With COVID numbers and vaccine distribution improving, the world is ever so slowly opening back up. In-person dining and entertainment are back on the rise after over a year of tight restrictions in almost every corner of the world. Bolivia is no exception, and fans of the niche but incredibly popular sport of Cholitas Luchadoras are thrilled to be able to watch their favorite heroes and villains duke it out in the ring.
With a fighting style reminiscent of Lucha Libre in Mexico and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in the United States, Cholitas Luchadoras feature indigenous Bolivian women executing dangerous but choreographed stunts that play on the Latin American penchant of good versus evil.
Cholitas refers to women of indigenous descent, a group that is historically marginalized in Latin American countries. Unlike male wrestlers that fight in the same style, Cholitas Luchadoras wear traditional “Cholita” clothes that became commonplace during Spanish colonization; colorful ankle-length puffy skirts and tiny bowler hats.
The differences between their fights end there, though, as Cholitas enter the ring to the same thunderous applause and memorable entrance music. In many cases, Cholitas Luchadoras battle male wrestlers and are even more favored by the fan base.
Interestingly enough, this show of strength inside the ring has translated to increased rights and civic participation for Cholitas in contemporary society. Under former president Evo Morales, indigenous citizens and the sport of Cholitas Luchadoras made incredible headway; including an increase in appointment to government positions and winning elected office.
Morales himself was the country’s first indigenous president and was considered by all to be a champion of indigenous rights and opportunities. Though there is still a long way to go to correct centuries of decreased access to education and employment outside the domestic sector, many Cholitas are the same women who take care of children and sell items at open-air markets. Their weekends just look a little different.
The sport was originally made popular by Juan Mamani, a lucha libre fighter from Mexico. He wanted to expand the sport to other countries, and in 2001 began training women to fight in order to continue using the vacant stadiums during the off-season for male wrestlers.
Once women entered the ring, local fans and tourists alike began pouring in to support them. Each weekend in La Paz and El Alto, stadiums fill with tourists who pay close to $12 USD each for transportation to the venue, a ringside seat, and light refreshments and local fans who buy $1.75 USD tickets at the door and pack the bleachers.
Today, there are about 50 women who are trained to fight and they are put through the same rigorous regimen as the men; lifting weights, climbing mountains, and learning complicated fight choreography like pile drives and chokeholds. An important element to Lucha Libre and Cholitas Luchadoras is the stage personalities of the fighters.
Rudas and técnicas, which directly translate to rough and technical in English, are pitted against each other, with one woman fighting clean and the other fighting dirty to get a reaction from the crowd. The winner, always preselected to fit the fight choreography, is not always the técnica.
Mery Llanos Saenz is a 33 year old fighter and her persona, Juanita la Cariñosa (Juanita the Loving) is a ruda. She says, “I make people hate me, I make them boo me, and it’s as if they were throwing flowers at me and compliments when they insult me. I like it. I make people react. The ruda gives flavor to lucha libre.”
One of her many opponents, Reyna Torrez, is a 24 year old técnica. “I represent good women,” she says. “Sometimes when the rudas are really rough with the técnicas, the women in the crowd shout, ‘Don’t give up! Don’t give up!’ You feel this excitement.”
As stated above, the women don’t only fight each other. Oftentimes, they’ll be pitted against men in the ring. Angela La Folklorista (Angela of the Myth/Folklore) has fought countless men over her career, and she always comes out on top. After one of her fights in 2016, she told a reporter, “”I’m very happy and content to have another night of fighting, another night of art, adrenaline and strength, another night that I’m in the center of the ring, happy, doing what I like most.”
Women are typically favored by the crowds in these co-ed fights, and even when it’s just women fighting each other, they are the headline event of the evening. This is a stark contrast to nearly any other country, where the men’s version of sports is typically lauded as more intense and entertaining. Many wrestlers and fans see this dynamic as a sort of decolonization. Claudia Espinoza, the Bolivian Vice Minister of Communications, put it this way;
“When the Spaniards arrived, they arrived in violence, especially against the indigenous peoples and against women. Today, indigenous women have a transcendental value in our political, economic and social lives. She is our symbol as well, representing how we have been able to overcome colonialism and are advancing towards de-colonialism.
The Cholitas Luchadoras create a different image of Bolivia. They provide a sense of modernism, post-modernism, by practicing this type of activity that previously didn’t exist in our country. Cholitas are now occupying many public positions. They have conquered many spaces in many different institutions of the state and society. They are also in many instances the head of households. We have many congresswomen and senators, ministers, vice ministers.”
Over the last two decades, the sport has become an essential part of tourism in Bolivia and an important part of the country’s culture and economy. Stadiums opened last month to fans who were thrilled to welcome their favorite heroes and villains, and there is no doubt that tourists will soon follow. The images from these fights are breathtaking; women in heeled shoes and long skirts jumping from ropes in front of large, cheering crowds. As much of a spectacle as it appears through the screen, one can only hope to someday see it in person.
Hannah is a recent graduate of Harvard University who wrote her thesis about the connection between the state-sponsored violence of the Guatemalan Revolution and the lack of prosecutorial and judicial success for women who are survivors of sexual violence in the country today. In the fall, she will be attending University of Wisconsin- Madison for law school where she plans to focus on immigration and criminal law. Hannah has been working with Latina Republic since October 2020 and her favorite part about writing articles is using quotes from interview subjects to emphasize their voices and experiences, telling their stories as they want them to be told and highlighting the successes of organizations and movements working to make their communities better.