After reading Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America,” Enoch Contreras was inspired to venture to Bolivia. But when he started research for his trip, he stumbled upon something that immediately captured his attention — the Wrestling Cholitas of El Alto.
Inspired by America’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and Mexico’s famous lucha libre, cholita wrestling is an event where Bolivian women in colorful costumes and bowler hats captivate crowds and battle it out in the ring. After learning that this somewhat peculiar type of entertainment was held in high regard by locals and tourists alike, Enoch kept digging.
He initially thought that by continuing his research he’d gain a better understanding of Bolivian culture — after all, the population of Bolivia is 62 percent indigenous and, since most of the cholitas are of Aymara descent, he figured that a trip to the country would give him further insight into their place in society. He thought that if he could learn about what motivated their foray into wrestling (both individually and collectively), he could understand their version of Bolivia’s history, and their culture’s evolution over time.
But the more he learned about the cholita tradition, the more he realized how passionate and dedicated these women were to their craft. That’s when he knew there was a story worth telling.
He chose to tell that story through a photo collection that would take a backstage look at the women who devote themselves to this practice. He didn’t know quite what to expect, but he headed to El Alto with an open mind and a camera in hand.
Once there, he made his way to the Multifuncional Ceja venue, which sits on the hills above La Paz in the Altiplano highlands. The event was packed. There were to be three fights that night — the first two between women, and the third between men.
The show began and the crowd quickly took to their role, throwing water, various fruits, nuts, and anything they could grapple at the wrestling cholitas. Beyond the wild crowd, Enoch was most surprised by the beating some of these women were able to take. Although most of the cholita fights are staged, there were moments that were very real. There were even a few instances where he could see that one of the cholitas was clearly hurt and couldn’t move, but the group was so well-trained that the others would recognize it and form a type of diversion, such as leaving the ring and parading around the crowd, to give their opponent time to recuperate.
In one particular bout between two cholitas named Sylvina “La Poderosa” (the powerful one) and Mercedes, a third cholita came flying into the ring to join the fight. Although nothing seemed out of the ordinary in the moment, Enoch later found out that the introduction of the third cholita wasn’t part of the original plan. But as a spectator, he had no idea because they adapted so quickly. It was then that he realized this type of entertainment truly is a form of improvisation.
Once the fight was over and the venue cleared out, Enoch met with the cholitas in hopes of gathering some of their personal stories. He met Rosaria “La Coqueta” (the flirt), a second-generation Wrestling Cholita who took after her mother. He met Anabel, who described wrestling as a part of her identity that she couldn’t imagine living without. He met Mercedes, who was nursing her child in the locker room, just minutes after she had jumped off the top rope of the ring and thrown herself at her opponent. Each of the women he met took great pride in what they do — it has brought them a sense of dignity, as well as a respected place within their communities.
The women told him that there was a new generation of cholitas rising up, that the older fighters who had started wrestling about 15 years ago have paved the way for younger women to follow in their footsteps. Las Antiguas (the older generation) support this change, and many of them mentor the newcomers. Upholding the tradition of cholita wrestling is important to them because it supports an even playing field across their society.
It stands as a reminder that they can do anything a man can do, and that they deserve the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
That night, Enoch saw evidence of this first-hand, as the majority of the crowd left after the second fight — it was clear who the audience was there to support. In that respect, there is progress.
Enoch left the Multifuncional Ceja with a newfound respect for the Wrestling Cholitas of El Alto. His photo collection provides a glimpse into the lives of these women and tells a greater story of the Bolivian community’s evolution. He hopes that his images convey how multi-dimensional these women are — that although they do fly around a ring performing suplexes and body slams, being a wrestling cholita is only one aspect of their lives. For Enoch, their personal stories and insights into Bolivian culture are something he will always cherish.
Enoch Contreras is a documentary photographer whose work focuses on social paradoxes, spiritual practices, traditions that face extinction, and the refugee crisis. He is currently based in Miami, Florida.