Amy Collado is wearing gold hoop earrings, a blue bandana, and vintage-style glasses for our Zoom conversation. She’s sitting in front of a collection of records and a poster of André 3000, and I feel like I’ve travelled back in time. She’s like that cool young tía that we all grew up loving, but instead of sharing her latest discount store find, she’s passionately talking about the rising interest in roller skating culture on social media.
“We can't deny that the pandemic had an effect,” Collado says of the sport’s increase in popularity.
With many seeking out nostalgic pursuits during times of social isolation, roller skating catapulted into viral popularity last year for able-bodied folks, with Google searches of the throwback sport skyrocketing and some roller skating TikTok videos garnering over 10 million views. Collado, the founder of Club Butter Roll — a social media wellness platform launched several years ago that encourages skating for Black and Brown communities — tells me that her platform grew immense interest over the past year. “People were quarantined and wanted to be outside. Roller skating just so happened to be one of the few things that people latched onto,” she says. But while roller skating has seen a rise in popularity recently, Black and Brown women found safety and joy through skating long before it was dubbed a quarantine trend.
Roller skating is deeply tied to early hip-hop culture. Rappers like Queen Latifah and N.W.A. performed at the now-closed Skateland rolling rink in the mid-1980s when other venues shunned Black acts. Meanwhile, every city had — and continues to have — its own signature skating style from Los Angeles to Chicago. Historically, skating dates back to the civil rights movement, when Black skaters protested desegregated rinks in the 1960s. Documentaries like United Skates, which premiered in 2018, showcases the significance of skating rinks for Black communities and the Black activists who were fighting to keep rinks open as they faced closures. “You can take the goddamn building, but you can’t take the spirit,” a DJ says in the film. It’s a quote that still resonates.
In 2020, millions took to the streets and to social media worldwide to protest police brutality and systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis. This global reckoning helped drive the conversation around racial disparities — including within skating culture.
“Since [Black Lives Matter] was existing at the same time as this trend of roller skating was blowing up, a lot of people did feel the need, including myself, to make sure that people acknowledge the history of roller skating and acknowledge POC skaters and how long we've been doing this,” says Liliana Ruiz, an Afro-Latina skater who’s been skating since she was a kid and worked at the LA-famous skating rink World On Wheels.
But for Black and Brown skaters, it was about more than just acknowledgment. They were finding a sense of escapism and joy as they rolled down the same streets where they had previously been left unprotected. When the reality of racial injustice became too taxing, skating was the revolutionary way to reclaim their joy.
"When the reality of racial injustice became too taxing, skating was the revolutionary way to reclaim their joy."
Last June, a video of Oumi Janta, a Senegalese skater from Berlin, went viral, garnering nearly 3 million views. People commented how joyful and carefree she looked while rocking bright yellow shorts that stood out on her glowing melanated skin as she smoothly dance-skated to a club beat. Janta skating joyfully in that video felt like a breath of fresh air to the many young Black and Brown women whose bodies are so often policed. Roller skating even became pandemic personalities for celebrity best friends Nicole Byer and Sasheer Zamata, who frequently speak of the diversion it has brought them on their podcast Best Friends With Nicole Byer and Sasheer Zamata. Ruiz has felt that same gratification during these uncertain and difficult times, adding: “Roller skating really is a channel for me to not only express myself in a creative, artsy way with dancing, but also to really just let everything out, everything that is bottled up in me.”
It’s important to note that while Black and Brown skaters are finding joy in skating, rink closures and social-distancing guidelines amid the pandemic have forced them to only skate outside, which presents its own set of dangers for people of colour. Ruiz enjoys skating in Venice Beach and being able to connect with others who’ve been skating there for decades, but she has found that skaters have had to change parks because of racial profiling incidents. “It used to be a different part of Venice Beach, but there were a lot of incidents with the police because of racism and prejudice towards the music and the people who are skating and occupying the space,” she says. Still, these acts of violence haven't stopped them from building communities within the sport.
Skating has also provided some skaters of colour with a COVID safe activity during a pandemic that is disproportionately infecting and killing Black and Brown Americans at disturbingly high rates. Being forced to isolate for the safety of her family is what made Mala Muñoz, content creator and host of Locatora Radio, dust off her skates after years of not using them.
“For me, safety is really important because I live with my grandparents. I cannot be fucking around,” she says during our Zoom call, referring to the higher risks of severe illness for elders infected by the virus.
The LA-born and raised Chicana says she grew up skating and going to birthday parties at skating rinks but stopped right before college when everything in her life as a young Latina pivoted towards securing a career — a reality that is familiar to many children in immigrant and low-income families. For Black and Brown communities, engaging in activities simply for pleasure can feel wrong or even shameful when their families are suffering from economic inequality and oppression. This leads to many young POC adults prioritising their careers and pushing leisure aside.
“I stopped because if it's not getting you awards and accolades, not getting you into college, not a future career prospect, then why keep doing it?” she says. “I felt very discouraged from having fun and pursuing different types of hobbies like [skating].”
Now, Muñoz is learning to embrace feeling unapologetic joy through skating, acknowledging how Black skating culture has allowed her to feel like there is nothing wrong with dedicating time to leisure, although she had been taught otherwise. “I can be a grown woman and writer with a business and a podcast, all of these things while fucking around on my skates,” she says. “I can learn new tricks and make new friends just because — and that’s fine.”
Skate culture is embedded in the past and present of Black and Brown communities and these women are looking to keep it alive in the future. With Club Butter Roll, Collado says part of her purpose is capturing the culture that seems to be fading following the closure of so many skating rinks. “At the time [when I began Club Butter Roll], all the rinks had just closed down. So, it was almost like I was falling in love with something that was dying” she says. She’s now focusing on opening up a shop in Brooklyn through community investments. She will also be paying homage to some rinks that have closed in New York City, like the Bronx’s Skate Key, by selling merch. Muñoz says her Instagram posts have been inspiring some of her followers to skate as well. “Podcast listeners and Instagram followers had me in their skate videos… and they're posting their progress,” she says.
Ultimately, for women of colour, the policing of one’s body comes in many different forms — and reclaiming skating culture can be cathartic and liberating. “There are moments where it doesn't feel real... It feels so good,” Collado says when discussing what it’s been like to curate her platform’s skating events, which are held mostly in Brooklyn. People come up to her and tell her they traveled from other nearby places just to skate—some said they hadn’t done this in 15 to 20 years.
Ruiz says that it’s brought her joy to see the sense of community this sport has built among women of colour — even when they have to stay six feet apart. “We have this love for skating and community and yes, even though we're in a pandemic, we are able to skate at a distance and enjoy ourselves while listening to the same music.”