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The Embargo Issue

Dressed To Fight

On a recent trip to Bolivia, we heard about an indigenous women's freestyle wrestling called Lucha Libre, Cholita style.

Κείμενο Stijntje Blankendaal, Photos: Ben Speck, Karin Ananias
02 Ιούνιος 2010, 12:00am

On a recent trip to Bolivia, we heard about an indigenous women's freestyle wrestling called Lucha Libre, Cholita style. People seemed strangely hyped about it, so when they told us about a match taking place in El Alto, high in the Andean mountains on the outskirts of La Paz, we grabbed our cameras and jumped into a cab. The driver struggled to find his way through the sprawling, colorless suburbs when, finally, the smell of barbecue and cooked beans filled the air and nudged us in the right direction. On an open square, local teams played football and freaky masked men handed out candy to kids, and everyone seemed to be having a bundle of fun.

We got to the venue, a school gym, right when the Cholitas entered the ring. They were dressed in traditional Aymara garb consisting of Spanish style multilayered skirts, bowler hats (that have remained an indigenous fashion staple since colonial times), plastic flats, waist-length braids, oversized garish jewelry, make-up, and embroidered shawls. Their outfits added quite a stirring quirky twist to the glorified bloodshed extravaganza, and people were cheering like crazy.

Cholitas were first introduced to the ring to spice up the formerly male-only shows. Initially sharing the bonus line-up with fighting dwarfs and freak show giants, they soon became the main draw, reducing the superhero-clad men to the warm up act. Thanks to the Cholitas, the popularity of wrestling has reached unfathomable heights in Bolivia. We found out that a local MAS politician, Roberto Rojas, had organized the match to help raise funds for his campaign. With presidential elections only a month away, he hired these sparkling Lucha Libre celebrities to wrestle up enthusiasm among his constituents. This seemed unnecessary, as the whole neighborhood—in fact, all of El Alto—already passionately supported Evo Morales and his socialist party MAS. Nonetheless, the locals weren’t about to lose out on a great performance.

We had a look around as fighters rushed in and out of the locker rooms, preparing for the match. A table and chairs were carefully lined up on a small stage to seat the politicians. Not very interested in the upcoming elections, Juanita, the star of this evening’s show, sighed, “We try to stay politically independent. But our manager likes Rojas.” And as it turned out, she didn’t seem too worried about whose pockets her stage fee came out of. She told us that, “The hats and clothes cost a lot. I bought my hat for €700. As a fighter, you need to love fame and money!”

A minute later, the lights faded and the audience roared, as Juanita whirled the MAS flag around the ring as if the state of the nation depended on her violent disposition.