There is something just a little bit awesome about watching a fully grown woman heft up a packing crate and crack it over the head of another fully grown woman. I don’t know why, there just is.
Not that I am condoning violence; this isn’t something I just happened to see while wandering the streets of La Paz. No it was a Cholitas match, complete with trash-talking, bitch-slapping, hair-pulling and and some genuinely fantastic wrestling moves.
The Cholitas are a group of Bolivian women, typically indigneous women, who decided they wanted in on some lucha libre action. Lucha libre, the freestyle form of wrestling characterised by aerial maneuvers, is big throughout Latin America and Bolivia is no exception. Traditionally it is men fighting in tight pants and hooded masks, but not too long ago some the Cholitas decided that anything the men could do…. And rather than the traditional wrestling costumes these gals take to the ring in style; sporting their traditional dress of multi-layered skirts, shawls, decorated braids and jaunty bowler hats.
The growing popularity of lucha libre wrestling – and the Cholitas – means they have become something of an institution in La Paz. Every Sunday at a small host of venues are the Cholitas take to the ring, putting on a show for both tourists and locals. We headed along to one in El Alto on the outskirts of La Paz, wondering just what the evening’s entertainment would involve.
We pulled up to the arena and found it to be little more than a large open space with a cement floor and aluminium roof. In the middle was the wrestling ring, ready and waiting. I should mention here that while this looked like any other wrestling ring, it certainly did not any of the luxuries that you might find in a professional ring. The floor was most certainly not sprung to help the wrestlers with their leaps and acrobatics, nor was there any padding that might give a wrester a bit of cushioning during a fall. When they fell, these wrestlers fell on to a hard surface.
We bought our popcorn and coca-cola and secured ourselves ringside seats for the evening’s entertainment. Local people wandered in, sitting a little further back on the concrete steps. The reason for this would become fairly obvious in time.
The annoucer began his introductions, and soon after Eye of the Tiger came blaring from the sound system. From behind a gold curtain the ref emerged, arms aloft, beckoning the crowd for a cheer. We obliged, of course. Two young men emerged next, one in a lucha libre mask, the other maskless. The crowd booed the man in the mask and cheered for the other, they already knew who the hero in this fight would be.
The fight began, and the two wrestlers circled each other before launching into a series of impressive maneuvers. There were holds, lifts, throws and rolls, all executed without any hesitation. Each time one of the wrestlers hit the floor of the ring, there would be an almighty bang – as I said there was no padding to soften the blows for any of these wrestlers. Eventually, through some trickery and some help from the ref, the masked villain won.
The next fight we saw our first Cholita. She was fighting against a man, and so this fight would be gentle by comparison. This fight wasn’t so much about technical ability, as about comedy. There was hair pulling, standing on toes, feigned screaming, and at one point our Cholita – fed up with the obvious bias of the ref – took off her shoe and started beating him about the head with it. Great stuff.
Another fight and this time it was a tag team match – four wrestlers, in teams of two, would take to the ring. It was in this match that the aerial abilities of these amateur wrestlers became very apparent. Again there were the flips, the holds and the throws, but they were much more acrobatic. Then there were the aerial moves. Throughout their battle each of the wrestlers would periodically climb atop one of the corner posts and then launch themselves into an opponent, flipping and twisting as they did so. It was impressive, and would have made any WWE wrestler take note.
Of course as any wrestling fan know, the fight never stays in the ring. The fight spilled out of the ring dramatically, with one wrestler thrown outside of it (onto a cold hard concrete floor I might add). He was then rammed into a concrete pillar, and then again into the ringside barricades, which promptly gave way and slammed into mine and A’s knees. It was suddenly very clear why the local were sitting a good five metres behind us. Once again the ref intervened to help out the bad guys, and eventually, to the jeers and protests of the crowd, they were declared the winners.
The main event was next. Two Cholitas, emerged in their resplendant skirts and proceeded to primp and pose for the crowd, whipping up cheers. Next they proved they could trash talk as well as the boys, and launched into what I can assume was a scathing attack on the other’s abilities. I couldn’t understand a word of it mind you…save for the odd phrase.
Then the fight began and these women proved they were every bit as tough and every bit as talented as the men. Their costumes only proved to enhance the show, their skirts and braids whirled in all directions as they rolled and flipped around the ring. They slapped each other, banged each others head on the ring posts, launched themselves from the high ropes, and then – to the delight of the crowd – one of them produced a pair of nun-chuks and began using them on her foe.
The next Cholita bout had all this and more. The two women taking to the ring were clearly determined to stage the match of the evening.Their acrobatic flips and throws and turns were intricate, fast-paced and once again as good as anything the men has produced. These girls didn’t hesitate to climb the ring posts and launch themselves – skirts and braids streaming out – across the ring and into their opponents.
Again the match spilled from the ring, they ran each other into concrete pillars, into the crowd and then for a brief moment they ran each other banging and screaming down a hallway where they disappeared from sight. Seconds later they re-emerged with blood – fake blood – running down their faces. I think it was then that the packing crate emerged and one of the Cholitas copped it on the head. Again I’d like to clarify that this was no specially designed light-weight break-on-impact crate. No, this was sturdy a packing crate as you would see. The Cholita who copped that blow soon retaliated in a similar manner, this time using a metal bucket.
Each time a blow was struck the crowd would whistle and roar and cheer, these Cholitas knew how to put on a show. Eventually a winner was declared, but it didn’t really matter who won; winning was hardly the point of this fight. It was one of the most entertaining nights we spent in La Paz.
Obviously all the fights were choreographed and well rehearsed, obviously no one sustained any real injuries. Still, I don’t care how well the punches were pulled, or how well reheared the throws were – it is going to hurt when you get tossed out of a ring fall down to a concrete floor, or when you get cracked on the head with a packing crate. Those lucha libre wrestlers – and the Cholitas – are some of the toughest and craziest people around.