Lucha Libre, Bolivian style

Bolivia’s indigenous women fight for recognition

By Alexia Underwood

Illustration by Dolly Li

“A cholita is an indigenous woman who wears the pollera skirt, petticoats, earrings and wears her hair in plaits. And the hat. Don’t forget the hat.” ––Teresa Huayta

In the Andean highlands in Bolivia, women in colorful costumes throw punches, perform flips and slam each other to the ground in front of a raucous crowd. “It’s not easy being a female wrestler,” says Teresa Huayta, who has been performing for five years, but trained for five before that. “You get hurt in the ring. To be a fighter, you have to be strong.”

In La Paz and surrounding areas, around 20 women regularly step into the ring to battle, WWE-style. Cholita wrestling, as it’s called, can draw crowds of hundreds. A typical wrestling match includes a “Ruda,” or evil character, and a “Tecnica,” or good character, who engage in a dramatic confrontation. The fight that ensues is loud, rollicking and sometimes raunchy.

Over the past decade, Cholita wrestling — inspired by the theatrical Mexican style of wrestling known as Lucha Libre — has gained popularity. For some wrestlers, it’s a proud way to share their heritage and identity, and show how far indigenous women have come. But it’s also an extra source of income for women in a country that, despite recent improvements, still suffers from impossibly high rates of poverty.

Until recently, Cholitas — a slang term for poor, indigenous women — were banned from certain restaurants and from using public transportation. Though indigenous groups like the Quechua and Aymara make up two-thirds of Bolivia’s population (the highest percentage of indigenous people of any Latin American country), they’ve been marginalized for centuries. Even the Cholitas’ notable, European-style dress dates back to when Bolivia was under colonial rule from the Spanish and indigenous people were not allowed to wear traditional clothing.

“Pollera-wearing women were constantly mistreated,” says Huayta, recalling how her mother was verbally harassed in the streets, and how taxis refused to pick her up.

But after Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, took office in 2006, things have slowly changed for Huayta and others like her. Morales’ incoming cabinet was mostly made up of women, members of indigenous communities and trade unionists. He pushed forward a new constitution which gave more autonomy to the country’s indigenous majority, recognized Bolivia’s “multiethnic and multicultural” nature and instituted land reforms. He gave some indigenous groups ownership over communal lands and a share in profits of sales of the country’s natural resources. He also slashed poverty rates and presided over the most economic growth the country has seen in 30 years. Indigenous women have also increased their presence in civil society. “You have Cholitas in parliament, in government,” Huayta says.

Still, life is far from easy for indigenous groups in what is still one of the poorest countries in Latin America. And Morales’ administration is not without problems: He’s come under fire for putting too much emphasis on nationalizing natural resources at the expense of the environment. In some cases, he’s favored the rights of miners over local communities, and outlawed protests against mining operations.

But Huayta, at least, is hopeful that things will continue to improve. “I imagine that in the future, in Bolivia, there will be more equality,” Huayta says, “and more work opportunities.”