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 traveled 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.
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 L.A.-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.
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 color. 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 color 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 L.A.-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 prioritizing 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.”