Dressed in colorful traditional dresses called polleras, plaited hair, and bowler hats, the Cholitas Luchadoras of El Alto, Bolivia, beat the crap out of their friends for fun and profit.
Photographer Eduardo Leal followed the wrestling women for more than a month, documenting their devotion to the sport. He told Refinery29 all about the Luchadoras and their rise to fame.
“At the beginning, they thought of it as a bit of a joke,” he tells R29 by phone. No one, not even the women themselves, took the wrestling seriously. But that's changed.
"They are hugely popular, compared to the men," he says.
The group began as an offshoot of the local men’s wrestling tradition in the landlocked country in the heart of South America (“Cholita” is a diminutive of “chola,” a name for local indigenous women). As Leal explains, a fighter named Juan Mamani, faced with a loss of interest in wrestling, was struck with the idea of putting the colorful Cholitas in the ring to attract an audience. It took off, but the women soon realized that they were seeing very little of the money that was coming in. They ditched Mamani and kept wrestling.
Now they keep it up as a local sport and for entertainment, training regularly. Every Sunday they hold an exhibition for the community and tourists at the local arena, called The 12th of October.
Though there are always plenty of tourists, the exhibition fights are popular with locals. “I could see the local crowd was nearly all their friends,” Leal says.
The matches are mostly staged, following a good-gal-bad-gal narrative, but there’s always the threat of real injury. Leal once had to help a fighter out of the ring after a bad landing.
The wrestling Cholitas are seen as small-scale celebrities, invited to events, or paid to do commercials
. Their public loves them, but there is a cost. Some of the wrestlers have lost boyfriends or husbands because of the sport.
“We are talking about a country in South America — it’s Latin culture; it’s really masculine. It’s a male-dominated society,” Leal says. “So when a man is with a woman and a woman is seen as strong and fighting in a ring, the men feel somehow weakened.”
But not always.
“One of the other fighters, she got a boyfriend after breaking up with a few guys,” Leal says. “He works as a fighter as well, so he understands what she does.”
Ahead, Leal's amazing photos and stories of the women in action.