If you thought the grunt and groan of professional wrestling was the sole domain of men, our next story will undoubtedly change your mind. Giovana Vitola has been in Latin America where wrestling is wildly popular but inBolivia, there's a decidedly different type of ring warrior. Here’s Giovana.
REPORTER: Giovana Vitola
It's Sunday afternoon in La Paz, one of the highest cities in the world. Everywhere on the hilly streets are the icons of Bolivia - the ladies in traditional dress and bowler hats known as cholitas. These poor indigenous women have had little power in Bolivian society, but now they are literally fighting back.
MAN (Translation): I am here to see the women wrestlers.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you like it?
MAN (Translation): Yes.
These people are queuing for tickets to a free-style wrestling match where cholitas take centre stage.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you like wrestling?
MAN 2 (Translation): Yes, I love it, both male and female wrestling.
Wrestling has long been a popular entertainment here but, 10 years ago, local women started getting into the ring and upending the traditional values. The wrestling cholitas have become stars in their own right, but they still have important battles to win outside the ring.
VERALUZ CORTEZ, CHOLITA (Translation): When I win, people, the kids, the younger people, and in particular the old ladies, are all very happy if I’m winning, especially if I’m wrestling a man. If I win against a man, a male wrestler - they’re even happier... They see women don’t just take it. Women can be stronger. Up there in the hall, the wrestling takes place in that grey building.
Veraluz Cortez was one of the first cholitas to take to the ring as her wrestling alter ego Yolanda La Amorosa.
VERALUZ CORTEZ/YOLANDA LA AMOROSA (Translation): They didn’t really take us women seriously. They made fun of us when we started training in a skirt, wearing a skirt. They said us girls couldn’t do it. Of course we could do it. Of course we could and we showed them.
Pretty soon, the women wrestlers became well known across Bolivia.
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): This came out - it’s my first souvenir - I really love this magazine. These are the four women, the four cholitas, who crossed borders for the first time.
Some of the fame has rubbed off on Yolanda's older daughter, Carmen.
CARMEN (Translation): Most of my classmates know that my mum wrestles.
REPORTER (Translation): What do they say about it?
CARMEN (Translation): Some of them ask me to get my mum’s autograph - Some are really surprised and ask if my mum is really like that and I say “Yes!”
But despite their popularity, the women don't make much money. Yolanda and her family are crammed in this small house in a poor suburb.
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): This is my mum’s house - she said I could live here with my two daughters. Their father walked out and left me for another woman.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you like your mum being a wrestler?
CARMEN (Translation): No, I don’t like her wrestling.
REPORTER (Translation): Why?
CARMEN (Translation): Because... I don’t know, I think wrestling is too aggressive. I think it’s too... I don’t like it when they get hurt. I don’t like it.
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): I have a lot of scars. I don’t know if you can see this one here. I don’t think you can really see it but I’ve had several head injuries, right there. Then... More recently, I injured my foot and I injured my foot right here, in the last tour we made and also the collarbone a little bit - there’s no bruising, but it does hurt and the rib area too. It’s from all the knocks we get in the ring when we fall.
Yolanda is last to arrive for this afternoon's training session.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you always wear that, Yolanda?
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): Yes, because I used not to wear kneepads before, but I’ve hurt my knee, so I have to wear a kneepad.
She and her wrestling friends have built a fight ring in a neighbour's yard, so they can practise at least three times a week.
SAMUEL CORTEZ, FATHER (Translation): I did not want my daughters to be wrestlers because as with any sport, there is a risk of being hurt in the ring. People might not think so, but there are a lot of accidents.
Yolanda's father, Samuel Cortez, used to be a wrestler himself and now helps train Yolanda and her sister.
SAMUEL CORTEZ (Translation): It’s something they love. The excitement of each fight is unique. The wrestling life is like a world apart. Wrestling is a unique way of life that only a wrestler inside the ring’s 12 ropes knows.
The cholitas are dedicated to their support but they feel frustrated with the lack of medical care for their injuries and, with the increasing popularity of the cholitas, dirty tricks are emerging. Unscrupulous promoters are turning a quick profit by hiring inexperienced wrestlers.
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): The presidents of the troupes are making these girls train for just two days, or a week. Then they get them to wrestle, without taking into consideration that apart from hurting the women who have dedicated their lives to this sport, who have dedicated their time and love to it... who have dedicated their all... They don’t care how much they’re harming us because they’re making out that we’re all the same. So they take some of these other girls to different places around Bolivia, and to different countries, so they can make a profit out of these girls.
Yolanda feels she and her colleagues are being exploited.
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): We are people, human beings, and we need and deserve respect. I want to let it be known that we don’t do it for money. What we earn is the affection and applause of the people, the people’s love.
Today is going to be a busy stay for Yolanda. She's preparing for a meeting with an important official - a government representative for indigenous women's rights. Yolanda wants to talk about the exploitation and medical issues faced by women wrestlers. It's still dark when she sets off to take Carmen to school.
First, Yolanda must set up the family's clothing stall at a street market. This stall is the family's main source of income. At 7:30, Yolanda's mother takes over so Yolanda can walk Carmen to school. Then it's finally time for Yolanda and her friend to go to their meeting.
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): I’m very happy I’ll get to talk to the minister’s representative to see if she can help us in some way.
Yolanda tells me she's decided not to fight at the main hall any more.
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): They don’t pay us what we deserve - from a whole cake, we only get the crumbs. They pocket all the money. That’s why I’m not going up to the hall to do any more wrestling.
Meanwhile, the official Yolanda is coming to meet is hard at work. Viviana Lima works on many indigenous rights issues. At this event, rural people have come to air their grievances. Since Evo Morales became Bolivia's first indigenous president five years ago, their situation has been steadily improving but Viviana believes there is still a long way to go, especially for indigenous women.
VIVIANA LIMA, INDIGENOUS RIGHTS (Translation): Women are denied their rightful place in society. It’s as though women had no rights. Now we know our rights and we are able to participate in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres. We are present everywhere.
When Yolanda arrives, it turns out Viviana is equally excited to be meeting one of the famous wrestling cholitas. Yolanda explains their grievances with the men who run the events.
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): The pay hasn’t changed - it’s not enough to live on. It’s nothing like the wage other jobs pay. It’s only a small percentage - that lets us buy some of the vitamins we need.
Viviana listens carefully as Yolanda explains how the women have been denied equal access to the public wrestling venue, and lays out her plan to set up a rival wrestling event.
VERALUZ CORTEZ (Translation): Four or five years ago, we cholitas decided to seek help so we could make use of the hall where the wrestling takes place, but unfortunately the Mayor let us down. I’m appealing to you to see if we cholitas can be given another venue. I think we all deserve it. You do. But it’s not just a matter of speaking to the Mayor.
VIVIANA LIMA (Translation): The Mayor is just a circus clown. We have to go and speak to the owner of the circus, to our President. I have a good relationship with him. We have a function on Friday. There’s a meeting - I’ll be reporting to him and we’ll ask for another meeting.
Yolanda leaves the meeting full of hope. For now, she will continue training and fighting in smaller events around the country. But buoyed by Viviana's words, Yolanda and her friends hope to one day wrest control of the industry they have created.
VIVIANA LIMA (Translation): Don’t give up on your dreams. The day will come - Your wishes will be granted. You’ll see, sister.
MARK DAVIS: For more of the women wrestlers, you can go to our website for an extended look at them training and beating up on men. There's also an interview with Giovanna.
Original Music composed by
3rd April 2011