The Bolivian Female Wrestling Team Breaks for Tea

by J.C. Pérez-Duthie

The hands of the clock now run backwards, and the numbers have been reversed. How then not to get confused? Looking at the top of the congreso building has always been—at least until this day—Tomasita's best way to tell time. Selling her crafts in the plaza, across from the government's seat of power, she's never had the need for a wristwatch, especially since she spends so much of her free time on the ring. A quick glance up, and the newly baptized Clock of the South would give her the Hour. An hour everyone could understand, of course. No more. The president has decided that, under his rule, even time has to face south.

He speaks of a "decolonization plan," of turning back the clock to rediscover the nation's southernness and its indigenous roots. But Tomasita does not have time for any of that. She needs to get to practice. The match is tomorrow and she still wants to train for a few more hours. Every minute, every second, no matter in what direction they go, are important to her. Wrestling, or cachascán for her and the other chola ring warriors, is second only to her family.

If she wins this match, Tomasita will have enough money to send her daughter to school. And that is something no president has ever helped her with. She has always had to rely on her back punches, double slaps, mule kicks, and overhead chops to get the job done. Not on a politician's decree.

* * *

It is already the day of the match.

Like all of her colleagues, she is versed in the same. No, not in just selling alpaca ponchos and hats, baby llama toys, wooden crosses, or ceramic Ekekos. That too, no doubt. But what she and her sisters share is their versatility and prowess as titans of the ring.

Metal chairs will fly, beer bottles will land on the ring, pollera skirts will be used to strangle opponents. Just another regular night of fun and destruction, as Jolly Jezebel calls it, and it's about to begin.

"Damas y caballeros, please join me tonight in welcoming the baddest, fiercest, roughest, toughest group of women in Bolivia!" yells the referee, a man smaller than the wrestlers themselves, and dressed up in an ill-fitting tux. Soon enough, he is pelted, as always, with a shower of candy-striped popcorn boxes. A bowlegged boy with a hump jumps inside the ring and sweeps away the mess.

Tonight, Tomasita, or Thorny Tomasita, as she is publicly known, will defend the Bolivian Women's Title. She's held on to that belt for the last three years, and so this evening, the sweltering gimnasio is packed more than usual because the crowd has come to say goodbye (for her enemies, it's more like good riddance), to her. After tonight, Tomasita is done for good with wrestling.

For years, she's been the indisputable queen of moves like the chop block, the Nelson hold, and the powerbomb. Those, and a telenovela-like flair for drama, have been her signatures. Audiences have loved her, and hated her, for that.

Compact and strong like a washing machine, at 58 however, Tomasita is mature (don't mention her age, or she will beat you up), the grandmama of all the female wrestlers that make up the Bolivian Female Wrestling Team in the neighborhood of El Alto, high in the highest heights of the city of La Paz. She is tired of this way of life. Her body aches constantly; her arthritis is a fierce opponent. After some knee problems a few months ago, she confided in her Nurse what she'd never contemplated before: retirement.

Thus, everyone is gathered here tonight for that.

It is said that in her younger years, Tomasita had natural panther-like fingernails, sharp as claws; hence the nickname, Thorny. These days, she still exhibits them, yet some of the younger wrestling ladies swear the nails are fake, that she glues them on and paints them in colors brighter than her colleagues' skirts and sprinkles them with frost. "I've been with her and with the other girls for three years now, ever since that NGO decided the team needed the presence of someone like me and hired me," the Nurse has stated publicly, "and in all that time, I can tell you that I never saw Tomasita remove a fingernail. They are as real and as tough as she is."

The Nurse was young enough to be Tomasita's son. He had accepted an offer to leave his own small town in Chile for a better job in Bolivia, something frowned upon by many, given the acrimonious relations between both countries. He had left criticisms and congratulations behind, as well as a boyfriend who would never understand his choice.

This evening, and for the last time, the old concrete gymnasium where cockfights are also routinely held is Thorny Tomasita's domain. The counterclockwise president of the nation knows better than to speak to his constituents on TV when there are wrestling matches like this one about to take place. Tomasita's farewell is being televised, and it has Bolivia in a tight grip.

"I will pluck anyone's eyes out!" warns Tomasita in a dimly lit, claustrophobic backstage room, a rusty fan circling above, spreading dust. Her restless body indicates she is eager to face her rivals and stare down the crowds. The Nurse advises her to wait, it's not time yet, he says. "Control, control, be Zen." But she can't contain herself anymore. She runs out first, before the other ladies, instead of coming out last, as befits a star. She growls at the fans, a beast unleashed.

Always the hyperbolic entrance. The audience loves it. They erupt in applause and cheer. They stand up. They stay up. She is in command.

So there's Tomasita, inside the ring with the referee. His scrawny mustache seems dyed, as does his hair, black as the coal from the mines of Oruro. His fingernails appear polished, shiny, not suited for this environment. Tomasita's emerald skirt, "my parachute," she calls it, matches her bright, green bowler hat. She reminds one of a chubby leprechaun with a long braid and a round hat. Nobody touches that hat. Not even her Nurse.

"I don't care if you're the Nurse, chileno! I wouldn't care if you were Hulk Hogan!" she barked at him once when he made the mistake of trying to remove the hat from her head while massaging her shoulders. "Nobody touches my bowler hat."

Tomasita knows all of Hulk Hogan's moves. The other women in the wrestling club admire him as well. When the time-changing president has nothing to say, or no new Brazilian soap operas have been brought to the country for airing, the TV stations play reruns of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Abdullah the Butcher. Or classic wrestling Mexican movies with El Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras, the Latin icons of lucha libre. Tomasita can relate to them because they are fighters like she is; not cowards, like her long-gone loser of a husband, father of her only child.

The Bolivian Female Wresting Team has its own icons, and they have nothing to envy those legendary male wrestlers in the names department.

There's Diabolical Diana, so fast in the ring that her rivals badmouth her by saying she's made a pact with the Devil; Young Yolanda, the youngest one in the bunch, but also one of the most mature and meanest, demonstrated by her love of slapping people. Crazy Carmen, who displays a few facial tics, whether legitimate or not, nobody knows. Lovely Linda: first she blows kisses at everyone sitting on the bleachers, then she likes to jump off the ropes, land on some unsuspecting patron, and smack him. Miraculous Milagros, Fiendish Felicia, Irate Irina, and so forth.

Out front, Tomasita curses, waiting for her colleagues. The remaining wrestlers finally leave the backstage area, parading as if on a catwalk, Nurse in tow. He carries his lotions and potions, oils, and medicinal kit. He wears green scrubs, in the hopes that no fan will hit him.

The ladies fill the ring. They all have their bowler hats pinned down, skirts layered like rainbows over petticoats, shawls that match either one of the colors of their skirts or the color of their hats, with a not-to-be-missed filigreed pin; fake Reeboks neatly laced and carefully tied, and in their hands, makeshift signs that inform the audience where they come from.

When one of the ladies raises her sign with the name of her hometown, Santa Cruz, they boo and shout obscenities while the referee blows his whistle. A wilted cabbage head flies across the space.

When the turn for a wrestler from the Cochabamba region arises, the other half of the crowd cheers her on and throws flowers and coins at her.

When it's time for the representative of Potosí to salute the audience, a woman stands on her seat and shouts so loudly she drowns out everyone else: "Rip their heads off!"

The Nurse takes his own pulse, for the nerves betray him.

In all, nine women parade around the ring, and seven depart, leaving Thorny Tomasita and Diabolical Diana to cause mayhem.

The bell rings.

Tomasita wastes no time getting up on the third rope and jumping off of it. She lands right on top of Diana as if shot from a cannon. There's a large thud, and Diana howls in pain. "Bitch!"

The crowd screams in approval.

"Smash her, smash that tramp and get rid of her!" a mother of two yells, her tykes right next to her, holding on to her legs. The Nurse touches his forehead. He must be getting a fever.

Diana manages to get up from underneath Tomasita. She springs back on her feet after pushing Tomasita off with her legs. Tomasita scolds her and grabs her enemy by her pigtails. Diana hits Tomasita with her head and both women fall flat on the ground. The referee intercedes, but neither one of them wakes up. The Nurse rushes to the ring, and with some trepidation, he enters from underneath one of the ropes. People yell at him, but he tries to not pay attention to what they're saying. His loyalty right now is to his ladies. He shakes his head sideways. Not good.

The referee nullifies the match, and a rain of empty soda cans and half-eaten corncobs land in the ring, hitting everyone.

The Nurse offers first aid to his fighting cholitas, "my cholitas luchadoras," as he calls them, and luckily, they are fine. A bruise here, a scrape there. Both Tomasita and Diana feigned a concussion, and then fainted. Fans love the theatrics, even when they are not sure if the blood and the pain are real. Sometimes, one of the wrestlers will put a tiny plastic bag of Heinz ketchup in her mouth, breaking it open and then spitting the red sauce out as if it were blood. But sometimes the real thing comes out, with a tooth or two.

There are no winners in this match, the referee determines, so the crowd remains vociferous in their disapproval. Tomasita retains the title, but the decision is controversial.

Tomasita steps down and walks to her masseur. For the first time, she holds her Nurse's hands, and he sees her smile. It is a sad smile, accompanied by a few tears. Her career is over, they both know it, but her daughter beckons. She will continue fighting for her somewhere else.

The show must go on, however. It is now Young Yolanda and Crazy Carmen's turn. Many of the folks present, though, become bored with them, disappointed. They are here for one reason mostly: to see Thorny Tomasita knock some heads.

The Nurse stands by the ring again and watches the procession unfold as some people move out and about, ignoring the wrestlers. There's a man selling onions, a woman peddling dolls that look like Barbies with odd-looking heads, a lady offering nuts and cotton candy, a half-a-dozen barefoot kids, some chickens, a rooster, and a pig. There's also the beer man, the popcorn man, the soda man and the bathroom attendant, who invites patrons to visit the restrooms for 5 centavos.

The Nurse's head hurts, his skin boils. He sticks the thermometer under his tongue and counts. It is cold outside, in this city that scrapes the clouds, and inside the gym there's no heating, other than the one produced by the hordes of people. He gazes at an ancient, bulky clock hanging from the ceiling. It is also running backwards. Or is it? Time stands still. Pigeons fly above, sit on the beams that crisscross the ceiling, and launch droppings from up there at regular intervals. The bowlegged boy who sweeps the popcorn boxes and other trash out of the ring has to come back with a bucket of water and a rag and clean after the birds.

The bell rings once more. The fight between Crazy Carmen and Young Yolanda is over and nobody notices. Crazy Carmen wins, and so Young Yolanda is now cursing at her. Carmen turns back and commands: "Bring it on!" Young Yolanda lunges at her again, both of them falling on top of the front row of the audience, unleashing bedlam as everyone tries to step back. The fans seem to enjoy this fight outside of the ring more than the one that just took place inside of it. The referee signals the Nurse to go and look after the wrestlers. As usual, this sort of all-hell-breaks-loose pandemonium means another evening is coming to an end.

To try and placate the crowd, the referee announces that another fight is about to start, with two new wrestlers: Skeletal Samantha and Atomic Ana. The audience however does not want either Samantha or Ana and they let the referee know it. They pelt him again.

"We want Thorny Tomasita!" they shout. Their echoes reverberate throughout the building, followed by feet stomping. They whoop and holler. A little boy pisses on the floor, hitting an empty beer bottle. Someone then throws a metal chair into the ring, followed by a trash can.

"Give us blood, you bastard!" the chorus yells at the referee, who's now shaking like a dandelion in the wind.

The bowlegged boy who cleans the ring does not pick up the chair or the trash can. Instead, he steps down and heads towards the Nurse, who bends down to hear what the boy has to say. The boy yells in his ear.

"They're all in the back," he says. "Your ladies. They're having tea. Let's go."

He's right. While the fighting continues inside and outside the ring, the Nurse and the boy head for the backstage area.

"Tomasita brought cakes," Devilish Diana announces out loud to no one in particular. "And they're chocolate, not quinoa!"

Everyone laughs.

The bowlegged boy has joined the group. He's offered a cake, shrugs, and pops the whole thing into his mouth. Now he looks like he's got mumps.

Young Yolanda, wiping her brow, panting a bit, asks Tomasita if, now that she won't be wrestling and will have more time to spend with her daughter, will she get a watch?

"No, not really," says Tomasita, sipping tea. "I always know when it is time to go home."

Meanwhile, outside, the mob has gone mad and has run towards the ring. They've entered from below, the middle and above the ropes, and in one big mass of humanity, ravenous to use their fists, starving for attention, they pummel and consume the referee, and each other, with their bodies.

Near the backstage exit, there's a bowler hat on the ground. It's jade green. The Nurse picks it up, tries it on, and heads outside, to the cool evening with that sky full of stars and their many chronologies shining. He thinks of Tomasita and her daughter. He thinks of her last fight. He thinks of himself, and of life by the ring without her. He looks at his wristwatch, taps his new hat, chuckles, and walks away.

BIO: J.C. Pérez-Duthie is a Florida-based writer, journalist, adjunct professor in English, and language instructor with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert Graduate Center. Originally from Puerto Rico, where he grew up watching Mexican wrestling movies, he's also called home New York, Buenos Aires, and Miami. This is his first piece for Bartleby Snopes.