The Cholitas Luchadoras: Indigenous Female Wrestlers of Bolivia - Eduardo Leal
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.
Bolivian wrestling draws weekly crowds to a handful of venues in La Paz and El Alto.In [the country’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.
Many say the word cholita comes from the Spanish word “cholo” (chola for females) - meaning mixed-race or, pejoratively, “halfbreed” or “civilised Indian”. But in this case it’s been appropriated as a badge of honour. The diminutive “ita”, frequently used in Spanish, is affectionate and means small.
In essence “cholos” refers to people of indigenous heritage who in many cases have some Spanish blood - known as “mestizos” - or at least who have adopted elements of Spanish dress, language or culture. Those who moved from rural peasant areas to the city - as many modern day cholitas and their ancestors did - were mocked as cholos attempting to move up the social scale.