Taking Flight

An astrophysicist-turned-photographer captures Bolivia’s indigenous women packing punches and new opportunities 

WORDS Jess Swanson
October 2018
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More than 200 people gather at the wrestling ring in La Paz, Bolivia, on a Saturday night. But they’re not here to watch men in tights toss each other around. The main attractions this evening are what locals call the fighting cholitas—indigenous Aymara and Quechua women who leap from the top ropes and battle one another with the flair of WWE stars while decked out in bowler hats, pleated skirts and colorful shawls. 

“The public takes sides and boos and throws food at the bad character, and sometimes the cholitasget out of the ring and run between the chairs,” says Jordi Busqué, the photographer who captured the image above last year. “It gets quite crazy.”

He first encountered the cholitas in Bolivia 12 years ago, after quitting his job as an astrophysicist in Barcelona and booking a one-way ticket to South America. Though friends and family had their doubts, Busqué was determined to turn his photography hobby into a career, and focused on intriguing subcultures. 

“The cholitastended to be poor, selling vegetables and empanadas in the street,” he recalls of his initial trip. Wrestling, for them, is a relatively new form of secondary income, and the growing popularity of these weekly shows in the past decade is tied to greater cultural awareness of indigenous residents after Bolivia’s first Amerindian president was elected in 2005. 

“They have strong personalities, and at first people laughed at them fighting,” Busqué says. “But now everyone comes to see the cholitas, not the male wrestlers.” 

It’s not just wrestling; cholitas are thriving and accepting positions as news anchors, lawyers and fashion models. According to Busqué, the young woman soaring in pink (above), known by her stage name, Ortika, dreams of becoming an architect, and pays for university classes using the earnings from weekly fights. She trains three nights a week to perfect fight choreography and the acrobatic leaps the crowds love. “She’s one of the best I saw,” Busqué says. “Even though it’s acting, you can hurt yourself very easily if you fall—it’s a lot more difficult than people think.”

jordibusque.com

Jess Swanson

Jess Swanson is the senior editor at American Way and Celebrated Living. She graduated from Columbia University School of Journalism. Her reporting has taken her from the python-infested Everglades swamps to a bubbling onsen in Tokyo to a lava-spouting volcano in Nicaragua.

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