Cholitas luchadoras are ready to rumble

by @SaraShahriari May 3, 2015 5:00AM ET

Indigenous women wrestlers in European-influenced dress have become the hottest ticket in the Bolivian highlands

Indigenous Peoples
Silvina La Poderosa jumps from a corner of the ring to land on her opponent, Reyna Torres, during a Cholitas Luchadoras match in Senkata, El Alto, Bolivia, October, 2014.
Eduardo Leal

EL ALTO, Bolivia — A petite woman approaches the broad blue square of a wrestling ring. She climbs through the ropes with practiced, dainty poise and removes a bowler hat from atop her glossy black braids. Then she takes off her earrings and rings, unwraps a glittering shawl from her shoulders and raises her fist.

It’s just another Sunday afternoon for Mery Llanos Saenz, 33, otherwise known as Juanita la Cariñosa, who wears typical cholita paceña dress — the bowler, tiered skirt and multitudes of petticoats commonly worn by Aymara Indian women in La Paz and El Alto — inside and outside the ring.

Facing an expectant crowd, Juanita la Cariñosa (Juanita the Affectionate), raises her arms and whips the spectators into cheers. Then she turns and throws herself into the air, her blue skirt fanning out around her, and collides with her opponent. They both plunge to the floor with a tremendous thump and shudder as the announcer roars, “No, it cannot be!” through a blasting, fuzzy speaker system.

“I think everyone is born to do something, and I was born to be a luchadora,” says Llanos Saenz. 

Slideshow: The fighting Cholitas

Based in the Mexican tradition of lucha libre, Bolivian wrestling draws weekly crowds to a handful of venues in La Paz and El Alto. On Thursday nights, a sports stadium in El Alto is filled mostly with tourists who pay roughly $12 for a ringside ticket that includes a bus ride to the venue and snacks. Sunday afternoons are when hundreds of Bolivian fans come out in force, buying $1.75 tickets at the door and packing the frigid concrete bleachers. In Bolivia’s arid western highlands, El Alto is a growing metropolis that attracts Aymara Indian migrants from the surrounding countryside. Llanos Saenz’s wrestling colleagues include the human flame, an Elvis-inspired wrestler and a scarecrow who dances to country music, but the stars of the show are the cholitas luchadoras — the fighting cholitas.

The rise of the cholitas luchadoras over the past 10 years has mirrored the increased visibility and the growing social and economic power of cholitas in La Paz and El Alto. Cholitas are women who dress in European-influenced outfits that emerged under colonial rule, when indigenous people were forbidden to wear traditional clothes. Though they were once excluded from education and politics, today these women are visible everywhere from government offices to expensive boutiques, and the clothes are a sign of pride and identity. Llanos Saenz says cholitas luchadoras bring a novelty to wrestling that has a special appeal. “This is unique in the world. Only in Bolivia are you going to see cholitas get in the ring,” she says.

At the ring of the 12th of October Sports Complex, cholita fights happen every Sunday.
Eduardo Leal

As with classic lucha libre, cholita luchadora matches feature a técnica, who represents a good clean fight, and a ruda, who fights dirty and threatens the crowd. Together they act out a high-flying morality play, pitting honesty against corruption, good against evil.

Juanita la Cariñosa is a ruda. “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,” she says. There’s often a dose of titillation involved in the fights. “Sometimes the skirts fly up, and people see everything,” Llanos Saenz says, laughing.

Her occasional opponent Reyna Torrez, 24, is a 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.” 

Reyna Torres complains to the audience when the referee shows preference to her opponent during a match in El Alto.
Eduardo Leal

The two faced off one recent Thursday. Bright skirts flew as they launched off the ropes and hit the floor, then hoisted each other up and swirled like tropical birds in battle. Watching them, it was clear that while the moves might be rehearsed, the sport carries a real threat of injury. Physical risk is one of the reasons 14 female wrestlers have banded together to form a professional association that Llanos Saenz hopes will gain government recognition this year — and perhaps lead to social security and health insurance for its members.

With the luchadoras in the ring on Sunday, the crowd protests as Juanita la Cariñosa grabs her nunchucks and one of the referees, clearly favoring the ruda, tries to kick her struggling opponent. The tide quickly turns, though, when Juanita mistakenly clocks the ref in the face with the nunchucks, knocking him out. Without her henchman, she is defeated, and the victor proudly marches out of the ring as Juanita paces behind, shaking a fist at the audience. For the moment at least, good conquers evil. 

Fans cheers the cholitas during a fight at the 12th of October Sports Complex.
Eduardo Leal