It’s an unexpectedly windy autumn afternoon at River Avenue Skate Park, just off the 161st street subway stop in the South Bronx, under the rattling train tracks. The park is a second home for local skaters, who see it as more than just a bunch of stairs, rails, and ledges, but a legitimate community space. “I always feel safe here,” says Arianna, 21, co-founder of the all-girl skate crew Brujas. “The only time I ever feel unsafe is when the police are here,” she adds, explaining that as the neighbourhood has started gentrifying, undercover cops have been hanging around more than usual, arresting kids for having weed and staying after dark.
Arianna started skating when she was 14, and has been coming to this park since she was a high school junior. “Two summers ago, this place was literally the sanctuary,” she says. “I came from having the worst year of my life, spent the whole summer here chilling, and made the best community of friends. We partied together, spent the whole day together, we filmed.” It was like a family, she says, and inspired her and her friends to start Brujas, named after a cult video called Skate Witches, who push boys off their skateboards.
For the Brujas girls, their crew is about more than skating: it’s about friendship, and the radical potential of sisterhood to foster real support systems, outside the mainstream social norms. They see the preventative and healing power of friendship as a source of collective empowerment, especially in the context of Western medicine and philosophy, where it’s discouraged to tap into extra-spiritual realms.
“So much of our world is described through patriarchal, rigid, academic, medical ways, and concepts of understanding the world scientifically,” Arianna says. “Traditionally behind those perspectives are just men. In traditional indigenous cultures, which a lot of our cultures are derived from, women were in charge of health and community and motherhood and wellness and food. Not in ways that were demeaning but in ways that were powerful.”
For that reason, female collectives like Brujas create spaces of trust, openness, and agency. “It’s significantly important to me that people feel like they’re an actor in their own health,” Arianna says, referring to physical and mental well-being. “If you can’t trust doctors, at least you can trust your friends … Whether you’re with some dude who was really fucked up to you, or you’re actually chemically imbalanced and need a different kind of support system around you than what our traditional society offers us... That’s definitely part of the fabric of what we do, how we see the world.”
The Brujas are less concerned with competitively mastering the art of skateboarding and instead see skating as a means of community-building. “Skating is a gateway,” Sam, 19, adds. “When I was in high school, I always found my zen when I was skating. I had a lot of anxiety and went through a lot of stuff when I was younger, but I always felt that at the end of the day, if I just had my skateboard, it helped me appreciate more of my time by myself… All of that is very peaceful to me.”
Sam started skating when she was 12, and explains how through skating she has watched the city change over the years. In recent years she has observed an increased policing of youth, especially youth of colour. When she was younger, she felt like she could skate anywhere. “You could go to the park and be around your hood and not worry,” she says. But now? “If I walk down the street and my hair is not done, I don’t look the cleanest, I’ve got my skateboard, me and my friends are laughing too loud, someone who just moved into the area will think you are being intrusive. And will be more likely to call the cops. Little do they know, we’re not intrusive, it’s just been our neighbourhood. And doing stuff like that to quiet down the culture that’s already alive, is killing the culture. That’s why we have to preserve it.”
Sam recalled a recent night where she was going for a walk with her boyfriend at a local park, and on her way home was followed for blocks by a creeping cop car. “Stuff like that is really uncomforting. Because you never know. You hear horror stories, so you just have a fear of cops built into you.”
“I had a lot of anxiety and went through a lot of stuff when I was younger, but I always felt that at the end of the day, if I just had my skateboard, it helped me appreciate more of my time by myself” – Sam
Skateboarding is inherently political: intertwined with the structures of public space, questioning ownership of private property, creating small moments of performed resistance. So it makes sense that through skating, the Brujas open up conversations about gentrification and colonialism. The fact that skateboarding is often stereotyped as an act of wreaking havoc on public spaces is a notion loaded with histories to be unpacked.
“Skateboarding is really anti-systemic,” says Natalie, a member of Brujas and activist, who works for an immigration lawyer. “There is this idea of wreaking havoc on society, and turning over the status quos. But who is to say that is not a peaceful process? Because society as it is, already isn’t peaceful.”
“It’s mad violent,” echoes Arianna. “A lot of the concept of private property is super violent. And skateboarding doesn’t really respect that. A lot of people in our gang come from indigenous ancestral lines. Where their concept of private property didn’t exist. To be seen as wreaking havoc on land that was originally ours, but was re-appropriated by a colonizer and was developed by a colonizer, is not something that I identify with. I see it more as treating it like it is. War. Industrialism.”
“Physical and geographical space in New York is always going to change. But we’ll just move and keep skating… Taking our memories and continuing our community no matter what” – Arianna
After grabbing empanadas at a place down the block, across the street from Yankee Stadium, we walk back to the skate park as the sun is setting. Rose, 22, is recapping a community board meeting she attended last night, about a proposition to rezone certain areas of the South Bronx, making currently non-residential neighbourhoods into residential areas for “affordable housing”.
“But it’s not really affordable housing according to the median incomes of this area,” says Natalie.
“It’s just so clear that this stuff isn’t for the community,” Rose adds, explaining how the politics of pro-development Bronx borough president Rubén Díaz Jr. have affected the neighborhood. “The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the United States, and nothing is really being done about that.”
Rose, who also organizes open mics in the South Bronx, feels strongly about community organizing. “You can’t really do anything if you don’t have a good amount of people that are willing to speak out against these politicians who are totally backed by big money… All over the world, it’s a clear battle of rich versus poor. We have to unite somehow, get together and talk about how we’re going to change this shit.”
In a city laced with the underlying anxieties caused by broken windows policing and gentrification, skating allows the Brujas to push back and reclaim space for themselves and their friends, to create a culture and a city they want to exist within.
“The one thing that’s been kind of real growing up in New York has been skating,” says Arianna. “I’ve been skating for almost half my life. I still see the same kids. Physical and geographical space in New York is always going to change. But we’ll just move and keep skating… Taking our memories and continuing our community no matter what. In terms of my memory of New York, I’m thankful for skating because it at least preserves that continuity in community. That’s the only thing that really counts anyway.”