Amid the commotion of bright costumes, bodies slamming against the ring’s floor, and cheering fans sits the self-proclaimed shy, anthropology doctoral student Nell Haynes, taking photos of what some might perceive to be pure pandemonium. Reaching outside her comfort level—all the way to El Alto, Bolivia—Haynes has found herself situated among a roaring crowd at a traditional lucha libre match.
Lucha libre, which directly translates into free wrestling, is a Bolivian tradition since the 1950s that features women wrestlers fighting each other, and often men as well. Haynes has spent the past two months in El Alto researching the cultural and global implications of these matches for her dissertation.
The PhD candidate came up with the topic for her dissertation in 2005 while she was volunteering in Peru and initially interested in studying pain perceptions, gender, and race. “I was reading the Lima newspaper one day, and I saw an article about women wrestling, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, I found my dissertation,’” she says.
The fights are choreographed with the winners and losers predetermined, often based on a storyline or plot of some sort. Haynes says she’s seen matches where the storyline has been as simple as the opponents arguing and yelling before the match, or as interesting as social and political comments about current affairs.
“I’ve seen matches with people wearing masks of presidential candidates, matches between a mujer de pollera (woman in traditional dress) and a woman wearing western clothes, matches between a wrestler in spandex and three men in military fatigues,” she says.
While the costumes and plots of these matches tend to fall in line with America’s World Wrestling Entertainment, Haynes explains that Bolivian lucha libre operates on a much smaller scale, coming nowhere close to WWE’s nearly $500 million revenue.
“Wrestlers in the US and some other countries have years of training and the institutional structure to support really high level athletics, plus things like great costumes, pyrotechnics, high video quality, huge promotion, and PR. Bolivia just doesn’t have that kind of revenue or institutional support,” she says.
However, even if Bolivia lacks the funds to expand lucha libre, fans of all ages still gather to see these matches of women fighting other women and men. Haynes attends the fights regularly to conduct research on the nature of the fighting and plots, as well as how the audience perceives the meaning and fighting.
So far she’s received mixed messages from audience members about the significance of lucha libre, many finding it empowering. “For the most part, the local people who actually attend the shows really love it. The women say they enjoy seeing the luchadoras (women fighters) beat up the men, in an effort to reverse centuries old gender stereotypes,” she says.
However, there are still some who find the matches to be low entertainment. “There are plenty of other people—in my experience, either older people, or more affluent people—who see it as this silly thing that they do in El Alto that they couldn’t be bothered to attend, let alone acknowledge as a legitimate part of their culture,” she says.
She compares the inconsistency to the WWE phenomena in America in the sense that it attracts a very particular crowd of attendees and fans. Some spend large amounts of money attending matches or ordering pay-per-view matches on their televisions, while others simply mock the culture of WWE.
It is this divide that Hayes is focusing her research and dissertation on, as well as the cultural implications of the fights. “I’m especially interested in the way gender and sexuality are portrayed, as well as the storylines that relate somehow to real life,” she says.
At the matches, she sees aspects of the fights that have significant allusions that most attendees fail to realize. “I go to a match and I see something really interesting like a mujer de pollera addressing the audience as amigas while the de vestido (western dressed) woman spits on the audience. Or a woman chaining her skirt to a man, and I get excited about all the ways gender theory speaks to what just happened,” she says.
Haynes is hoping that her research will have multiple impacts on society, including at a global level. “On an academic level, I think my research demonstrates the way globalization is often a messy complicated process. A lot of the tourists that see Bolivian lucha libre think that women wrestling is something traditional, but I think this research shows the complicated ways it’s actually a product of decades—if not centuries—of contact, colonialism, imperialism.”
She adds, “Beyond that, I think it also demonstrates how popular culture isn’t just a bunch of silly stuff people do in their spare time. It’s something that reflects social processes and relations, as well as re-forming them at the same time.”
Haynes plans on spending the next two months in Bolivia conducting research before she heads back to the states, and will return again in October for another five to six months to continue her work. She looks forward to synthesizing all her ideas and data into a final product. For more information on her research or experiences in Bolivia, please visit Haynes’ field notes blog.