Welcome to the delirious world of Bolivian wrestling. In the cold, treeless, comfortless city of El Alto ("high point"), 13,000 feet above sea level, there are one million people, most of whom fled here over the past three decades to escape the countryside's pervasive misery. The lucky ones find steady jobs down in the capital city of La Paz, which El Alto overlooks. Many sell clothes, onions, pirated DVDs, Barbie dolls, car parts, small desiccated mammals for magic rituals. The poorest alteños employ themselves as beasts of burden. All of them battle hopeless traffic, a constant scarcity of fuel and water, the dull fatigue of numbing labor, the odds that are stacked against them. When they're done working, they need to play, and when they want to play, one never knows what they will come up with. Lately, they've come up with the extraordinary spectacle of the cholitas luchadoras—fighting cholitas—which has given new life to Bolivians' own version of Mexican lucha libre, a free-form spectacle somewhere between a passion play, a wrestling match, and bedlam.
"Watch out!" the entire audience shrieks. Yolanda has been celebrating her victory, but Claudina, as proof of her evil nature, is about to lunge at her from behind. Yolanda spins too late; Claudina knocks her flat and clambers like a crazy person onto the ropes. "I'm the prettiest!" she yells at the audience. "You're all ugly! I'm your daddy! I'm the one the gringos have come to see!" Indeed three rows of ringside seats are filled with foreigners, all pop-eyed, but they're actually irrelevant. It's their fellow Bolivians the cholitas are performing for.
Claudina, who is officially a ruda, or baddie, has taken a swig of soda pop and is spraying the public with it at the precise moment that Yolanda, a técnica, or goodie, pounces on her and drags her up to the bleachers, sending the spectators there scattering in blissful, screaming alarm. Yolanda wins! No, Claudina wins! No, Yolanda! But wait! The audience screams in warning again because a new menace has silently made his entrance: "Black Abyss"—or maybe it's "Satanic Death" or the "White Skeleton"; it's hard to keep track—has leaped into the fray and has Yolanda in a ferocious leg lock. The situation looks hopeless, but no, here comes the "Last Dragon," out of nowhere, and he's carrying a chair! And he's whomping Black Abyss, or maybe the Skeleton, or maybe Yolanda, on the head with it! Even Claudina seems to have lost track of who's who: She's taking a flying leap at her own ally, the loathsome "Picudo." "He is destroyed forever!" the announcer yells frenetically.
Or almost forever: In lucha libre, no defeat is ever final.
"What I want to make absolutely clear," says Juan Mamani, who fights as a rudo under the lucha name of "El Gitano" and who runs the show, "is that it was me who came up with the idea of the cholitas." Mamani is a tall, angular man whom it would be kind to call unfriendly. He cuts phone conversations short by hanging up, does not show up for appointments he has been cornered into making, and tries to charge for interviews. His cholitas are terrified of him. "Don't tell him you called me; don't tell him you have my phone number!" one of them begged.