CHOLITA FOOTBALL: The Key to Transforming Women's Football in Bolivia?

24 Sep, 2013 | John Downes

Urban living and Sports

When contemplating football in South America, one automatically thinks about those countries steeped in World Cup tradition such as Brazil, Argentina, and even Uruguay. One would be forgiven for neglecting to appreciate the passion ingrained in countries such as Bolivia, as in the West we are caught up in the hysteria and romanticism of the upper echelons of the South American game. The salient fact is that football is in the DNA of the continent, regardless of which nation you are from. From birth, both men and women are caught up in the wonder of the 'beautiful game', and Bolivia is no different. However, a lack of grass roots initiatives have failed to capitalise on this female devotion to the game, not least exemplified by the most unlikely of sources: Bolivian cholitas.

Cholitas are primarily renowned for their traditional dress sense and reserved approach. With their bowler hats, multilayered skirts, ornamented shawls, and typically short stature, cholitas are instantly recognisable, yet their footballing prowess is usually kept hidden.

Indeed, when I visited an artificial football pitch near Valle de la Luna, all the cholitas whom I approached were, or had been, involved in football. Sonia Cuba, Silvia Escóbar, and Rosemary Illanes all cited enjoyment and health as the main reason why they and other cholitas play. Illanes and Escóbar both agreed that cholita football has been played for generations, as both their mothers had played.

In La Paz, cholita football is played casually on weekends in such areas as Irpavi, Ovejuyo, Chasquipampa and Villa Victoria. El Alto has more tournaments and Escóbar, who plays cholita futsal on Mother's Day in La Paz, told me that the cholitas of El Alto train and play in regular tournaments and season-long championships which are guided by rules.

The reason for this is that there is more unity and social endeavour in El Alto because of better organisation within the surrounding pueblos and thus have more teams to play in tournaments, as opposed to the recreational, unstructured cholita football of the big cities. In these rural communities, cholitas sensibly exploit the free open fields available to avoid the hassle of having to hire pitches to play.

Sunday is the main day for cholita football and in the various small provinces it is not really separated from the traditional customs, it is actually one of the main activities. Depending on the competition, what the referees allow, and individual preference, cholitas wear either their traditional polleras or shorts and tracksuits. Illanes, who managed a cholita team for two years believes many cholitas play with polleras because they’ve become accustomed to them when practicing.

Esmeralda, a local celebrity cholita, told me, 'cholitas play just to be able to play, they see it as a distraction, as fun, but they also play in championships to win cups, so they are great – they exert themselves... cholitas are really good football players'. Occasionally, cholita football carries a philanthropic element, as the women put aside their daily activities with the sole purpose of raising money for children from the various shelters across El Alto.

Cholitas are even hired in Mayoral initiatives and those of the Directorate for the Promotion of Sport, dependent of the municipal government of El Alto, such as the Cholitas Championship in honour of Women's Day.

Esmeralda who has played since she was a child, believes that cholitas inspire their communities by playing in, and organising, their neighbourhood tournaments. She believes that the intrigue of tourists and journalists at seeing women in long dresses play has popularised Bolivian football to the rest of the world; 'suddenly the country has a football image even if the senior team is not too good'.

An avid Bolivar fan, Esmeralda became famous when she was photographed with the barra at Estadio Hernando Siles. Determined to break convention, her and her friend were the first cholitas to be part of the 'Furia Celeste' (hardcore fans) and it is incredibly rare to see cholitas there even now. She started getting imitated by other cholitas that went to that part of the arena but they were quickly scared away because, 'cholitas are not very sociable, they're quite shy and reserved'. She now travels with Bolivar as an official fan and plays for the club's supporter team, 'las Yayitas'.

Bolivar's head coach Miguel Angel Portugal, was recently quoted as saying, 'I think football in Bolivia is a passion which has surprised me. I was surprised to see the city courts are always full of people, from small children to ‘mujeres de pollera’ (cholitas), playing football'. In his view, it is precisely because of the incredible passion for football in Bolivia that authorities should pay more attention to channelling all that energy into a sound structural development of the sport and thus the transformation of football as a whole.

Since Evo Morales became President, as a football fanatic he has helped small communities organise tournaments which provide prizes like cattle or even crates of beer. People therefore apply themselves more and have an added incentive to improve their skills. It is not as centralised, and everyone who wants to can take part. The government has been building more football pitches across the country. However, the sport is still largely underfunded and very little help is directed specifically at women. There is still a real sense that not enough is being done to garner success.

Bolivian women’s football even transcends the country’s borders. Anthropologist Juliane Müller, discovered that in Seville, Spain, teams of South American affiliation have been set up and seen an influx of Bolivian female immigrants flock to their ranks. Müller notices the ‘fuerza gravitoria’ (gravitational pull) exerted over Bolivian players who sign for female teams formed by players from their country of origin—such as 'Real Santa Cruz' and 'Bolivia'—through the migratory chains and interpersonal networks formed in Seville. Indeed, Müller believes these female football unions to symbolically mark the desire for ‘a new beginning, overcoming prejudice, and female solidarity’, going on to say that the language of football in general, and globally, is characterized by a strong metaphorical tendency.

This highlights the real desire of Bolivian women to break through traditional patriarchal chains, a sentiment fully endorsed by Rodolfo Garcia, 40, who coaches children of both genders. He told me, ‘women’s football has been left behind because of the lack of implementation of politics and policies from our local governments. There are no incentives for women’s football’.

‘It is in the hands of the leaders. I’ve been working with little girls for eight years, and I can assure you that I am the only teacher who still maintains the line of thought of equality of opportunity. I don’t close the doors to kids, I open them. This is the only school for women’s football, and there are many kids participating’.

'We need the sexist way of thinking to vanish, and start thinking in different ways. Change has come from the people that have power. The idea is first to convince the authorities to incentivise football, because we have people and we also have resources. We have to break parents’ traditional way of thinking, where they assign little girls to the sports or activities that they see fit'.

Garcia's uncertainty as to whether women's football as an activity will grow was equally as damning, as was his frustration that his football school was 'the only one' (in La Paz) that offers a place to play for children as young as four.

His hope is that one day, the girls he coaches will make it to the national team and that his school will give them an opportunity to access scholarships in the US or Canada, so they can consolidate a career through football. He nevertheless reiterated the need for help from the government and also institutions.

It is therefore clear that in Bolivia the renowned South American zeal for football is very much alive amongst women, but it is political and socio-cultural change which holds the key to harnessing the vigour of Bolivian Cholitas to see a real development in women's football.


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