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."

Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's pic YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain