This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cholitas Way

Hola Cholita

There is nothing that symbolizes La Paz, Bolivia more than the "cholita." Cholitas are the indigenous Aymara ladies who dress in the traditional style of big skirts called polleras, shawls, pigtails and the iconic bowler hat. The word "Cholo/chola" (cholita is diminutive) stems from a derogatory term used by the people with Spanish ancestry when referring to the Indians. Racism in the country still exists, but it is slowly changing. The Cholita has become an iconic image representing all of Bolivia.

Street art homages to the Cholita:

If you are wondering how the British male Bowler hat ended up perched atop Bolivia ladies' heads, the most common story told is that in the 1920's a shipment of the hats arrived to Bolivia for the European railroad workers. These hats were too small for the men's domes but one entrepreneur sold them to the locals and a tradition was born. Hats vary by height, brim widths and colors. Every year new styles dominate the Cholita fashion scene.
The Bowler hat

A help wanted sign. Usually in Spanish they will use a term like "senorita, young lady, waitress, etc." but in La Paz "cholita" works fine.
The hotel where we stay in La Paz sits next to a large market covering several blocks with Aymara ladies selling every type of food item available all wearing a similar type of apron. The Bowler hats are not for work. A few blocks from that is a street which I have named the "Cholita's market." Everything is sold here that one needs to get in full Cholita regalia from expensive, colorful skirts to simple hairbands worn between braids.

Wrestlemania - Cholita Style

Every Sunday locals and tourists head uphill to watch Cholitas Wrestling. They advertise this event as off the tourist trail, but the six busloads of gringos would say otherwise. Tour tickets sold by every agency in La Paz include entrance, snack, a little souvenir and two guide-escorted trips to the bathroom outside because the neighborhood around the arena is supposedly dangerous. It is possible to go to Cholita's Wrestling by yourself but you will not save that much money.

View of La Paz from El Alto
Outside the wrestling arena
I know that we will see women wrestle, but at first I think it would be competitive. I soon learn that we are going to a show - lucha libre- like wrestling on TV. We arrive at the arena and line up to go in - foreigners on the right and locals on the left. We are seated ringside in plastic chairs while the locals sit on bleachers a little further from the action but with better views.
The arena
We have several matches throughout the night. The first one is laughably amateurish with wrestling skills no better than that of any respectable ten year old WWF fan. With costumes that look homemade I am worried about what we have signed up for and wonder how soon we will bolt for the exits. But as the matches progress so does the talent of the athletes (actors?) and the built-in drama full of leading ladies, dastardly villains, crooked refs and a midget.
Really Catman? The first match
It is not until the third match that we get our first Cholita coming out wearing a full traditional outfit. She enters the ring to the cheers of the crowd, removes the Bowler hat and shawl and gets ready to rumble. Surprisingly she is fighting a man - a masked villain that might be able to beat her in strength but never in charisma nor on tonight's script. You can feel the crowd's involvement starting to pick up also. Rabid insults are slung at the bad guys who respond by screaming at everyone to "shut up!" Not just insults, popcorn and water are flying too. I wonder if some of the Bolivians in the audience are in on the joke.
Her grand entrance in tradional clothing
As the matches continue we get just one with two Cholitas squaring off. A darling starlet versus a true baddie who pulls pigtails, chokes with hair ribbons, verbally abuses the audience and conspires with the evil ref. The men's talents are also improving as the night goes on. It is not the steroid-induced wrestling of North America, but they do get tossed around quite a bit and take it like a man when losing to a lady.

The final bout features another star of the ring who has brought along her cholita friend - who happens to be a midget. The little lady does not fight but she seems quite adept and head-butting men in the groin. Of course the leading lady wins the bout taking out both her opponent and the evil ref.
Talking trash before the fight: Lady in yellow is the villain while the one is red is the darling

A masked luchador watching the entrance of his Cholita opponent

About to toss her male opponent into the crowd
and then beat him with an empty water bottle

The star of the main event dancing before the match

High flying act

Cholita wrestler in training
Overall, the night is fun. There is a raucous crowd and everyone falls head-over-heels for the charismatic Cholita wrestlers. If around La Paz the Cholita image is of a woman timid and stoic it is in El Alto where that stereotype gets literally smashed to pieces.

Cholitas fighting for their rights by marching on the streets of La Paz
To see my blog post about La Paz click here

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