MEET THE NEW YORK SKATEBOARDERS SHAKING THE SYSTEM BEYOND FOUR WHEELS
The sun sinks beneath the edges of the Manhattan skyline and the usual crowd at the 181 Hamilton Bridge Skatepark halves in size, then halves again. Remaining clusters of tired skaters gather beneath the bridge — laughter, shit talking and ambitious grinding trucks echo at dusk. Wheels clattering gives way to the whistling of aerosol cans inking bold and aggressive lettering across concrete — worlds of street and skate culture merged, inseparable and one-and-the-same. As the last light escapes, the stragglers pack up their belongings and roll off into the night, graffiti still wet to the touch, fumes lingering.
The short above was directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, a 24-year-old Albany-born director, writer, actor and musician. His latest feature film, “As You Are,” won the Sundance Film Festival’s Dramatic Special Jury Award in 2016, releasing theatrically earlier this year. @milesjorispeyrafitte
Most exit alone, but on this night, it’s hard to miss the pack that leaves together in their matching “BRUJAS” emblazoned sweatshirts, tossing empty brown-bagged cans in the trash on their way out.
Fast-forward an hour and you’ll find this same group, BRUJAS, hosting a dinner party for likeminded New York youth. The topic of conversation bounces back and forth between the latest skate edit to logistics for an upcoming series of community education workshops and lectures — a blend of youthful skate energy and focused, deeply determined political direction, gleaming analog interaction in an otherwise digital world.
You may have heard of BRUJAS before — the group of young activists in New York holding their own in the male-dominated skateparks spread through the city. But pinning BRUJAS as just a rare, female skate gang would be cursory at best.
BRUJAS defines itself as “an urban, free-form, creative and autonomous organization that seeks to build radical political coalition through youth culture. The group expresses community through skateboarding, art and political organizing.”
Arianna Gil, cofounder of BRUJAS, leads many of these discussions. Gil speaks about the BRUJAS at a mile-a-minute rate — each word spit with an unbridled passion. Her descriptions are not tame, nor are they concise. Listening to Gil go, her first instinct is to make it clear that BRUJAS is not simply a group project. Rather, it embodies every influence and ambition developed over a life immersed in their New York City culture of art and activism.
Gil describes BRUJAS as a constantly shifting, transforming gang that people are continuously joining and leaving. So defining something that is, in part, defined by its amorphous nature is no small task. For BRUJAS, finding themselves as a group meant looking toward their influences both within their New York communities and beyond — historical, cultural and political.
“When we really started trying to defining what BRUJAS was about, what we landed on was that we wanted to exist somewhere between Quarter Snacks (the home of underground skateboarding culture in New York City) and the Young Lords (a Puerto Rican nationalist revolutionary party out of Chicago).” Existing within that broad spectrum leaves plenty of room for lateral movement. That said, there are two steadfast tenants that anchor the group — skateboarding is in their blood, and political action cannot just be a buzzword.
The roots of the group are complex and personal. As Ari describes, “We grew up as downtown kids, actively engaged in cultural productions and political movements from a really early age, going to punk shows, just Lower East Side (LES) shit.”
Inspired by the ingenuity and doggedness of many around her — influences like Letter Racer and Princess Nokia’s Smart Girl Club — Gil and friend Sheyla Grullon made a leap of their own when they founded BRUJAS. “It was like, ‘you all have your crews, we should have ours.’ That became BRUJAS and that was it. We needed a space to do what we wanted to do.”
While now largely comprised of young females of color, BRUJAS was not initially just for women — exclusivity of that nature went against the very concept itself. “We had a few strong male skaters from uptown we were hanging with, and they were BRUJAS too. They would throw parties with us, would go skate with us, but it was always very obvious that myself and Sheyla were running the show. It was our thing, it was about our rights and our politics.”
Despite skateboarding’s clear and prominent role in the group, the BRUJAS don’t rest their form of rebellion at the 181 skatepark. A quick bout of research into the group will reveal an array of hands-on initiatives they started, everything from workshops in self-defense to fundraising for the causes of prison reform and legal aid for those without it.
“An urban, free-form, creative and autonomous organization that seeks to build radical political coalition through youth culture. The group expresses community through skateboarding, art and political organizing.”
“The 1971 Project [named after the 1971 prison riots at Attica Correctional Facility] is the thing I’m most excited to talk about. It’s a streetwear line we built as a form of fundraising to start a legal help fund to support individuals facing time in the prison system. Initially, we raised $23,000. It’s been a big project for us and is just one example of very concrete work we’re putting a lot of our energy towards.” Ari goes off into a tangent about the Brown Berets (the pro-Chicano organization founded in the 1960s) and their clearly recognizable uniform with its cultural and semiotic significance, all the while sporting a 1971 Project shirt and shorts — graphics of inflamed Molotov cocktails behind barbed wire fences catch the eye, their influences and message clear as day. For the BRUJAS, the prison system as it stands is the most defining embodiment of extreme, tangible oppression and police-state mentality, making it a primary target for their organizing efforts.
With larger scale goals manifested through the 1971 project, the BRUJAS have embraced and champion a grass roots approach to social justice that touches their immediate community on a local level. In 2016, the BRUJAS were granted a fully funded residency at Recess, a public gallery in Soho, to carry out two months of hands-on workshops they called “Brouhaha.” “It‘s been an ‘education of the people’ approach to radical political organizing, essentially skill sharing workshops bringing otherwise unavailable educational resources to our communities.”
“Goodhearted goonz and aggressive sweethearts extending a hand in solidarity with our people to better our hoods, city, and everyday lives through activism, skating, public programming, creative outlets and opportunities for female identifying, gender non-conforming/non-binary and LGBQTIA people of color.” @dirtyghettoangelz
Along with sessions in music recording, filmmaking and self-defense, Brouhaha included a “School of Politics” lecture series, covering topics like decompartmentalization and labor reform. For the group, continuing the Brouhaha model would be an obvious success in terms of continued local efforts, but will require a consistent community space and regular funding. “As of now, we all have jobs or careers outside of BRUJAS to make everything we do possible.”
In recent months, the BRUJAS have branched into and inspired the formation of many other collectives of local activists in New York City, all working to empower the youth of their communities. Former member Sam Oliviera, for example, has branched off and founded Dirty Ghetto Angelz, while Antonia Perez, current BRUJAS member, has gone on to form Herban Cura. Other members like Yasmeen Wilkerson (@yaz.so.mean) and Danielle Melendez (@ny_art_dee) have shifted focus toward independent projects. While no longer BRUJAS by direct affiliation, these groups and individuals continue to carry on key shared values and missions built upon social and political organizing on a hands-on, grassroots level.
“Part of a rising cultural shift away from systems of oppression, towards communities of regeneration — a container that brings people together to encourage these communities to flourish. As we center healing and support at the foundation of our relationships, we encourage and inspire each other in the practice of collective and individual empowerment through DIY workshops, gatherings and services.” @herban.cura
Ari sees this as a clear starting point to continue growth and strengthen the organization moving forward. “BRUJAS is moving so fast and in so many directions and garnering so much attention that it can be really difficult for a large group of young people to feel that the group serves them and represented them as they feel it should,” she said. “So, at the moment, our biggest focus is building an internal model or structure that really helps us get everything we want out of our projects.”
Back at the 181 skatepark, it’s 7 a.m. and the sun is barely peaking above the western horizon. Wet graffiti from the night before is nearly dried, but still tacky after a damp night. The fumes have cleared, and a skater in a BRUJAS sweatshirt is teaching another to ollie. No brown bags in hand at this hour — it’s a fresh slate for a new day. They skate for an hour, gather their belongings and roll out. They have a train to catch, a class to attend, a screen-printer to meet, a gallery to visit and an after-school workshop to prepare.
The BRUJAS live a grind that continues day-in, day-out, tight-knit and supportive yet uncompromising with a highly tuned radar for bullshit — one that requires analog connection to real people with real passions in very real communities. The neighborhoods these young skateboarders/activists/friends have grown up in look quite different with each passing year, but you can bet your last penny that the Ari’s of New York City will be fighting vigorously to protect their communities, with concrete progress at the top of the to-do list.