Photojournalist Rodrigo Cruz was touring in the Peruvian Andes in 2012 when he discovered the Cholitas, female pro wrestlers performing in nearby La Paz, Bolivia.
The Cholitas are well known in Bolivia for wearing the attire of the Aymara people, their colonial ancestors in the Andes and Altipiano regions of South America. Their costume — bowler hat, long braids, flashy jewelry and a baggy skirt called a pollera — is part of their persona in the wrestling ring.
“The traditional costume … has been preserved since (the) colonial period,” Cruz said. “Some wrestling women are descendants of Aymara people and others not. Using the traditional costumes keeps alive a tradition and makes them recognizable from other wrestlers.”
Wrestling in Bolivia matches the style of Mexican “lucha libre” wrestling, with its quick action and flashy costumes. Cruz, being from Mexico, said he was familiar with the theatrical production aspect of the performance, but he wanted to use his camera to capture the movements of the wrestlers and the devotion of the audience.
“The choreography happens perfectly,” he said. “In that moment, a total transformation takes place. The assistants yell emotively with each blow, get angry and laugh at the same time. The audience provides support to the good (wrestlers) and insults to the rude ones. You only can live this spectacle being in a wrestling show."
Cruz didn't just walk up and start taking pictures. The wrestlers were wary of him in the beginning and particularly didn't want photos of them out of character. But after spending some time with them during the Carnival in La Paz, they warmed up to him and his project.
"I had a few moments with Patricia Kaly Tito, (who performs as) Alicia Flores, who allowed me to shoot some portraits into her home," Cruz said. "Also Maria Eugenia Mamani Herrera, (also known as) Claudina la Maldita, who showed me her belt of national champion of Bolivia in a room where she works making wrestlers' masks."
Cruz learned that many wrestlers are forced to find alternate means of making money because managers keep most of the profits from the matches. Some of the women are single mothers; others have jobs outside of wrestling to help provide for their families.
Despite the pain, the long hours and the low pay, the women continue to perform for large crowds of fans and tourists because of their love of the action. Some of the Cholitas have gone on to wrestle in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and other South American countries, and they are proud to wear the costume of the Aymara women.
"I realized that people recognized them in the streets because their personas were also on the TV," Cruz said. "Dos Caras wants to continue wrestling until death, but she doesn´t know really how much longer she will withstand because she has had some injuries.
"I’m pretty sure that they are here for wrestling love."
- Larry Frum, Special to CNN