Silvina La Poderosa jumps from a corner of the wrestling ring to land on her opponent, Reyna Torres, during an exhibit fight in Senkata, El Alto, 2014. (Eduardo Leal) Reyna Torres, 22, waits at an intersection in the city of El Alto for the rest of the cholitas luchadoras so they can go together to a fight in Senkata. The women often host exhibition fights in other parts of La Paz and Bolivia to promote the sport. (Eduardo Leal)
At night, Reyna Torres demurely sits in her parents’ home, hand-sewing a hole she tore in her skirt earlier in the day. It’s the same skirt Reyna worewhen she leaped off the rope of a wrestling ring into the air and on to her opponent’s chest during a match. Every Sunday afternoon in the Bolivian city of El Alto, the “high city” that overlooks the capital of La Paz, hundreds of Bolivians and tourists line up at the door of a sports complex to see a group of women wrestle. They are known as Cholitas Luchadores–fighting cholitas–indigenous women with braided hair who don colorful multi-layered pollera skirts and bowler hats.
In 2014, photojournalist Eduardo Leal ventured to El Alto to better understand the lifestyles of the cholitas, both in and out of the ring.
El Alto has a population of over 1 million people, and had often been called the poorer working-class sister city of La Paz. But in recent years El Alto has seen a slight uptick in wealth with the opening of new shops as Bolivia’s economy rises.
For recreation in the sprawling city, a group of women began to create a circle of luchadoras inspired by Mexico’s famous lucha libre. Each Sunday, the women descend on a complex in El Alto and put on a theatrical spectacle, wrestling and taking hard punches, pulling hair, and leaping through the air, all while dressed in colored petticoats and shawls.
The women have also become a band of sisters, operating through an association they formed in 2011 that would hold everyone accountable–not just the promoters–for ensuring each person received fair treatment and compensation. The organization was formed out of a response to a fighter and promoter who first had the idea to create the cholitas and put them in the ring to attract the public. Fighters began suspecting him of creating a monopoly on the sport and taking a large percentage of their earnings.
Reyna Torres grabs Silvina La Poderosa on a rotation movement during an exhibition fight in Senkata, El Alto. The Wrestling Cholitas fight every Sunday in the 12th October Complex in El Alto. At times they do exhibition fights in other parts of Bolivia to promote the sport. (Eduardo Leal) The ring of the sports complex where cholita fights take place every Sunday. The fights attract many Bolivians and tourists. Tourists pay five times more for tickets to sit in the front rows on plastic chairs, while local residents sit on the cement stands. (Eduardo Leal)
A woman typically trains for one year before becoming a full-fledged cholita able to fight in the ring. The reward for being a cholita is often more in the form of fame and a certain level of notoriety within the community than in money. Most fighters take home little more than $20 to $30 on any Sunday. Yet some have used used fame to gain jobs traditionally reserved for men like being traffic cops, working in television, or holding office.
Juanita La Cariñosa, left, takes photos with young fans after the exhibition fight in Senkata, El Alto. Cholitas obtain celebrity status in Bolivia, but also abroad, appearing in TV shows like The Cristina Show, hosted by Cuban born American journalist Cristina Saralegui. (Eduardo Leal) Reyna Torres, right, comes to the rescue of teammate Jennifer Dos Caras to fight Juanita La Cariñosa outside of the ring, primarily for the pleasure of tourists. Sometimes fights are fought in pairs: a team of the good guys and a team of the bad guys. As in many other stories, most of the times the good guys end up winning the fight. (Eduardo Leal) The Bolivian public cheers for the cholitas during a fight in the city of El Alto. Going to see the fights of the Cholitas has become favorite Sunday past time for many of the residents. (Eduardo Leal) Silvina La Poderosa, 27. (Eduardo Leal) Juanita La Cariñosa, right, controls the tickets at the door in El Alto. The ticket fees are the only income that supports the fights. (Eduardo Leal) Mary Llanos Sanz, 31, best known as Juanita La Cariñosa (The Sweet One) the leader of the Wrestling Cholitas, puts makeup on in a taxi ride on the way to a fight while her son looks on, 2014. (Eduardo Leal) Reyna Torres sews a skirt that was damaged during a fight. Cholitas use their everyday clothes even on the ring. When she is not fighting or involved in organizing fights, Reyna works in her parents home, 2014. (Eduardo Leal) Juanita La Cariñosa uses her phone to coordinate fights while she makes bread for All Soul’s Day, 2014. (Eduardo Leal) Cholitas meet in the dressing room before the match so they can coordinate the order of fights and some of the sequences. The Wrestling Cholitas fight every Sunday on the in El Alto. At times they do exhibition fights in other parts of La Paz and Bolivia to promote the sport,2014. (Eduardo Leal) Cholitas walk on the street at sunset after an exhibition fight on the wealthy area of La Paz, just south of El Alto., Bolivia, 2014. (Eduardo Leal)