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Published: September 2008

Bolivia's Wrestlers

Bolivian Wrestlers

Bolivia's Wrestlers

In the wrestling rings of Bolivia, skirts fly as cholitas fight back!

By Alma Guillermoprieto
Photograph by Ivan Kashinsky

At the largest public gymnasium in El Alto, Bolivia, daylight is fading from the windows, and hundreds of people along the bleachers are growing impatient. They have been sitting for more than two hours now, jeering and whistling and yelling encouragement at the succession of artistas who have faced off in the center of the gym to match wits and perform dazzling feats of strength and skill. But it is growing late, and over the blaring disco music, foot-stomping and impatient whistles can be heard in crescendo: "Bring them on!" The music grows louder, the whistling too; there is a sense that rebellion may be about to erupt, but at last the houselights flash and dim, and the music shifts to the chunka-chunka beat of a modern Bolivian huayno. An announcer emotes into the microphone, the curtains leading to the locker rooms part, and "Amorous Yolanda" and "Evil Claudina," this evening's stars, make their longed-for appearance to ecstatic applause.

Like many of the women of Aymara descent in the audience, Yolanda and Claudina are dressed to the nines in the traditional fashion of the Andean highlands: shiny skirts over layers of petticoats, embroidered shawls pinned with filigreed jewelry, bowler hats. Their costumes glisten in the spotlights while they make a regal progress around the bleachers, greeting their public with the genteel smiles of princesses, twirling and waving gracefully until the music stops. That's the sign for the two women to swing themselves deftly onto the wrestling ring that has been the focus of this afternoon's activity. Swiftly they remove their hats, unpin their shawls, and ... whap, whap, whap! Claudina belts Yolanda one, Yolanda slaps Claudina, Claudina tries to escape, but Yolanda grabs Claudina by her pigtails and spins her around, and WHAM! Claudina whirls through the air, petticoats and braids flying, and lands flat on her back on the mat, gasping like a fish. The audience goes nuts.

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