Gender roles? What gender roles! With dainty little shoes and a full, bright, white skirt, Martha La Altena boldly takes down her male opponent with a ferocity all her own.
Bolivia – Long Read

Women power, in and out of the wrestling ring

Photo by Jeroen van Loon

Bolivia – Long Read Women power, in and out of the wrestling ring

Hello Bolivia, where every Sunday wrestlers battle each other in El Alto arena: oiled musclemen, masked superheroes, a flying dwarf and the success story of recent years: plump Indian women with long braids and flowing skirts. Degrading? No. This is emancipation for the cholitas of Bolivia. Discriminated against and abused elsewhere, this is where they can avenge themselves.

Andrea Dijkstra
Andrea Dijkstra

BAM!!! With enormous force, Martha is slammed to the floor yet again after being heaved into the air by a man in a fluorescent costume and mask. The public waits with bated breath. Children, with open mouths and fists full of popcorn, are transfixed by the scene that unfolds before them in the musty arena. The cholita, an indigenous woman of Aymara or Quechua descent, moans as her face contorts in pain. Her opponent circles around her menacingly as a cry rises up from the audience: Mar-thaa! Mar-thaa! Mar-thaa!

In the stands, women scream like their lives depend on it. Sweaty men pump their fists in the air. Martha scrambles to her feet, adjusts her skirts and tosses her long braids over her shoulders while her opponent gets ready to launch himself from the red ropes. But Martha is quicker: she thrusts out her arm and takes him down. The crowd erupts into cheers and applause. As he struggles to get up, she throws him into the corner and pins him down with her foot. She grabs his right forearm and slams him down on the floor. To finish him off, she climbs into the ropes and launches herself, skirts billowing, onto her rival. He stays down, groaning.

A man with huge sunglasses climbs into the ring and thrusts her hand into the air. “We’ve got a winner!” The audience bursts into cheers. “Women on top!” the ladies yell. Martha laughs, slips out of the ring, grabs her shawl and bowler hat and dances a victory dance to scratchy accordion music. Her fans embrace her and shower her in gifts.

A dusty, curtained stairwell serves as a dressing room. On the stairs I meet two cholitas. “Johana Vilela,” one of them says, breaking into a gold- toothed smile. “But call me ‘Poor Rosa,’ my stage name,” she says as she pulls on her kneepads. “Wrestling is pretty much all show, but you can still get badly hurt.” She points to the scars on her face. “And this is nothing. Two months ago, I broke my arm. My sons refused to come watch me after that.”

Remedios, a surprisingly slim cholita, did bring her son along. He cuddles up against her as she braids her hair. When I ask how a woman of her size could possibly triumph over the others, she laughs. “I’m really fast. I’m always one step ahead of my opponents.” We are interrupted by the announcer’s muffled voice on the PA system and the women spring into action. On the way to the ring they run into Martha, who collapses onto the wooden bench and dabs her forehead. She’s been wrestling with the Titanes del Ring for nine years now.

To draw a bigger crowd, he decided to ask cholitas to join

“Our manager, Juan Mamani, has been organizing wrestling matches here for years,” she says. “To draw a bigger crowd, he decided to ask cholitas to join too. Of the 60 or so candidates, I was one of the eight that made it through the selection process. We train twice a week and have matches every Sunday. Cholitas have been degraded and discriminated against for years. Here, we prove that women can do anything men can do. The ladies come and thank us after the show for proving that women can escape traditional gender roles. It gives them hope. We were ridiculed for years but here, we’re the main act.”

The arena slowly empties out after the match. The wrestlers start taking down the ring – the Sunday fight is over. Outside, I have to brace myself once more for the thin, cold Andes air of El Alto. The satellite city is roughly 4,000 meters above sea level and overlooks the capital city of La Paz. Millions of little lights glitter on the dark mountains below.

El Alto is filled with thousands of cholitas. These indigenous women – with their distinctive bowler hats, pleated skirts, shawls and ballerina slippers – originally inhabited the Andean plateau that traverses Bolivia and Peru for 2,000 years. These days El Alto is dubbed the Aymara capital. In the past 20 years, 1million indigenous Bolivians have settled here to escape the poverty of the countryside. Outside of harvest season, it’s impossible for women to find work or food there, so they come to the city in search of a better life.

A lucky few are able to find permanent jobs in La Paz, but most cholitas are forced to sell clothes, potatoes, pirated DVDs, and car parts in the streets of El Alto. Their fellow Bolivians view them with contempt; the cholitas are constantly humiliated and discriminated. Participating in wrestling matches is a way to gain respect, status and money.

The next morning, I meet with 30-year-old Carmen Rosa. El Alto looks dreary and depressing in the light of day. Not a single house is finished and the few trees that line the unpaved streets are small and anemic-looking. Everywhere I look, I see cholitas. As it starts to rain, they pull out umbrellas and sheets of plastic, wrap their bowler hats in white plastic bags and put them back on their heads. It’s quite a sight. When it really starts to pour, I take refuge under the awning of a fruit stand where the old cholita merchant who owns it sits napping in her chair.

Carmen is waiting for me in a small bar. She is sipping at a steaming mug of tea, her cell-phone dangling on a cord around her neck. I ask how old her sons are. “Carlos is six and Juan is 14,” she says. “They both go to school and I love them so much.” She starts to cry. “My husband says they aren’t his. My mother was raped when she was 15 and I was the result. That’s why I’m the black sheep of the family. When I got pregnant at 18, my mother kicked me out. It wasn’t until my aunt intervened that I was allowed to come home on the condition that I left school and started working.

He got one of the neighborhood girls pregnant

“So I started selling soup. Every day of my pregnancy, I would drag a huge pan of soup through the streets. After I gave birth, the father of my child became a bit more involved and we moved in together. But a year later, he got one of the neighborhood girls pregnant, so she and her baby lived with us for a while.” I look at Carmen in amazement. How could you let the woman your husband cheated on you with move into your home?

“I didn’t want to lose him,” she says. “I grew up without a father and I didn’t want my son to go through that. But at a certain point,” she continues “my husband started beating me. He hit me, dragged me across the floor by my hair and even broke my nose. My oldest, Juan, had to witness all of this. It makes sense that he hates his father. He’s been so restless and rebellious lately.” She sighs. “This is around the time I heard of the Titanes del Ring and I secretly went to watch them every Sunday. I was a big fan of wrestling and wanted to learn how to defend myself.

“Eventually, Juan Mamani noticed me and asked me to train with them. This really boosted my confidence. One night my husband came home drunk and accused me of cheating on him. I told him: let’s fight. So we went to a field and started fighting. I wailed away at him for minutes and the only thing he could do was protect himself. Then I grabbed all his clothes and kicked him out of the house. I’d never felt that strong in my life.”

“A few weeks later, my grandma asked me to take him back because people were starting to gossip,” Carmen went on. “I couldn’t say no and it turned ugly. I didn’t want to sleep with him anymore but he forced me to. That’s how I ended up pregnant again. At first, he demanded that I get an abortion, but after I gave birth he eventually formed a bond with Carlos. When he was stationed in Oruro, about three hours away, I took the boys to see him regularly. Then, one day we walked into his room and found him in bed with another woman. Carlos and Juan were shocked.

“That’s when he started saying the boys weren’t his. He refused to pay a dime for them. The lawyer I hired arranged a DNA test and the boys turned out to be his. But he keeps moving so I can’t find him. I can live with the fact that he beat me and refuses to pay for anything, but it infuriates me that he’s hurting his children like this. But I’ll get him,” she says bitterly. “One day I’ll make him pay for what he put me through all those years. He told me to keep dreaming when I said I wanted to be a professional wrestler – but that’s one dream I made sure would come true.”

It’s not much, but I can feed my sons and send them to school

Carmen earns around $10 per fight. She also works as an elementary school handcraft teacher where, as the only cholita employee, she earns less than $45 per month. “It’s not much, but I can feed my sons and send them to school,” she says. I ask her if the cholitas are still discriminated against. “It’s gotten better since Evo [Morales] was elected president. Before that, it was terrible. I wasn’t allowed in some grocery stores or shops. They’d say, ‘What’s that chola doing here?’ or, ‘We don’t need a cleaning lady.’”

“The discrimination is terrible,” says Patricia Gutierrez, a member of the United Nations Population Fund. This beautiful, caramel-colored woman leading me through downtown La Paz is well-versed on the plight of the indigenous people of Bolivia. “They get mocked for not speaking fluent Spanish, even though it’s not their native language and they never got the chance to go to school. And they are often referred to as cholas, a profanity in their language,” she says.

“They also think they stink,” she continues. “Many cholitas come from rural areas with no running water. They aren’t used to daily showers. But cholitas are just as Bolivian as us whites and, thanks to Evo Morales, our first indigenous president, they are finally getting the rights they deserve. Our new constitution – which was recently passed by referendum – describes the rights of the indigenous people that make up nearly 60 percent of the population. The whites hate Morales. They don’t understand what gives the indìgenas the right to do this. They’ve gotten their first taste of what it’s like to be a minority and it terrifies them.”

Dozens of cholitas sell potatoes, grapes and merchandise in the steep streets while their children frolic around them. I stop, gasping for air. “I was born here, but after a few weeks abroad, I have trouble getting used to this thin air too,” Patricia says with a laugh. A beautiful young woman with an apron, wool sweater and brown bowler hat catches my eye. She’s selling peaches. On her back, a small child plays with a plastic sandwich bag. I laugh and ask how old he is. “Six months,” she says. “I have five children, the oldest is 13. Two are at school and the other one is home. Every morning, I get up at 5.30 am to make their food. Then I walk an hour to the center. Most days I don’t get home until 8pm.”

I’m reminded of the old cholita woman who was napping on the street and I suddenly understand her exhaustion. I ask her where the father is. “Gone,” she says. “After my youngest was born he just left. I’d love to spend all day with my children, but I have to make money. I make about $3 a day. Some days I don’t sell anything at all, so we just eat the peaches instead.”

Tradition says they have to obey their husbands

“This is the story of most cholitas,” Patricia says with a sigh. “Tradition says they have to obey their husbands, and they wouldn’t dare mention birth control. But when the men leave to the city, they are confronted by an entirely new culture. Many become alcoholics, beat their wives, have affairs and eventually leave. The cholitas don’t dare talk about it, they just stay behind with the children. Many of them try and make ends meet by selling goods on the street while their children hover around them. When the kids get older, their parents lock them up in the house all day and, when they’re finally old enough, they get put to work.”

A cholita with a white poodle passes us. “A maid, taking the family dog out for a walk,” Patricia explains. In Bolivia, it’s quite normal for a cholita to move in as housekeeper and nanny. “My daughter was also raised by a cholita. The problem is that many people exploit them because they are often illiterate and don’t know their rights. They work more than 16 hours a day, are underpaid and often uninsured. Cholitas have a completely different culture. The Pachamama – Mother Earth – is everything to them. She gives life and promotes fertility.

Rituals are held for Pachamama in the countryside. A cholita’s main duty in life is to become a mother and take care of her children. That’s why she can’t take the pill or send her children to daycare. They always carry their children on their back in an awayo, a brightly colored cloth. Ironically, more and more white women are doing this too, myself included. My daughter got so attached to hers she couldn’t sleep anywhere else,” Patricia says.

Out of the corner of my eye I see a cholita lift her skirts and squat. A stream starts to trickle down towards the gutter. No one seems surprised or even notices for that matter. Patricia takes one look at my face and laughs. “Cholitas do that a lot, pee on the street. Their belief in the Pachamama means they aren’t allowed to wear underwear. That way there’s nothing between their most fertile area – the vagina – and the ground – Pachamama,” she explains. “But that has to be cold,” I say in astonishment. The temperature here rarely tops 12ºC. Patricia shrugs, “I guess they’re just used to it.”

My eyes widen when I see her shoes

On the way back, we see a cholita piling huge stones into a wheelbarrow while the men pave the road nearby. The woman shoots me a suspicious look under her fishing hat. Juana is 46-years-old and has been doing this for two years now. My eyes widen when I see her shoes: black ballerina slippers. My God, what if she drops a stone?

“It started in Oruro,” Patricia explains. “Cholitas there started working construction several years ago. They are extremely popular. They might be slower and weaker than the men, but because they don’t drink, they show up on time and work carefully. In El Alto, more and more cholitas are starting to work in construction. It’s hard work but they’re willing to work as hard as it takes to support their children.”

On my last day, I stop by Carmen Rosa’s to say goodbye. Her little brick house looks more like a small junk cupboard than a home. The tiny, shadowy room contains a bed, a closet, a table and a TV. The walls are adorned with colorful drawings and a Spiderman poster and bags filled with clothes and papers are propped up in the corners. Little Carlos watches me shyly, his eyes peeking out from under his hat. He’s sitting next to his mother and older brother Juan on the couch.

I ask Carmen how she sees the future. “With Evo, I see it in a very positive light,” she says. “But I’ve been so stupid. Years ago, Morales came to one of our Fejuve meetings – the union to which I belong. He was campaigning and asked me to help. But I said no because I didn’t believe an indigenous man could ever become president of Bolivia. I could kick myself now! But I will succeed. I’m going to fight to become a congress member.”

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