"Men ate the cake and left us the crumbs, but now we are united and advancing. The idea is to show that women can do this on their own." - Carmen Rosa
Hidden away in South America’s poorest country is a vibrant example of female empowerment through physical culture. The cholitas luchadoras, known in English as “The Fighting Cholitas,” are professional women wrestlers who have carved out a new space for women’s liberation in Bolivia. The entertainment-sport of lucha libre is a form of freestyle wresting that is derived from both Mexican lucha libre and American entertainment wrestling such as WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment); however, the common tourist assumption is that lucha libre exemplifies Bolivian tradition and culture rather than the global popularity of wrestling itself. As Caroll and Schipani (2008) from The Guardian point out, “This macho sport in this macho country, South America’s most impoverished and conservative, has been flipped into an unlikely feminist phenomenon.”
In an attempt to boost attendance for this traditionally male dominated sporting event, organizers added women’s matches and fighting dwarves in 2001. I don’t know how the dwarves were received, but the women quickly became synonymous with the sport. The luchadoras fight in outfits resembling the clothing of rural Bolivians and women who work in the market, known as cholas. Despite the vibrancy of the large colourful petticoat-type dresses, cholas are symbolic of an oppressed underclass and strong patriarchy; they are the indigenous women who have historically been silenced. But with the popularity of women in lucha libre there has been “a resurgence of pride in the skirt” (Carroll & Schipani, 2008). The Fighting Cholitas represent a unique opportunity for female empowerment to challenge the abuse, humiliation, and oppression generally associated with women in Bolivia. By fighting their way off the ropes in the ring, they are also moving away from the margins of Bolivian society.
Even though the money earned from wrestling does not equal a full time job, cholitas are able to supplement their regular jobs with anywhere from $4-$30 USD per event. This encourages some of the husbands to accept their wives’ participation in this non-gender conforming activity. Furthermore, what The Fighting Cholitas lack in economic income they gain in social mobility. The popularity of the sport, and women such as Carmen Rosa (aka The Champion), has enabled these women to travel the world fighting in Japan, Europe, and other areas of South America. These women are celebrities in La Paz where, literally, everyone knows their names. Carmen Rosa has even had a documentary made about her (Mamachas del Ring ), which she has expressed as her proudest achievement. When these women are featured in media ranging from local papers to National Geographic they make it hard for the world to forget about them.
Wrestling in their pollera skirts is an interesting contradiction because the pollera itself is a symbol of oppression and a traditional construction of femininity but wrestling in these outfits represents a rejection of passivity. What I find particularly intriguing about the luchadoras is that they have appropriated the pollera skirt to challenge not only gender norms but also cultural stereotypes often associated with countries of the Global South. Most tourists who attend a lucha libre event assume that this form of wrestling is to Bolivia what baseball is to America, and hockey is to Canada. We, as tourists, often have preconceived notions of what other cultures look, sound, and smell like in our imaginations and the cholitas use this to their advantage. The luchadoras use their iconic skirts to attract tourists because they know that is what is expected. They capitalize on our desires as tourists for “authentic” experiences for their own economic gain.
The Fighting Cholitas have come to symbolize the strength that exists in Bolivian women. They have found a way to empower themselves and change their local context. Even though the fighting is dramatized, the effects on the local community (and injuries) are very real. What began as a novelty and a sideshow has now become the main attraction. What other women’s sport can make that same claim? Certainly neither women’s mixed martial arts nor women’s soccer can make this claim. Women’s tennis and golf may be able to claim equal billing on certain occasions but even they cannot contend that they are the main draw. Western feminism often positions itself as the benchmark of success and achievement but perhaps we should look South of the equator more often to find examples of women who have created space and agency for themselves in a world that generally considers them universally disempowered. In a world where opportunities for resistance seem increasingly few and far in between, the cholitas demonstrate that power is a constant struggle and that opportunities can arise in surprising arenas. So if you are ever in Bolivia and looking to take in some “culture,” consider attending a lucha libre match. The cholitas will be waiting for you.
Carroll, R. & Schipani, A. (2008, August 30). Bolivia: Welcome to lucha libre – the sport for men making heroes of women. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/aug/30/bolivia.gender
Courtney Szto is a PhD student in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Her doctoral research focuses on issues of citizenship, ethnicity, and immigration as they manifest in ice hockey. She writes for Hockey in Society, Interrupt Magazine, and her own blog, The Rabbit Hole. Courtney also runs Offside Plays, a social media campaign working to expose everyday racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination that take place in sport and physical activity (@offsideplays).