Meet the Women Wrestling Their Way to Equality in the High Andes

Photograph by Luisa Dörr
Noelia, a 19-year-old wrestler, poses for a photograph in her traditional cholita garb.

“People need heroes, wrestlers, champions of their own who can be admired,” reflects Brazilian photographer Luisa Dörr, who spent ten days in El Alto, Bolivia, with a unique group of female wrestlers known as the Flying Cholitas. Recognizable by their colorful and elegant attire of multilayered skirts, embroidered shawls, and precarious bowler hats, cholitas emerged at the turn of the millennium—an expression of the indigenous renaissance taking hold in the Americas.

Angela, a single mother who uses her wrestling money to pay for her son's education, says, "People need some reason to fight, and mine is my son." Her 12-year-old son comes to watch all of her matches.

Wild llamas graze along the outskirts of El Alto, Bolivia. The glaciers that have provided water to the region for centuries are disappearing, raising concerns in the region about future water availability.

Wrestling has been a popular sport in Bolivia since the 1950s, but the entry of cholitas into the ring is a more recent phenomenon. Mary Llanos Saenz, known as Juanita La Cariñosa in the ring, says that wrestling "is a way for Bolivian women to show their worth in a world of men." Discriminated against throughout history, the women use the ring as yet another stage for their battle for equality—and watching a woman defeat a male fighter is one of the main attractions.

Two women wrestle as a referee watches closely.

On Sundays, tourists and locals come to watch the wrestling matches at the Dolores de El Alto Sports Center.

Wara, a 19-year-old cholita wrestler, stands in front a building in El Alto, which began as a village of mostly farmers.

Wara explains the difficulties of wrestling in fancier shoes than the men: "It is much easier for a man to fight with boots ... we have more difficulties in climbing and jumping from the ring."

Women wrestle during a private match in a building designed by architect Freddy Mamani in El Alto.

Wara poses for a photograph in her wrestling garb.

Due to geographic barriers, La Paz has reached its limits, so the growth is now spreading to El Alto, where brick buildings are popping up with more frequency than in the past.

Noelia, who uses the wrestling name Elsita, had been a fan of wrestling since she was young. After spending years watching the fights, she decided to try her hand at it. Her mother disapproved, believing it was unsafe, but Noelia has now been fighting for three years.

The Flying Cholitas wear bowler hats in typical cholita style.

Wara looks into the camera while wearing her bowler hat.

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Once a year in El Alto, Bolivia, wrestlers take part in a large-scale mixed-gender fight. Anyone wishing to escape the fight must jump the fence around the ring, and the last person inside is the winner.

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Wara, a 19-year-old wrestler, says, "Thanks to wrestling, I have traveled to many places in Bolivia. For us, this is our profession."

Dörr, who likens them to Hollywood superheroes capable of flying, first encountered the wrestlers while her husband was working with local architect Freddy Mamani. She recalls attending Sunday matches at the community’s multifunctional center: “It's been a long time since I stopped liking the men's fights. They're the same as ever, but the Cholitas are the ones that save the show. The younger audience members identify with the good heroines, while the older ones prefer the rougher ones,” she says.

The Cholitas train twice a week and watch YouTube videos of Lucha Mexicana to improve their techniques and tricks. “The fight, more than anything, is a constant update of maneuvers. It's like riding a bicycle; if you learn to walk, you never forget. But if you want do tricks, you need to practice. The fight is the same. An eternal learning," explains Claudina, whose father, brother, and sister also wrestle.

Claudina, a Flying Cholita, comes from a family of wrestlers. She says, "My father was a fighter. My brother is a fighter. My sister is a fighter. I am a fighter."

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Wara, 19, raises her hands in the air as her portrait is taken.

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The ring at the Dolores de El Alto Sports Center is surrounded by a fence—and, during matches, by cheering, shouting, and jeering fans.

And the better they get, the more they can assert their presence in a field dominated by men. At times, both genders are even pinned against one another. "When a woman fights 100 percent, men want to fight 1,000 percent. They do not accept that they are overcome. In our companions, there are also some anti-Cholas,” says Mary Llanos Saenz, known as Juanita La Cariñosa in the ring, who’s been fighting for almost 20 years. “In the beginning, we were not allowed to enter the men's room. We used to change in the stands and wait outside. That's why we created the Association of Fighting Cholitas. There, men do not get involved.”

Monica, a friend and social worker in the community, was Dörr’s way in. “[The Cholitas] don’t really care about journalists and fancy magazines,” Dörr remarks. “Many of them were not interested with wasting time with a photographer on a story they will not ever read.” Their attitude toward media is at least partly fueled by the fact that the cholitas have much more urgent concerns than becoming famous. For centuries, they’ve also been fighting outside the ring to protect the well-being of their community.

Angela, like many Flying Cholitas, is a single mother. Others have partners who are also wrestlers.

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The voluminous skirts women in Bolivia were forced to wear by Spanish settlers for centuries are now symbols of identity and pride.

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Sonia, who owns a beauty salon, says, "Sometimes we get hurt and we have to stop [fighting] for a few months. I already broke my wrist, but I never had any injuries that would impede me [from fighting or working] again."

Most cholita wrestlers are Aymara, an indigenous nation residing in the high plains of South America. The group has faced ethnic oppression and exploitation since the Spanish colonization of the region. Referred to pejoratively as “cholo” or “chola” at the time, they were forced to perform menial tasks for aristocrats; required to adopt European customs; refused entry to restaurants, public transportation, and certain wealthy neighborhoods; and denied the opportunity to vote, own land, and learn to read.

Resilient, the community organized, leading several successful movements over many decades, the latest of which was the ousting of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada—currently facing charges for extrajudicial killings—and the election of an Aymara politician, Evo Morales, to the country’s highest office. In the process, they’ve reclaimed the once-pejorative name and style of dress, turning both into symbols of pride.

“When El Alto gets angry with the state, because they have neglected their schools, their health centers, or their markets, or because of the absence of security in the neighborhoods, it is the women who go out and demonstrate,” explains Dörr. “And therein lies the essence, the reason why people enjoy watching and admiring the Cholitas fight, because it is the dramatization of the Chola Aymara woman from El Alto.”

When many members of Bolivia's indigenous community were forced to work as servants for Spanish occupiers, they were made to wear a particular set of garments. Some of these items, including voluminous skirts and bowler hats, are now symbols of pride for cholitas.

Luisa Dörr is a Brazilian photographer based in Bahia, Brazil. See more of her work on her website or on Instagram. 

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