Professional wrestling is as known for its costumes and gimmicks as it is for the combat itself. But in La Paz, Bolivia, the famed fighting cholitas bring a whole new level of theater and surprise to the ring.
Blending WWE and the Mexican lucha libre, these indigenous women perform weekly in the traditional garb of the Aymara and Quechua nations, leaping and body-slamming in layered skirts, colorful shawls and bowler hats.
In a show of power and pride, they're making a statement against the historic devaluing and oppression of their communities in South America (the term "cholita" itself was once a slur against indigenous women), and earning notoriety -- and modest money -- at the same time.
Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni
, best known for his subculture photo essays
and a collaboration with Solange Knowles
, saw them in action in 2010, when he photographed them for his series "The Flying Cholitas," a reference to the movement of their billowing skirts and their dramatic jumps.
Over a number of weeks, he captured their leader, the formidable Carmen Rosa, and her friends both in the ring and out of it, as they handed out flyers, prepared for their fights and spent time with their families.
Tamagni spoke to CNN Style about what he learned from these celebrated fighters.
CNN: How did you come to photograph the cholitas?
Daniele Tamagni: I was in Bolivia in 2010 on assignment in a small village, very isolated in the mountains. When I finished this work I decided to stay longer to do my own project. I did some research before I went to Bolivia about female wrestlers by La Paz, but I I didn't know anybody.
Was it easy to infiltrate their group?
At the beginning, it was quite difficult. Sometimes I'd find another group of cholitas who would claim to be the famous ones, but were not. They play -- they do the lucha libre for tourists; they perform in an inauthentic way. They say, "If you want us to organize a fight for you, you should pay us, we recreate," and it was not what I was looking for.
But then, after a few days, I met a manager who claimed to know the real Carmen Rosa, and he introduced me to her. She's a really nice woman, a very big woman, and quite old for doing such a sport, but she was the founder of the cholitas.
What I did for the next few weeks was reportage. I was interested in following their everyday lives. For example, Carmen Rosa, she's a cook, so she has a restaurant for street food.
1/11 – The Gentlemen of Bacongo
Daniele Tamagni first photographed Congo's smartly dressed sapeurs for his book "Gentlemen of Bacongo." Credit: Courtesy Daniele Tamagni
Do you remember your first fight?
The first time, it was in a school. The money they got from the fighting was to restore the toilets in the school, so there was participation of all the community.
It's something different than the traditional wrestling, something more real, in which (every cholita) has a role and a part. Carmen Rosa is the leader, the best one, and her best friend is Julia la Paceña, who was more technical -- she does the most jumping.
It's like theater. The wrestlers are more performers. Their dream is to become superstars, (making) money and the possibility to earn more. They are really humble people, but really passionate about what they do.
What did you admire about the fighting cholitas outside of the ring?
At the time, I thought it was interesting that what I did was not just images of the sport. The personality of these women is very strong.
What was fascinating was their attention to elegance, to their indigenous roots, and the attention they give to the style of dressing. As a photographer, I focus a lot on subcultures, on fashion as a weapon to stand out, to perform, and this is what they do.
The cholitas are indigenous women who, before, were neglected, and now (through wrestling), they gain more power.