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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
books...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Sport
Romelu Lukaku scored twice to add to the hat-trick he registered in the first leg in Switzerland
football
News
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
news
News
people
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

Recruitment Genius: Print / Warehouse Operative

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Supply Chain Assistant

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Advisor

£13000 - £13500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Energy Broker & Sales Consultant - OTE £65,000

£18000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Long-established Energy Brokers...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower