Pulling their punches: How Bolivia’s street-fighting women became a sporting sensation

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

They started out as a novelty act. Now Bolivia's female wrestlers are a sporting phenomenon – with a cultural message

Her visiting card reads "Carmen Rosa: elegance and distinction in la lucha libre – freestyle wrestling". And in her frilly petticoats, layered skirts, dainty pumps and bowler hat, the claim is no exaggeration. In the ring in El Alto, a high, freezing-cold suburb of the Bolivian capital La Paz, Carmen and her colleagues have no contenders for the title of the world's best-dressed wrestlers.

Las cholitas, as Bolivia's indigenous women are called, are relatively new to the fighting ring. Most of them come from families where the men are fighters, and when women's wrestling was first introduced in 2001, it was a commercial gimmick intended to pull in bigger crowds. And the crowds, overwhelmingly male, poured in, lured by the seedy fascination of watching gaudily-overdressed womenfolk bash and trample one another.

But the phenomenon has outgrown its origins. Its popularity coincides with a real improvement in the stature of Bolivia's indigenous majority, largely brought about by Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian who was elected president in 2008. For five centuries since the Spanish invasion, the cholitas belonged to the indigenous underclass, banned from voting and with no other options but working as peasants. Today, less than three years after Morales came to power, they are found in government, in the courts and in business – and Indian culture has enjoyed a big boost. The fighting cholitas are on the crest of a wave.

"I work in the family snack bar," says Carmen Rosa, whose real name is Polonia Ana Choque Silvestre. "I'm one of the pioneers of wrestling; I was women's champion in 2004 and 2005. Bolivian women are getting stronger: there are businesswomen, women in the government, women football players... At the start, my husband was against it but now he works as my agent. Our son Vismar Junior, who is 18, is also a terrific wrestler."

At the beginning, a local impresario trained up to 50 cholita fighters and toured them around Bolivia and Peru to packed houses. But the relationship soured when the women discovered that he was pocketing large sums from the spectators and passing a pittance on to them. "So we quit him and formed our own group, called Diosas del Ring – Goddesses of the Ring," said Carmen. Even now, they are not getting rich; Carmen earns the equivalent of £17-£20 per show, but money is not the main motive. "The public are stressed out by their lives and watch us to relax... I have 10 different costumes; I like to play my part in our cultural identity. "

Another fighter, Benita the Untouchable (real name: Mariela Averanga), said, "I'm 29 and I have been fighting for seven or eight years. I've followed wrestling since I was a child because all my family are in the game. With la pollera" – the multi-layered skirt – "it's difficult to fight, but it draws the public. I am also training to be a nurse. Wrestling does not provide enough money to live on so you need another job."

Carmen Rosa is looking forward to life outside the ring. "In the future I would like to have my own gym. I'm also about to go into politics. I think if a woman wrestler was in government it would signify a big change for all the women who have been shut out of our country's political, economic and social life. And I will fight even harder in politics than in the ring."

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
tv

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

News
John Moore inspired this Coca Cola Christmas advert
people

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Jamie Oliver’s version of Jollof rice led thousands of people to post angry comments on his website
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film

Review: Mike Leigh's biopic is a rambling, rich character study

Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
film
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher Thetford Secondary

£110 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: An Academy based in Thetfor...

Secondary Teacher Great Yarmouth

£115 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad are currently work...

Teaching Assistant to work with Autistic students

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

Special Needs Learning Support Assistant

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes