The Badass Wrestling Cholitas Of Bolivia

Photo: Eduardo Leal
Dressed in colourful 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 colourful Cholitas in the ring to attract an audience. It took off, but the women soon realised 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, amazing photos of the women in action.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
La Loca prepares to throw Benita La Intocable to the floor of the ring during a fight at the 12th of October Complex in El Alto. The Cholitas wrestle every Sunday afternoon, in an exhibition fight for the community.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Reyna Torres, 22, waits at an intersection in the city of El Alto for the rest of the group so they can go to a fight in Senkata. The Cholitas sometimes do exhibition fights in other parts of La Paz and Bolivia to promote the sport.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Silvina La Poderosa, 37, and the referee "punish" Reyna Torres during an exhibition fight in Senkata. Fights follow a dramatic good-against-bad storyline, and the referee will often side with the "bad" Cholita, even helping her. But like in many stories, good tends to win in the end.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Silvina La Poderosa looks at the public from the top of the ropes during an exhibition fight in Senkata.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Silvina La Poderosa jumps from a corner of the ring to land on her opponent, Reyna Torres, during an exhibition fight in Senkata.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Cholitas walk on the street at sunset after an exhibition fight in the wealthy part of La Paz.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
The 12th of October Sports Complex is the home ring where the Cholitas do an exhibition fight for locals and tourists every Sunday. Tourists pay five times more to sit in the front rows on plastic chairs, while the locals sit on the cement stands.
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Photo and caption: Eduardo Leal
Juanita La Cariñosa pummels Jennifer Dos Caras (Two Faces), 16, on the ropes during a fight in the 12th of October Sports Complex. Sometimes fights are fought in pairs, with one team playing the villains, and the other team the heroes.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
The public cheers the Cholitas during a fight at the 12th of October Complex in the city of El Alto. Going to see the Cholitas fight is a favourite pastime of many people in the town.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Simpática Sonia throws her opponent, Jennifer Dos Caras, to the floor during a fight at the 12th of October Sports Complex.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Mery Llanos Saenz, 31, best known as Juanita La Cariñosa (The Sweet One), puts on makeup in a taxi ride on the way to a fight while her little son watches.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Reyna Torres sews a skirt that had been damaged during a fight. When she is not fighting or organising fights, she works in her parents' home.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Juanita La Cariñosa, the leader of the Wrestling Cholitas, takes photos with young fans after the exhibition fight in Senkata, El Alto. Cholitas have some celebrity status not just in Bolivia, but abroad as well.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Benita La Intocable, 31. Cholitas wear their everyday clothes, even in the ring.
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Photo: Eduardo Leal
Reyna Torres comes to the rescue of Jennifer Dos Caras and punishes Juanita La Cariñosa outside of the ring, to the excitement of the tourists watching the fight.
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