Indigenous women become role models via kitsch sport
photos by julia dimon/for metro toronto
It’s quite common to see cholitas in the streets of La Paz. They’re easy to identify with their long flowing skirts, braided pigtails and bowler hats.
What’s not so ordinary is the event they participate in every Sunday. In the arena in El Alto, just 20 minutes outside polluted La Paz, you can spot the cholitas wrestling.
With long lineups and fanatic spectators, it’s a popular form of local entertainment.
Making my way through the crowd, I meet the boss (who is, incidentally, one of the wrestlers). Though it costs tourists only a few bucks to watch the cholitas, filming the event for a Canadian TV show is another matter.
This is the difference between print and TV. As a journalist working in print, you can be a fly on the wall, but when you have a huge camera, it’s harder to blend in and you often have to pay filming fees.
Inside, the arena looks like a high school gym, with basketball nets, wooden bleachers, and a makeshift ring in the centre. Ropes are wrapped with fraying electrical tape and the floor is a thin greying mattress. Depending on where I stand, the room smells either of freshly popped popcorn or stale urine.
To the tune of Eye Of The Tiger, the indigenous Bolivian women leap on male contenders, flex their muscles and rumble in the ring — in a skirt no less. It’s tradition in one corner; kitschy entertainment in the other.
I meet Alicia Flores, a 17-year-old wrestler who wants to improve the status of women. “We want to show that cholitas are strong ladies,” she says in Spanish. “Stronger than the men.” She tells me this local event not only amuses but works to subvert Bolivia’s machismo society.
The cholitas train twice a week, Wednesdays and Fridays. “This is a dangerous sport,” she says. “You must train a lot.” She tells me she has just finished school and hopes to become a police officer one day.
Our interview is interrupted by an adoring fan who showers her with compliments and good luck. Alicia’s up next. She excuses herself and prepares for battle. Her opponent, a bare-chested man with stringy long black hair, slips through the fraying blue ropes and staggers around the ring. The crowd boos, throwing orange peels, popcorn and plastic water bottles.
Alicia jumps him. He gives a fake head butt. She takes a dramatic plunge. The crowd oohs. I roll my eyes. The drop kicks and grimaces of anguish are as real as Pamela Anderson’s breasts. Moreover, the action is so PG-13 it makes WWE wrestling look hardcore. So at first I’m disappointed, but sucked in by an energetic crowd, I get into it. Sure it’s fake, but it’s fun.
And beyond the kitsch, it makes a statement. The depiction of strong indigenous women plays a positive role for young people in the community. It’s girl power, Bolivian-style.
Word Travels, a documentary travel series co-hosted by Julia Dimon, debuts on OLN tonight at 10.