When Arianna Maya Gil first began skateboarding, at the age of thirteen, she was the only girl in a scene dominated by boys, tagging along with her brother and his friends to the parks they would roll through in Lower Manhattan. This was in the mid-2000s, before her family was forced to leave the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side for Washington Heights. Around this time, the mainstream media was just starting to realize that skate culture had begun its migration out of the suburbs and into the inner cities. Skateboarding had found a “new popularity among a black demographic” and was joining “the fraternity of minority street games” in the five boroughs, the New York Times wrote in 2007.
But even as the sport became less and less overrun by affluent white kids, Gil watched in frustration as her male peers built crews, clothing companies, and magazines around the burgeoning movement of urban skate culture. A space where young women of color could flourish in the sport remained persistently, painfully absent. Now 21 and a recent graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, Gil is setting to work on changing that with the creation of Brujas — a Latina skateboard crew composed primarily of young women from Washington Heights and the Bronx.
“We just found ourselves in very male-dominated spaces no matter what we wanted to do, whether it was skating, art, even school in some cases,” Gil tells the Voice. “Brujas, even though I centered it around this lifestyle that I lead that’s very skate-centric, it’s about finding camaraderie and companionship and support amongst other women — particularly, of course, women of color.”
Literally meaning “witches” in Spanish, Brujas is rooted in the L.E.S. aesthetic of her upbringing and is intended to encourage girls from low-income, urban areas to participate in skate culture. But when speaking with Gil, one is more likely to pick up on references to the Young Lords — the Puerto Rican civil rights group that fought social inequality in East Harlem in the Sixties and Seventies — than the Lords of Dogtown. With Brujas, skateboarding is just one aspect of a larger battle to empower women of color and bolster a sense of community among those who have often been made to feel marginalized in New York City.
“I use Brujas as a very honest way to express myself and my frustration with my city and the way that me and my peers are treated,” Gil says. “I’m not coming to it from a dogmatic standpoint, like, ‘If you roll with Brujas you have to be down with the Young Lords.’ That’s never a part of the conversation. [But] bringing youth together and creating spaces for young women of color is a revolutionary act.”
The concept of skate crews is practically as old as the sport itself — a loosely organized group of kids banding together in order to forge an identity around a specific neighborhood or park. A handful of Brujas might text one another to meet at 157 in the Bronx, the skatepark near Yankee Stadium that the crew calls home. They’ll then spend the day riding around, practicing their tricks, and taking photos. While a core group of six or seven girls form the heart of the clique, a number of like-minded male skaters, friends, and artists are also considered to be Brujas. It’s a broad coalition that more closely resembles a graffiti crew or an arts collective than a traditional sports team with a set lineup.
Since founding the sistership in 2014 with her friend Sheyla Grullon, Gil says she’s started to notice more young women of color out at 157 — maybe three or four girls huddled together in a group, anxious to learn a few new moves. But beyond the often insular world of skateboarding, Gil and Brujas see themselves more as activists and organizers, and are hoping to further promote unity among black and brown women by throwing events throughout the city this summer.
Last month, the group participated in the inaugural Sucia party at Elvis Guesthouse in the East Village, a night of traditional Caribbean dancing hosted in collaboration with the musician Destiny Frasqueri of Princess Nokia and her feminist arts collective, Smart Girl Club. The parties, taking place every other week this summer, will be free for women and members of the LGBT community.
“I put the entire party together with a vision for Caribbean youth and women’s safety and LGBT safety,” says Frasqueri, who DJ’d with Gil under the name Brujas at the event. “We all protect each other while we’re there. No woman will feel unsafe at that party, because there’s going to be a hundred more women there ready to kick any man’s ass who’s trying to get disrespectful with her.
“The word sucia directly translates to ‘dirty’ or ‘filthy’ in Spanish,” she adds, “but as Caribbean people, South American people, people of color, brown people, black people, we take a lot of pride in being a people of passion and sexuality and creative expression.”
At the party, dozens of kids gathered on the dance floor to chant the words “La patria!” and “La familia!” over and over again in unison as the sounds of dembow and merengue played. To Gil, like with Brujas, Sucia is an opportunity to help carve out yet another space for her and her friends, to challenge perceptions about women of color and celebrate a renewed sense of community.
“La familia is becoming one of the most relevant terms for a lot of Latino and black youth because we’re really each other’s families,” she says. “I started Brujas because I just wanted to have a squad to throw up, because I’m so proud of all these people who, despite all the obstacles, have still dedicated themselves to this. When they picked up the board and they went skating with their friends, it just felt right.”