Different Faces of Lucha Libre

A contact sport adapted to different cultures worldwide, wrestling is not just a modern-day performing art, but one that is deeply rooted in history, especially in Latin American communities. Two vastly different styles of wrestling can be seen in Bolivia, where indigenous women in puffy skirts are the stars of the show, and in Mexico, where one’s mask serves as their spirit animal.

Bolivia’s Cholita Luchadoras

The word “cholita” was once a derogatory term for the indigenous Aymara and Quecha women of Bolivia who were seen as the lowest strata of society, rural peasants who worked menial jobs. Cholitas are easily identified thanks to their flamboyant outfits, usually comprising the sombrero (bowler hat), la pollera (pleated skirt) with colourful enagua (multi-layered under-skirts), joyas (accessories and jewellery) and flat round-toe shoes.

Today, being a cholita stands for something altogether different – it’s a positive term that celebrates the country’s cultural heritage, women’s confidence and is a badge of honour.

Furthermore, the distinctive Cholita fashion that used to denote marginalisation has become a celebration of the women’s femininity, elegance and dignity. These women wear their shawls to white-collar jobs and even participate in fashion shows – something unthinkable just 15 years ago.

Cholita fashion worn in various ways conveys different meanings. For instance, a woman’s marital status is signified by her bowler hat’s position: centre for married, to the side for single/widowed, and to the back to jokingly mean ‘it’s complicated’. Wardrobe aside, these days the women – and their flamboyant outfits – are known more for their fighting spirit.

Cholita + Domestic Abuse = Luchadora 

Wrestling in their vibrant flouncy skirts and pigtails, cholitas have been throwing each other around under the spotlight for almost two decades. Cholita wrestling first started as an initiative for victims of domestic violence to release their frustration and stress. It was only after the mid-2000s that it became commercialised, providing a side income for the women wrestlers.

Like other forms of wrestling entertainment, cholita wrestling is also staged. In the ring, the women in multi-layered skirts turn into fighting machines as they execute good girl vs bad girl routines with whimsical confrontations. As the sport caught on, the women wrestlers earned the nickname The Flying Cholitas, in reference to their ‘flying moves’ with a mix of acrobatics and martial arts. Women mostly fight against women, but occasionally, they also fight men.

Kicking Ass in Fancy Skirts 

A 2013 study by the Pan American Health Organisation found that 53% of those surveyed in Bolivia were victims of domestic violence, one of the worst rates in Latin America. In response, these women wrestlers have not only helped redefine what it means to be a cholita, but also throw light onto the issue of domestic abuse.

The rise of the cholitas has also coincided with that of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first ethnically indigenous president, with the country seeing improvements in the lives of the Aymara and other indigenous groups, as well as the toughening of domestic violence laws.

Where to Catch a Match? 

Cholita wrestling matches are held every Sunday evening in a stadium in El Alto, near La Paz. Tickets at the door go for USD7. There are also wrestling tours from La Paz (USD12- 50 depending on what is included).

Mexicos’s Lucha Libre

Located 6,000km north of Bolivia, Mexico is the birthplace of Latin America’s most famous wrestling style, lucha libre – or “free fighting” – where wrestlers dressed in colourful body spandex and intricate masks execute acrobatic moves and dramatic throws.

The Mask

This entertainment sport is most widely associated with its infamous luchador masks, an element borrowed from Aztec warriors who, centuries ago, donned masks of mighty animals they admired to battle their opponents. Decorated in vibrant colours, the mask serves as a crucial part of lucha libre’s storyline, by maintaining the anonymity of the wrestler. To the luchador (wrestler), the mask is his/her identity, representing his/her persona and aura. It is the most sacred item to a wrestler, so much so that removing an opponent’s mask is penalised.

The history of wearing a disguise during a fight dates back to 1933, but it was only in 1942 when El Santo, ‘The Man in the Silver Mask’, made his debut that the fascination with masks caught on. Today, lucha libre masks are universally recognised as a symbol of Mexican pop culture, and almost every young wrestler begins his career masked.

In rare fights, losing the match means having to unmask and reveal their true identity – a luchador’s greatest fear. The longer one can remain masked during their career, the higher their status in the ring.

Where to Catch the Match

The easiest and most popular place to see lucha libre is at the Arena Mexico in Mexico City. Tickets at the door range fromUSD6 21 depending on your seat.

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