Petticoats. Bowler hats. Body slams. What’s not to love?
When Tree asked me what I wanted to do for Mother’s day, I knew I had to use my “special-day advantage” to get him to take me to El Alto, a place he wanted to avoid at all costs, to see the Cholitas Luchadoras.
El Alto is a scary town. It’s cold, treeless, 13,000 feet above sea level, and home to 1 million people, most of whom fled there over the past three decades to escape the countryside’s heartbreaking privation. The lucky ones find steady jobs down in the capital city of La Paz, which sits just below El Alto; the unlucky ones employ themselves as beasts of burden. Aside from the Luchadoras, El Alto is also famous for its open air market, the largest in the world, where the cholas can be found selling clothes, food, pirated DVDs, Barbie dolls, car parts, and small desiccated llama fetuses for magic rituals.
When we told our friend Pati (the ex-president of Bolivia’s daughter, remember here) that we would be going to El Alto to see the Luchadoras, she said to keep Sol strapped to my body at all times. Children have been kidnapped from daycare centers in El Alto and returned a week later with a scar and a bandage where a kidney used to be. Our friend, Eric, who works at the U.S. embassy in La Paz, asked how we would be getting there since taxi drivers, for fear of being shot point blank in the back of head by a would-be passenger, refuse to drive into El Alto.
All points taken with grace and gratitude, but nothing was going to keep me from seeing the Cholitas Luchadoras.
A Cholita is a Bolivian woman of Quechua or Aymara decent who dresses in traditional garb. Their unique style is a mash-up of indigenous, Spanish Colonialism and early 20th century British attire. The Chola wears numerous petticoats underneath a sateen skirt–pleated if she’s married, not pleated if she’s single–called a pollera. On top, she covers with a blouse or sweater, a colorful shawl, decorative jewelry, and the iconic bowler hat. On her back, she ties a piece of handwoven fabric, the only part of her attire that is indigenous, used to carry either goods or small children. The colors and designs on the fabric indicate from which region she is from.
A Luchadora is a female fighter.
Thus, the Cholitas Luchadoras are bad ass women in fancy outfits duking it out.
Fifty years ago wrestling came to Bolivia, but eight years ago, it got good–real good–with the extraordinary creation of the cholitas luchadoras—fighting cholitas—which has given new life to Bolivians’ own version of Mexican lucha libre, a free-form spectacle somewhere between a wrestling match and a telenovela.
Almost as much fun as watching the show is watching the audience. Emotions run high as the tecnicas (goodies) fight against the rudas (baddies) in the fight of good against evil, freedom against oppression, indigenous against imperialists, women against the ages. Although the ringside seats are reserved for tour groups full of gringos, the Luchadoras play for the stands.
The show consists of multiple rounds with various match-ups. Man against Man. Man against Woman. Woman against Woman. Two women against Man. You get the picture. Although the fight sequence allows for much spontaneity, the winners of the fights are predetermined. And if a Cholita is fighting a man, she will always win–at least in the end. The beat down people of El Alto don’t save up all week and spend a whopping $2.50 to watch their beloved Cholitas–embodiments of tradition, family, indigenous culture, and motherhood, all that is sacred to Bolivians–lose.
I knew this, but for some reason I got emotional when the deranged maniac in a Jason-mask came out with a chainsaw, intent on hacking up the beautiful Cholita, Carmen. She ran from him and beseeched the audience to intervene. “This is unfair!” she shouted. “He’s going to kill me! No!! Please! Help me! This isn’t right!” After chasing her for a few minutes around the stadium, Jason corners her in the ring and throws her to the ground. She lands with a thud, her legs go up, ruffled knickers in the air. I had to choke back the tears.
The audience yells obscenities at the mad man and throws popcorn and shoes at him, but he pays no attention. He throws Carmen out of the ring. The referee starts the count. Uno, Dos, Treis…Quince… But then the maniac goes after the Ref!!!
In the knick of time, Carmen musters her strength and climbs back into the ring. She puffs out her chest at the masked maniac, and beckons him to come forward with her hand. “You touch me, you die!,” she yells as she looks over her shoulder at the audience for support. They stand up and cheer, “Go Cholita!!!!! Kill him!!!!” He charges, but she’s too smart, too quick, too lethal. She runs to the corner and climbs up on the ropes and launches her body in a high-flying swan dive and sacks him to the ground. He’s down for the count.
The crowd goes wild. I’m crying tears of joy and relief!! She won! Yay!!! Cholita won!!
I know it’s make believe, but I really loved seeing the Cholita defeat the crazed bastard who was trying to beat her up because in real life, this isn’t always the case; the goodies don’t always win. In real life, violence, sexism, poverty and discrimination are still sizable foes that the Cholitas struggle to defeat.
The Cholas in the audience love it too. Every Sunday for a few hours they get to watch women just like them–who are daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, even grandmothers!–defy the limitations of their culture and wrestle! (A man’s sport!) And the Cholitas kick the holy shit out of all the demons that try to keep them down.
I know I walked out of the stadium feeling fierce, proud,and empowered. I’m sure the Cholas did too.
As a mother, especially of a daughter, I honor the Fighting Cholitas for at once upholding their tradition and helping it evolve. They are proud to be mothers and wives, proud of their indigenous culture, but they are also proud to be wrestlers, women wrestlers, every bit as equal to men.
I think when Sol gets just a little older, we too will become wrestlers equipped with alter egos and costumes, fighting against poverty and evil and oppression! (Or maybe just Kiki and dad).
In the meantime, Happy Mother’s Day to all you Luchadoras Cholitas out there fighting for justice and equality in the world! -Stevie
Here’s a great three minute interview with Yolanda, one of the star Cholitas. http://www.youtube.com/watch?