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Female Indigenous Wrestler Challenges Barriers in Bolivia

Bolivia Activism
by Julie Schwietert Aug 17, 2010

In the opening sequence of Betty M. Park’s documentary, “Mamachas del Ring,” a man makes the mistake of calling Carmen Rosa a whore.

It’s not a mistake he’ll be likely to repeat with her or any other woman: Carmen Rosa gives him a thorough ass whipping… and a tongue lashing, to boot. When she’s done with him, the man is prostrate at her feet, bleeding, crawling to find a handhold to pull himself off the ground. “You didn’t have to make his whole face bloody,” says her friend, who adds admiringly, “Daring, daring.”

If you think there’s something incongruent about a 40 year old indigenous Bolivian woman dressed in a traditional pollera skirt, embroidered shawl, and bowler hat kicking ass and taking names, well, that’s your issue. Carmen isn’t too concerned with what you think or what you expect. Pretty much everything everyone expects of her is subservient to Carmen’s expectations of herself.

Polonia Ana Choque Silvestre (Carmen Rosa is a ring name) has made a name for herself by taking people down: Men who oppress women. People who marginalize Bolivia’s indigenous communities. Politicians who stand in her way. And she’s especially passionate about schooling people who don’t think women should participate as anything other than observers in the popular sport of lucha libre, or wrestling. Even if those people are her friends or family.

“The ending of the film is a little ambiguous,” I say when we meet in New York, where she’s visiting to celebrate the occasion of “Mamachas del Ring’s” showing in HBO’s New York International Latino Film Festival. Maybe I should start the interview with a less intimate, more formal question, but I’m curious to know how she resolved an ultimatum her husband had issued: Wrestling or family.


I’m relieved.

“He used to be an artisan, a silversmith,” she tells me, “but now he’s like my manager. I take him with me when I travel and he likes that. Our economic condition is much better.” In fact, Carmen’s entire family is making a living through her involvement in lucha libre. “My son is just starting his training for lucha libre,” she says, “and my daughter helps with the promotion of my fights.”

She tells me how much things have improved since the documentary was filmed. “We have our own arena to fight in now,” she says, referring to the other indigenous women who are her fellow wrestlers. “We have someone doing the promotion work for us so we don’t have to do it ourselves. And I’m traveling a lot.” She smiles. “I like seeing new places.”

“I’m traveling a lot.” She smiles. “I like seeing new places.”

Carmen’s fame as a wrestler has taken her to Peru, where she was featured on “Magaly TV,” a popular show she references several times during our conversation. It’s clear the trip was significant to her; she and her companeras were received as celebrities and the buzz the segment generated started to spread throughout the region. Other media outlets picked up her story. Famous wrestlers from Mexico, “the cradle of lucha libre,” she says with reverence, have come to visit her in Bolivia.

Here in New York, Carmen has been taking in the sights between movie screenings. The Statue of Liberty, seen by boat. Top of the Rock. The Off-Broadway show, “Fuerza Bruta,” which she raves about. The wax museum, where Park snaps an iPhone photo of Carmen standing next to the Incredible Hulk. I have no doubt she’d kick his ass, too, even though he’s three or four times her height.

Though “Mamachas del Ring” hasn’t yet been picked up by a distributor in the US, an assistant to the director tells me that people recognize Carmen on the street. They say “Mamacha,” a term that, translated roughly, means “Big Mama.” As we walk, I hear a young girl say, “Mommy, that lady has a beautiful dress.” She even turns around to take a second look at the sequins and gold embroidery thread as her mother hurries her along.

Carmen eats it all up.

In fact, we’re standing in the crosswalk on 23rd Street and 8th Avenue when a truck driver leans out the window to salute her. Carmen smiles broadly, flashing teeth that have been gilded with gold. Then, she takes a long sip of a fruit smoothie Park bought for her at a street fair before she crosses the street and enters the theatre for the next screening.

Her wrestling career has taken off, and is far less precarious than it was when Park filmed the documentary. Then, Carmen had to support her wrestling career and her family with money she made as a vendor of small electronics and household knick-knacks. Carmen’s life has changed dramatically since she fought tooth and nail to open a space for women in the male-dominated world of Bolivian wrestling. She is even more proud of this victory than her personal wins. More girls are expressing interest in a sport that was taboo just a few years ago, and one of her goals is to open a training gym for young women who are as passionate about la lucha as she is.

But Carmen may soon prove that she’s a mamacha in an entirely different ring. Her increasingly high profile has attracted the interest of Bolivian political parties, who are courting Carmen to promote their causes as a candidate. Within five years, she says, she expects to decide which party she’ll align with and will begin campaigning. For what office? “We’ll see, we’ll see,” she says.

Such a transition from sports and entertainment to politics is less a stretch than it may seem; the phenomenon is relatively common in Latin America (One example is the popular salsa singer and actor, Ruben Blades, who served as Panama’s tourism minister, a Cabinet-level position, until late 2009; he also ran for President previously).

The advantages Carmen’s candidacy might bring to any political party are considerable; with a substantial fan base–and a large percentage of it consisting of women and indigenous people–Carmen might help swing key voting blocs in a particular direction. The fact that voting is compulsory in Bolivia makes elections fierce, and since Evo Morales–an indigenous farmer affiliated with the Movement for Socialism party– was elected as president in 2005, women’s formal and informal involvement in politics has been on the rise.

Opportunities for indigenous women to influence local and federal level policies have also increased, largely due to President Morales’ commitment to both groups. Bringing Carmen, who is both indigenous and female, into politics, then, is a no-brainer. Though she doesn’t seem to have fully articulated the items that would constitute her platform, she immediately mentions that protecting the coca industry as part of a larger initiative to protect jobs and stabilize the economy is an issue that is critical to her community.

As Carmen’s visit in New York comes to an end, she seems a bit sad. She says she will be happy to see her husband and her family after the week away, but she has enjoyed her visit. Although the documentary doesn’t win any awards at the festival, she and Park both seem satisfied with the number of people who turned up for the film’s screenings, as well as their reactions: “Just saw a moving documentary called ‘mamachas of the ring’. If u’ve ever had 2 choose between a career & a personal life, u need 2 see it,” writes @MyLifeAsLiz_Liz on Twitter.

Carmen’s struggle with those types of choices isn’t over.

Perhaps it’s just beginning.

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