It's Sunday afternoon in El Alto, Bolivia, and sun is streaming through the grit-streaked windows of the city's Multifunctional Center. Silvina La Poderosa, "the Powerful One," is parading around a ring in the middle of the sprawling concrete floor, resplendent in a shimmering paceña dress buoyed by layers of lace petticoats. Two perfect plaits stream from a bowler hat pinned atop her head. She looks elegant and expertly groomed. Moments later, she's in the ring, another woman's head locked under her arm in a merciless half-nelson. Her opponent is screaming in feigned agony, and Silvina throws back her head and cackles. The crowd, many still dressed from church, cheer in delight as the referee begins the countdown.
Silvina is a cholita, a term that in the past has been used disparagingly to describe indigenous Aymara and Quechua women native to Bolivia and Peru's arid Altiplano region. Though the women are easy to spot in the crowded streets from their pollera skirts and patterned shawls, it seems out of context to see them here, in the ring, reducing their opponents to groaning rubble while an ecstatic crowd looks on.
But this is Bolivia, and these are the fighting cholitas. And for the past 15 or so years, their matches have been the chief form of entertainment for residents of El Alto, a booming industrial metropolis that sits on a ridge above the already dizzyingly high city of La Paz.
Before the cholitas, wrestling in El Alto was limited to man-on-man contests, with contenders dressed in the same shiny singlets and Aztec-style masks as their Mexican lucha libre counterparts. But inhabitants of the hardscrabble city—with a population of nearly one million, thanks to an influx of newcomers in the 1950s—thirsted for something new.
Jenny Jara, a Bolivian woman of Aymaran descent who works closely with the cholitas, told me that the idea of female fighters was introduced by the wrestling organizer and promoter Juan Mamani around 15 years ago. Women wrestlers were not the first gimmick he tested, and stumbled on them as an option only after a string of others proved underwhelming.
"He tried dwarves first," she told me. "And clowns."
If the dwarves failed to attract the numbers that Mamani sought, women clothed in traditional garb did not fare much better, at least initially.
"They weren't popular because of discrimination and the fact that they also weren't very good," Jara said. The small group of women—most of whom were the wives and daughters of male wrestlers—trained twice a week under a trio of bare lightbulbs in Mamani's gym, despite punishing schedules that already precariously balanced work and home life.
Mary Llanos Sanz, whose stage name is Juanita la Cariñosa, or "Juanita the Affectionate," was among the first cholitas to enter the ring. Already equipped with a background in Taekwondo, she was invited to train under Mamani nearly a dozen years ago, and she's been doing it ever since, despite supporting two sons by selling homemade candies.
'It was not easy for me, but I learned how to fight," Juanita says. "I feel very happy when people appreciate our job, because in the beginning we weren't accepted."
Bolivian spectators were deeply skeptical of Mamani's latest gag, believing that a woman's place should be in the home, not sweatily elbow-dropping men for the delight of busloads of tourists. But the cholitas kept at it—not for the meager paycheck, which barely covered the costs of matches, but because fighting offered a form of expression unrealized in any other facet of their lives: In society, indigenous women were denied the opportunity to pursue professional careers or higher education until recently, and at home, Bolivia has the highest level of violence against women in all of Latin America.
The Sunday I went, though, the women were clearly running the show. Carnival was in full swing, and the stands were filled with locals munching popcorn and children priming their water guns, which they would later deploy mercilessly on the wrestlers during the most chaotic points of the melee. Tourists, who pay around $12 to the locals' $1.75, were arranged in plastic lawn chairs around the ring, and the sense of excitement among us was electric.
The bouts began orderly enough, with one primly arrayed cholita trading blows with a sinister looking woman in stained tights and worn-out Ugg knock-offs. But chaos took hold as the evening wore on, with men, women and even children clambering into the ring to unleash total mayhem in the form of aerial assaults and body slams so brutal you'd swear you could feel the concrete floor vibrate. As with Triple A in Mexico or the WWE in the U.S., bouts in Bolivia can involve an entire scrum of wrestlers in the ring at a time, with fighters of both genders crowding the stage to leap from the ropes, wring necks and wallop each other with chairs. But only in Bolivia will you see a size six ballet flat pressed into the throat of a 250-pound spandex-clad villain.
"The locals discriminated against the cholitas, but the tourists ate it up," Jara said. "It's very funny, it's very interesting, and now, it's very popular." These days, cholitas are El Alto's main attraction, drawing the bulk of the crowds and pulling in more cash than their male counterparts. Wrestling is a part-time gig, and though a cholita makes only around $20 per show, it's still around twice what the men make.
The freewheeling atmosphere is held together with some narrative thread, however tenuous: Bouts typically involve a técnica, who fights clean, and a ruda, who does the opposite, employing bawdy humor and underhanded tactics like attacking the ref.
I watched with some horror as a man in tight pleather pants crawled into the ring and, with the help of a ruda in a black miniskirt and black boots, began to stomp on one of the cholitas, lifting her over his head before slamming her on her back. The cholita got hers though, recovering herself long enough to hurl him against a ring post and, shortly thereafter, stand in triumph over his lifeless body.
Sanz, the veteran wrestler, said that being an indigenous woman has historically been a limitation to overcome. Wrestling, she said, made her feel as though she could do anything.
"I love the adrenaline when I'm fighting, the excitement to feel the audience love or to be booed when you are adopting a rude character," she said. Her favorite move is "La Tapatia," in which one wrestler lays flat on her back and lifts her opponent over her head using her legs.
Disturbing though it is to watch the women throttled by their male foes, cholita wrestling is undergirded by a strong sense of empowerment and resistance to domestic violence. Many of the women have experienced abuse in their own homes, and the battles they fight in the rink, Jara explained, are symbolic of the battles they fight on a daily basis.
"For the tourists, it's only a show," she said. "They [the cholitas] have roles, and they have to pretend to be good or bad people." But in the end, she said, "the good cholita is the winner. It's a representation of their lives."
Bolivia's indigenous population has enjoyed some measure of relief since the 2006 election of Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president. Rampant segregation has been toned down, and rights previously unavailable have been extended: Aymara and Quechua women are, for example, now permitted to enroll in universities and are increasingly visible in white collar professions. But only recently did they begin to re-embrace their heritage with pride.
Jara, who is Quechua, grew up speaking only Spanish at the behest of her mother, who insisted that learning the language of her forbears "wasn't helpful." Women growing up 30 years ago were not proud to be indigenous, she told me, and traded the shawls and glinting joyas in favor of jeans and high heels in an effort to fit in.
Now, Jara says, things are different, with "a new generation of cholitas who are proud to be cholitas." In addition to becoming journalists and lawyers, the women are pursuing sports outside of wrestling, like soccer, golf and rock climbing. Along with another volunteer, she's working on teaching the cholitas English, since education, she said, will be their ticket to eventually realizing equality. Wrestling has opened a door, but there remain many, many corridors beyond, waiting to be unlocked. Jara thinks the future is bright.
"I really think that one day we can have a cholita president," she said. "It's a dream for us."