The afternoon starts with a minute’s silence for the pope, who died the night before. But that’s the last mark of respect we’ll be seeing today.
When ringmaster John Peralis takes the mic in shiny shoes and a curly perm to announce the first of seven 20-minute bouts, the crowd, each paying a US$1 entrance fee, responds by screaming, “Give it to him.”
It’s Sunday afternoon at a breeze-block gym in El Alto, the poverty-stricken slums that tower above downtown La Paz, Bolivia.
Whole families sit ringside and grandmothers, dressed in traditional Cholita dress of flowing skirts and bowler hats, prepare to lob popcorn viciously at the losers.
Welcome to lucha libre wrestling, the latest sports craze sweeping Bolivia.
Strike a blow
“Lucha libre was born in Mexico but it has developed a huge following in Bolivia since we first allowed women into the ring last year,” says the event’s ebullient organiser Juan Carlos Chavez.
“Life is tough here and lucha libre is a battle of good versus evil – just like real life.”
Bolivia has a tradition of ritual fighting (tinku), which brings together rival villages in the Potosi department for a symbolism-loaded scrap during the Fiesta de la Cruz. But this afternoon’s no-holds-barred grudge match takes tinku and gives it a twist of Big Daddy-style glamour.
First is an all-male round to warm up the crowd. Luxor makes a dramatic entrance in a devil suit while his opponent, Picodo, dressed like a member of Slipknot, arrives to a chorus of the German industrial band, Ramstein.
As the first blood of the day is drawn, a young mother lifts her baby onto her shoulders for a better view.
Triumphant, Luxor stands astride the ropes, dripping sweat and blood. “I am the best,” he screams. “I am the best.”
As his opponent tumbles exhausted from the ring, a slight women steps forward from the crowd to land a cheeky blow to a particularly vulnerable area.
As the afternoon progresses, the bouts get increasingly bloody with blows stronger than the whiff coming from the toilets. By late afternoon, the crowd has reached fever pitch for the first of the all-women rounds.
With a cry of, “A la luche” (let’s fight), they take to the ring in spandex, boots and masks.
As the bell rings, referee Barba Negra, a Grizzly Adams type with a flowing mullet, tries to bring a sense of order to a fight that is part WWF pantomime, part bloodfest.
It’s probably the only wrestling match whereby the referee ends up taking an active role. When the wrestlers roll out of the ring, they just carry on fighting anyway.
Back stage, the star turn, Satanica, is getting into costume. By day Jenny Almarez works in a La Paz supermarket, but tonight she will take to the ring wielding a flaming torch to the strains of Black Sabbath.
“I came to watch and something just grabbed me. The wrestlers looked like film stars,” she says, finishing her Gothic make-up.
“Now I fight, I take it very seriously — the night before a fight no booze, nor sex.”
Her opponent, Jennifer Two Faces, takes to the ring in a figure-hugging leotard and gold boots. After trading insults, they launch into a catfight involving hair pulling and the improvised use of a soiled nappy commandeered from the crowd.
It makes the male bout look like a petty scrap at the local kindergarten.
“I always go home covered in bruises,” smiles Jennifer, who is declared the winner after setting Satanica’s legs on fire.
“My mum says wrestling is a man’s sport, but we prove that it’s the women in Bolivia who really have balls.”
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As he strides around the de facto Bolivian capital in his kilt – a tartan from the Steward clan borrowed from a Scottish friend – he attracts attention not only for unusual attire, but also for his finely-crafted calves.
Then again, Abdul Aspiazu is not your typical 25-year-old Bolivian man about town.
As the first Bolivian dance enthusiast to join the Las Paz Scottish Dancing Group three years back, he is now more likely to be found dancing a highland fling than salsa-ing the night away in a steamy Sopocachi nightspot.
“I travelled around Scotland with my grandfather when I was 17 and fell in love with the Celtic culture: the music, the countryside, the whisky,” he smiles, adjusting his sporran.
“When I heard an advert on the radio for new members to join a Scottish dancing group here in La Paz, I had to give it a go.”
[Photo via VisitScotland.com]
Every Saturday afternoon a 20-strong group of European ex-pats and local Bolivians gather at a ballet school near La Paz’s Plaza Espana for a two-hour dance session. With a shared love of Celtic music and a token contribution of five Bolivianos (about US$0.75), the group is growing fast.
With Burns Night [pictured above] this weekend, the group will be out in force.
“We have seen the Bolivian membership grow dramatically since the political turmoil of last year,” explains Valerie Mealla (nee Black), a native of Sterling, who leads the practice sessions.
“Bolivians love to dance and, while Scottish dance involves complicated routines, I’m constantly amazed how quickly the locals pick them up.”
With anti-gringo feeling running rife since a popular uprising unceremoniously dumped the previous US-backed Bolivian president in October 2003, the social aspect of these weekly sessions provides a means to foster mutual understanding and tolerance between La Paz’s small foreign community and local Bolivians.
“Dancing provides a great medium for solidarity and friendship,” says Valerie, casting a beady eye over attempts to master a new routine.“Despite the country’s political divides, we all support each other. For us, the music and love of dancing provides a common language.”
It’s also tremendous exercise. Given that La Paz is one of the world’s highest cities at 3,600m, the sessions can bring a whole new meaning to ‘out of puff’, even for those well-prepared for the effects of altitude sickness.
Regardless, the group last year broke the record for the world’s highest Scottish traditional dance, performing a Dalkeith Strathspey (a slow dance) at the Chacaltaya ski resort outside La Paz – an altitude of 5,260m above sea level.
The Guinness Book of Records refused to acknowledge their achievement but, undeterred, the group is now planning a trip to the Scottish Highlands.
“I like dancing and I like the music,” says the group’s youngest member, eight-year-old Erika Guerra of La Paz’s Miraflores district.
“I want to go to Scotland and eat haggis.”
Back on the dancefloor, the group are attempting a Burns Hornpipe routine. Valerie shakes her head wearily: there’s a lot of practice needed before the group is ready for its next performance at an Anglo/Bolivian fiesta.
After practice, as night temperatures plunge across the Bolivian Altiplano, the members bid their farewells in a mix of English and Spanish.
Abdul pulls on his boots and strides out into the La Paz night.
“We all take the dancing and the traditions of Scotland very seriously,” he winks, sinewy calves glistening in the moonlight.
She secured the vote for the women of her country in 1947 and was feted as a saint after her tragic death from cancer at the age of just 33. The woman in question?
Eva Maria Duarte de Peron, better known as ‘Evita’.
Back in the headlines with a new production of the eponymous musical opening on June 2 at the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End, the show features lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and stars Argentine musical star Elena Roger in the starring role.
In her home city of Buenos Aires the legacy of Evita lives on with her face adorning monuments and her name evoking displays of devotion and vitriol in equal measure.
I joined a tour, arranged through Destino Argentina, to learn more about this special lady. A two-and-a-half hour jaunt, it’s a great way to get your orientation of the city as you can either hire a private guide, or do it independently by taxi or public transport.
I opted for the latter and started in the city’s western Palmero district at the Eva Peron Museum, which tells her life story through a series of exhibits and video montages.
A former shelter for homeless women and children, as bought by the Eva Peron Social Aid Foundation in 1948, it was shut down after the 1955 military coup, declared a national historic site in 1998 and reopened in 2002 as a museum and Eva Peron Historical Investigation Foundation, managed today by her grandniece, Cristina Alvarez Rodriguez.
The museum is split between two sections; a permanent exhibition of her life, and temporary exhibitions focusing on the political and social evolution of Argentina in the era of Evita. Video screens show some of her most rousing speeches while her huge collection of gowns, shoes and accessories is on permanent display.
Heading east along Avenida del Libertador, I follow the wide, European-style boulevards towards the downtown district known as the ‘microcentro’, the high-rise buildings bringing a modernist touch to the cityscape and well-dressed locals adding a hint of big-city bustle en route.
Plaza Ruben Dario is a small grassy park where Eva’s statue, crafted by Argentine sculptor Ricardo Gianetti, peers out across the Recoleta district. She and her husband, President Juan Domingo Peron, had a summer residence close by.
Jumping in a taxi, I headed along the city’s main thoroughfare to the Colon Theatre, where Evita had a permanently reserved seat in the presidential box.
Dating from 1908, it remains the most important classical music venue in South America and has hosted Richard Strauss, Rudolf Nureyev and Placido Domingo during its illustrious history.
Today there are guided tours on weekdays, visiting the two upper floors and three basements with access to the auditorium, white hall and golden room. The interior remains as impressive as ever with an opulent feel and two giant marble lions add a decorative flourish to the faded charm.
Passing the obelisk monument at the heart of the city, I weave through the backstreets, past colourful shops, al fresco cafés and modern hotels to Plaza de Mayo, where the façade of the Casa Rosada (Pink House) dominates the square.
This iconic symbol of Peron-era Buenos Aires was the location for some of her most memorable and moving speeches, her fist raised and her hair tied back in a strict bun.
This is where the citizens gathered to pay their respects amid a giant outpouring of national grief after her death.
The presidential offices are still housed here but, given their now rather stuffy atmosphere and faded charm, the president prefers to make the smart suburb of Olivos his home.
Mid afternoon and another short taxi ride takes me into the heart of the city’s refined La Recoleta district and the Alvear Palace Hotel, a grand old building with a stately feel and chic location. This is where Eva would take afternoon tea and, even today, is where the beautiful people hang out in the Winter Garden lounge from 4pm.
Nearby is the Recoleta Cemetery, Evita’s final resting place. The first public cemetery in Buenos Aires, founded in 1822, it’s home to 4,800 vaults laid in traditional Latin American style with tombs built high and slots allocated in communal walls.
The cream of Buenos Aires society has been laid to rest here; politicians, statesmen and writers included, such as the writer Victoria Ocampos, the former president Domingo Sarmiento and the author of the words to the national anthem, Vicente Lopez y Planes.
Evita’s embalmed body was smuggled into the Duarte family vault, among the marble angels and black granite, under cover of darkness in 1974. Free guided tours run on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and her tomb is located on the left as you enter – just look for the flowers and hordes of tourists.
Evita died on July 26, 1952, having rejected the role of vice president one year previously.
Loved by the poor and loathed by upper classes, her legacy lives on amid the hustle and bustle of the city.
She arrived a struggling actress and died the wife of the president.