I’m not quite sure how I ended up parting with 80Bs. (£7.29 / US$11.49) in order to go and watch a load of women taunt and beat each other up in the rougher La Paz district of El Alto, or why I didn’t stay behind with my hungover friends and eat pizza on a Sunday afternoon rather than join a load of excited locals and a few busloads of bemused backpackers to sit down to three hours of fakery.
But I did.
Cholita wrestling, as it is called, has been packaged up and commodified for the tourist market. Vouchers for drinks and popcorn and little welcome packs containing postcards and a mini figurine are included in the entry price. I do wonder, however, just how inflated the ticket prices are compared to what the locals pay? And wouldn’t some of the kids in the audience enjoy the goodie bags too?
Cholita seems to gain its meaning from the cholo, a reference to a Hispanic man of mixed racial background. It is often associated with low-income and a tough sub-culture. Cholita can be used in a positive sense but is often associated with that of being a tough girl. Cholita wrestling, therefore, is tough girls fighting it out.
Although a very low key set-up with plastic seating and wooden benches, there was very clearly a created sense of them and us; tourists versus locals: tourists got ringside seats, locals seated further back. No integration. A little strange.
I had been warned about the dangers of this event. Want to go to the toilet? You’ll need to be accompanied by a chaperone, a guard. The seating segregation? Necessary. Watch your back. Don’t make eye contact. Whatever you do, don’t throw anything at the audience or at the wrestlers; people might flip out and attack you. I had gone with all these potential scenarios in my head, curious as to what exactly I was getting myself into. And still not sure why I was going.
In reality, much of the warnings were hyperbolic, maybe for the benefit of letting us backpackers feel brave, as though we’ve done something a little daring and exciting during our time in La Paz. El Alto is, after all, known as being the roughest part of La Paz, home to the poorest population of the city and a place where life expectancy is just 62 years of age. Backpackers, meanwhile, are rich enough to have travelled to this far-flung part of the world. What a difference.
So my experience? Not being a fan of the likes of WWE, I found the wrestling a little strange. Why people get excited about acted fighting is a little beyond me. I tried to understand it but the closest I got was appreciating some of the skills used to slam down an opponent without breaking their back.
It started off with two guys, the warm up. They paraded the audience, warmed us up.
Then on came the first woman, a thick-set lady with a mean stare and traditional dress. I watched a man beat the crap out of her. All for entertainment. Of course she wasn’t hurt, this was a performance, but spectator gasps indicated the controversial nature of the act. During one move, front seaters excitedly insisted that they saw some scrotum escaping from her pants. Maybe it wasn’t just the fighting that was fake but gender was also being simulated? Who knows. I was further confused. This was all turning out to be a bit of a pantomime.
During the break, I ventured out a little into El Alto with Casey and Kate, two fellow female travellers. A Sunday church group were singing and dancing, ladies swishing their layered skirts and smiling away, men partnering them with a little more sternness, music accompanying the whole affair. A young boy bounced about, weaving in and out of the group, getting up close to our faces and grinning a slightly unhinged grin.
Further along were various stalls and a cluster of table football tables. Casey challenged a local to a game. ‘Money’, they insisted, clearly a little amused by this woman interrupting their Sunday afternoon play. It was a case of put your money where your mouth is, I guess. She lost. Grandly. They gained 20Bs.
Back inside the makeshift stadium and the fighting continued, culminating in the pairing of two agile women. This time, there was little doubt about their gender. Shorter frames and toned legs covered in a bustle of skirt material, these girls were fit and ready to take each other on.
With each flip, bounce on the ropes, slam on to the floor and chase around the ring, the crowd cheered. These women worked it. Not in any great professional sense, but they were the best of the bunch. Little kids went wild, geed on by their overly excited dads. The performing women each tried to gain support from the crowd. Sides were taken.
Some tourists started to throw popcorn at the two competitors, who in turn decided to attack the audience with water bottles, squirting liquid all over the place. The empty bottles were then used to bash their opponent; headlock and then bish, bash, bosh.
Another tourist flung a chair towards the ring. He was flung out of the door by security. Plonker. We’d had a pep talk about that kind of behaviour on the bus ride up. Testing the water, I guess. Maybe it just added to the fun and my inability to recognise the comedy value means I’ve become dull? Hmph.
And then I got a bit bored of the whole thing.
Watching the cholita wrestling had been a strange, new experience for me and watching the crowds was only marginally more interesting. Whilst I’m glad that I went, I wouldn’t go back. Been there, done that, got the goody bag.
Will I keep my mini cholita figurine? Yeah, maybe.