The Mummy and Black Falcon were in the ring bashing, lifting and hurling each other against the ropes, two wrestlers engaged in that most masculine of activities — fighting.
The crowd roared approval — it was a good show — but this was a warm-up act and there was impatience for the main event: Carmen Rosa, also known as “The Champion.” After a theatrical delay she appeared, a stocky figure with pigtails and a flouncy skirt, and she waded through well-wishers toward the ring.
Minutes later she had her opponent, a self-confessed sexist known as “Eastern Hunter,” pinned against a corner. Her foot pushed deeper into his neck. He yelped and collapsed. Rosa mounted the ropes, bounced for momentum, leaped backwards and crash-landed on the prostrate form. The cheers were deafening.
Welcome to lucha libre, freestyle wrestling with a Bolivian twist. This macho sport in this macho country, South America’s most impoverished and conservative, has been flipped into an unlikely feminist phenomenon.
Indigenous women known as cholitas, physically strong from manual labor but long considered powerless and subservient, have become stars of the ring. They train like men, fight like men — and beat men.
“We have been discriminated against since the beginning for the simple fact of being women and indigenous women at that,” said Carmen Rosa, whose real name is Polonia Ana Choque. “Men used to mock us, but we have come further than male fighters.”
At a recent night-time bout in El Alto, an impoverished satellite city overlooking the capital, La Paz, the 38-year-old mother-of-two emerged bloodied, but triumphant. The crowd applauded and young women and girls chanted: “Women on top, men below.”
A ramshackle ring with pantomime theatrics in a near-freezing slum high in the Andes, with drunk men among the spectators, it was an incongruous scene for female empowerment and the subversion of gender cliches.
Yet it reflected a wider breakthrough for indigenous women. For centuries Spanish colonialists and indigenous patriarchs restricted cholitas to child-rearing and manual labor and denied them education. Strikingly visible in felt bowler hats, colorful shawls and multi-layered skirts, they were a silent underclass.
That has begun to change. Since sweeping to power two years ago, Bolivian President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous leader, has championed the rights of the Aymara and Quechua majority, including women. Cholitas occupy many junior official posts and several senior ones in the government and judicial system.
“The system was made for us to be peasants all our lives,” said Celima Torrico, Bolivia’s first indigenous woman justice minister. “We have more space now, but it is lamentable we were kept in the darkness for so long.”
Bolivia remains patriarchal and girls and women still lag in literacy and opportunities compared to those in neighboring Argentina and Chile, which have female presidents.
“There is still a lot of prejudice, violence and physical control over women,” said Lourdes Montero, an indigenous women’s rights activist. “It will take time. But cholitas know they need to fight [for their rights]. There’s a resurgence of pride in the skirt.”
The wrestling cholitas reflect the limitations and possibilities of this feminist surge. Conceived in 2001 to spice up traditional male-only bouts, they were presented as a novelty on a par with fighting dwarves, with whom they shared billing. But gradually they became the main draw and there are now several dozen semi-professional female wrestlers. The most successful, such as Yolanda “the Loved One,” Julia “from La Paz” and Ana “the Avenger”, tour abroad.