stringy long black hair, slipped through the fraying blue ropes and staggered around the ring. He gave a fake head-butt, while she took a dramatic plunge. The crowd ooh-ed and boo-ed, throwing orange peels, popcorn and plastic water bottles in protest. They were really into it but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Let’s just say, the drop kicks and grimaces of anguish were as real as Pamela Anderson’s breasts. Clearly, this Bolivian type of Luche Libre is more of a soap opera than a sport.
At first I felt a wee bit disappointed. Call me bloodthirsty, but I was hoping for a real tear-your-hair-out-gouge-your-eyes-hardcore-athletic-spectacle. What I got was a carefully choreographed performance that became surprisingly more entertaining the more I watched. I didn’t take long before I was sucked in by the frenzy of an energetic crowd.
Yes, it’s fake but it’s fun. Beyond the kitsch, it makes a statement. The depiction of strong indigenous women plays a positive role for young people in the community. Female wrestling may indeed be making social change. It’s girl power– Bolivian style.