The woman carefully climbed onto the ring’s top corner buckle. Her opponent balanced just below, hoisted into position by a firm headlock. The woman paused for a moment, listening to the crowd cheer and chant. Then, with one quick motion, the two fell backwards, sending a blur of pleated skirts through the air and onto the hard mat below.
“What the hell did I just see?!” an Australian teenager sitting next to me yelled in excitement. The boy snapped a furious burst of photos, panning his phone around the converted gymnasium that’s home to “Cholitas Wrestling,” Bolivia’s all-female wrestling extravaganza.
Titled after the local slang for the country’s indigenous Aymara and Quecha women, this drama-filled production is probably the best $10 you can spend in the high-altitude capital city of La Paz—and your attendance might do a little good for one of Bolivia’s most overlooked communities.
Cholitas—easily identified by their tiny bowler hats, massive skirts, and colorful petticoats—have long been marginalized as the country’s lowly maids and penniless peasants.
Ostracized for generations, cholitas were routinely denied entry into some restaurants and even banned from using certain types of public transportation.
Over the last 10 years or so, however, these proud women have begun to reassert their identities and the unique role they play in Bolivian culture. The rise and popularity of cholitas wrestling has coincided with the administration of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president who was elected in 2005.
And when it comes to wrestling, they put on a one of a kind show.
“We combined the Mexican lucha libre wrestling tradition with our own Bolivian style,” Denys Sanjines told me. Sanjines trademarked the “Cholitas Wrestling” name in 2005 and organizes visits to the twice weekly show via her travel agency Andean Secrets.
The show itself is hosted in the nearby sprawling suburb of El Alto. While part of the larger La Paz metropolitan area, El Alto is a city in its own right, boasting a population of nearly one million.
Although Cholitas Wrestling won’t be competing with the WWE anytime soon—Sanjines said there are only about 20 amateur wrestlers ranging in age from early twenties to forties in their stable of regular performers—the crowds don’t seem to mind.
“We love it. We’ve never seen anything like it,” a freshly married American couple told me as we watched two women—decked out in all their traditional glittering garb—trade a series of blows.
Suddenly, one of the cholitas produced a blue packing crate from under the ring and smashed it over the other’s back.
“So you came to see Bolivian women wrestle... for your honeymoon?” I asked, directing my question a little more toward the new bride.
“Well, we’ve been lots of places in the last few weeks, but yeah, this is part of it,” she smiled back.
As Sunday afternoon turned into Sunday night, the roughly 200-person crowd grew increasingly rowdy. Equally divided between locals and tourists, the attendees tossed bags of uneaten popcorn and empty water bottles at the performers below.
The audience was egged on by a referee playing the classic wrestling role of a “heel.”
The ref had teamed up with the leader of the cholitas—a nunchuck wielding fighter known as Juanita the Affectionate—to help spin a young wrestler around by the braids of her dark black hair. The girl shot out in pain as the audience gasped.
A few moments later though the young heroine had pinned Juanita and the referee was forced to declare her the bout’s winner. She climbed back onto the same corner buckle and waved to the crowd triumphantly, a thin sheet of sweat coating her rosy cheeks.
With the match over, the wrestlers gathered in front of a pop-up banner and took turns posing for pictures with the audience. The Australian teenager sitting next to me was one of the first in line for a photo. He promptly produced a selfie-stick and fake winced as Juanita, the match’s loser, stuck her curled fist next to his chin. Behind him were dozens more people giddy for their chance to pose next to the fighting cholitas.
No longer marginalized as simple low class laborers, these cholitas had turned themselves into La Paz’s most sought after local celebrities. And for that, it was clear they were all winners.