On the Border Grind

Buena Vista[1]

A secret: the Rio Grande Valleys first legit skatepark is a living exhibit of border history.

by Jonathan Leal

In the early 2000s, the City of Edinburg opened Buena Vista. Sitting at the intersection of Sprague and Jackson, just down the street from the local university, the prized H-E-B, the beloved CoffeeZone, the booming Luby’s Cafeteria, the last Blockbuster Video on Earth, the skatepark today beams like a punk zine smuggled into Sunday mass: an earnest tribute to youthful subversion.

Before the park opened, the Valley skate scene wore its struggles openly: skaters improvised with what was at hand and underfoot, blending rasquache tactics with skate methods freshly imported from idyllic Califas. After: locals chased bruises at a city-christened skate spot literally assembled by frothing teens and city employees.

Today, nearly two decades later, the park gleams as both a youth haven and a litter magnet. Chewed pencils, Icee straws, unfinished homework, Shasta cans, pizza bones, Redbull boxes, Styrofoam cups, mangled sporks, Marlboro butts flattened by polyurethane wheels and the worn soles of dissolving Etnies. A manicured shrine to the daily grind.

Unsurprisingly, the park has received scant commemoration; to date, it has no easily accessible public records.[2] For an experiment that arguably helped spur a region’s multi-million dollar investments in youth culture (skate havens have since been built in nearby McAllen, Pharr, Raymondville, Los Fresnos, Brownsville, Weslaco, and La Feria), it’s no doubt intriguing that the most up-to-date info on Buena Vista’s use and history lives on YouTube, captured with FishEye lenses and set to Arcade Fire.

To dig into this history is to recognize it can’t be told apart from the skaters regularly spilling blood on the park’s rusting altars. To dive into these skaters’ lives is to admit their place in a lineage of border heroes. And to hone in on border heroics is to acknowledge that to many in frontera-land—to say nothing of those beyond it—those stories bridging the Spitfire tee and the border ballad, the pop shuvit and the pan dulce, the grind and the grito will likely read as tonterías of the highest order. And yet, here we be.

On the heels of “Executive Order: Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wives”—one of the latest decrees in our era of American hyper-absurdity—I can imagine few better ways to move forward than by getting down with Valley youth.[3] I can envision few better ways to sketch new hope than through dances with wood, plastic, heat, and sweat. I can think of few better ways to invent something fresh out of everything fucked.

Buena Vista II[4]

Some background: skaters are civil engineers, constantly measuring surfaces and monitoring traffic, transforming mundane lip into magnificent opportunity, repurposing terrain by asking not what it’s for, but what it can do. Terraformers at their most ethical.[5]

And in South Texas, it’s no different. To wit: Mark Rodriguez, a Valley lifer, began at the Elsa Post Office—the obvious after-school hangout for Elsa teens. There: small sets of stairs, large slabs of inviting concrete, the ever-present possibility that a security guard will amble over, finger wagging, determined to put an end to errancy. There: training ground for leaps of faith, a studio for flatland ballet. To cut one’s teeth—and scrape one’s knees—at the non-skatepark is to learn that “being a skateboarder means . . . you don’t just walk through space without learning anything about it, or without having a kind of relationship with where you are.”[6] To survey humdrum terrain and hypothesize Primos and Caspers and nose manuals is to enter “a world that no-one else can see, a world that pedestrians and motorists cannot share. An alternative reality, co-existing on a different plane.”[7]

Few activities—maybe martial arts, maybe parkour—demand at once this intensity of design thinking—of using “creative thinking on obstacles, thinking outside the box,”[8] of pursuing the same liberatory discipline and addictive practice championed by musicians, painters, dancers—and the peace necessary to deal with bodily harm that waits around corners, at the bottom of staircases. Sometimes, even your own board turns on you, kicking the shit out of shins or pummeling your forehead. The promise of landing a newly invented trick regularly supersedes the blood payment.

And in Weslaco, just a few miles from Elsa and a few more from Edinburg, in the throbbing heat of South Texas’s late afternoons, skaters have for years cast long, gorgeous shadows on pothole infected asphalt. As Rodriguez recalls of his youth: “Back then, we would . . . park at one end of the city, then skate to the other side and back. Imagine: a mob of skaters taking over the streets.”[9]

To some, this mob is one of malcreados in desperate need of Jesus; to others, architects of worlds unbound.

Buena Vista III[10]

No question: to skate is to court bruises. In that sense, skating—and skating while brown at the border, in particular—is a way of confronting the most harrowing black, blue, and blood-red canvasses of American youth. It’s a way, in an ever-crooked world, for young folks to find their footing.[11]

Every time you greet a board, it humbles you, disobeys you, demands your respect and commitment. Even the highest-quality gear can’t land your wild-ass tricks. And like with music, execution is radically democratic: a smooth, solid kickflip is just that, regardless of who throws it. (Evaluation, of course, is always another matter.)

For skaters like Rodriguez, the perfect park is a level playing field: you show up, you warm up, you throw down. On that unhallowed ground, the risk of cuts and bruises is worth the reward: escape into a shadow world, board double-helixing beneath your soles, promising perfect landings and fruitful futures. To land a kickflip across the way from that old raspa stand, that new taquería, and that local (and recently renamed) university is to yell, loud and clear, that one matters in this grand chingadera. To soar down the pipe is to live anew in the in-between, to harness gravity and slingshot around a distant moon—to relish the fear, fury, and fecundity that follows from flicking off impending doom.

At the end of a session, heart racing, the world gives way to the swagger and sentiment of bo(a)rder kings. And for kids coming of age at a frontera always somehow flirting with apocalypse, that bliss is everything.[12]

In the evenings, in Edinburg and elsewhere, people soar, blocking the reddening sun, if only for brief moments, with bodies stretched taut into stunning poses. Buena Vista roars with scraping wheels, grinding axles, intense disses, genuine cheers. Skaters sport black and blue masterworks on shins, landing the impossible while history looms, fuming. Oppressive heat relaxes, less-than-stimulating day jobs dissolve, inherited struggles short circuit. And there, in the drone and crack of plastic wheels, a geography of hope.[13]

Buena Vista IV[14]

No joke: Millennial skaters are part of the YouTube pedagogical moment. Hungry hopefuls regularly bypass firewalls to devour skate videos; camera-savvy skate nerds partake of that shiny “UPLOAD” button. And in effect, young folks (read: punkeros, wannabes, Straight-A closet nerds) are regularly introduced to soon-to-be personal heroes, expanding horizons via re-playable lessons. As Rodriguez recalls: “I used to watch skate tutorial videos just to get an idea of how to execute certain maneuvers. Some tricks happened quicker than others. And once you learn one, you want to take it to the next level and try variations on that trick. I didn’t want to stop learning. I wanted to skate like the pros.”[15]

Like with other activities, when an aspiring skater greets the greats, personal experience and unexpected circumstances occasion the birth of new styles. For some, this meant absorbing the “super proper,” “textbook status” tricks of Eric Koston and mixing them with the raw bigness of Geoff Rowley; for others, it was seizing the flatland sorcery of Rodney Mullen and lacing it with the bombast of Tony Hawk. For all in the Valley, though, it’s been about doing this while dodging or conquering soul-scorching sunrays. For all, it’s been about crafting a personal voice in mid air: a hard-won aesthetics of anti-gravity.

Like with music scenes, to invent a style by contributing to a community—by taking what others have done, making it your own, then giving it back as a throwdown and an offering—is to discover oneself in relation to others. And the kinds of communities Valley boarders like Rodriguez (and the scene’s other killer contributors) pursue are those that support, not sabotage. In his words: “If I don’t land a trick on a first try, [my teammates] tell me, ‘You’ve got it! Just place your feet like this.’”[16] One skater perfects a heelflip, the other an impossible over a stair set, both at once competitive and supportive, swearing and cheering: the best kind of family.

So these days, when thinking on the kinds of families born on the rail, I can’t help but think of the anti-sellout, locally validated, border-fed sensibility alive among a cadre of curfew-flouting Valley skaters. I can’t help but return to a sticky passage out of music critic Michael Azerrad’s indie-music tome: “ . . . you [don’t] need some big corporation to fund you, or even to verify that you [are] any good. It [is] about viewing as a virtue what most [see] as a limitation.”[17] While the money would be nice—the quest for skate sponsorship is no small motivation for upstarts, enthusiasts, and full-blown virtuosi—what continues to get folks on their boards on a hot-as-hell Thursday afternoon after a day of core classes and a shift at Whataburger is less cash than love, less fame than fulfillment. What gets Valley skaters rolling is the allure of affirmation, the promise of discovery, the pursuit of belonging. “But,” as Mullen says, “belonging on [your] own terms.”[18]

Buena Vista V[19]

When Buena Vista opened, it offered a place for skaters like Rodriguez and his crew—the delightfully named Anarchy Death Team—to re-cast the world in airwalks and pressure flips.[20] Its opening was a catalyst for homegrown, intergenerational, dynamic mentorship. Going there meant unprecedented exposure. As Rodriguez explains, “When I first arrived [at Buena Vista], skaters were doing things I had never seen in person, and that motivated me to get the ball going. I thought they ripped.”[21]

But for some skatehounds anchored in rapidity, the Valley’s recent investments in parks hasn’t produced change fast enough. Commensurate with the region’s long history of brain drain—folks leaving to pursue educations, then growing roots elsewhere—the border skate scene is also regularly losing heavy hitters. For this niche population, the “dream of becoming a professional skater” is next to “impossible to accomplish in the Valley.” As Kevin Wagoner, owner of the local Switchfoot Skateshop in McAllen once observed, “There aren’t enough places to practice here. The industry does not pay attention to the area. And the lack of major competition doesn’t push skaters to improve.”[22]

Since Wagoner’s interview, though, local cities have poured substantial funds (and ample concrete) into remedying the problems he identifies.[23] Los Fresnos—a tightknit community known for its wildlife sanctuary, madcap souvenir shop, and, per Simon Vega, “Little Graceland”[24]—recently invested big-time dollars in a freshly christened ollie temple. Raymondville—a rural town known for its sugarcane, its citrus, and, according to writer Fernando Flores, its punk bands[25]—recently funneled $130K into a well-wrought boardlandia.[26] And Pharr—today lauded for its ambrosial Las Margaritas, restorative raspa hut, and stellar MoonBeans cafe—recently dropped $300K on a now-booming skateopolis.[27] With each check, each ribbon-cutting ceremony, a small triumph over stereotype—a sweet dose of realness, a short reprieve from derision.[28]

As locals have long observed (and as onlookers are newly realizing), “the valley is,” indeed, “at a crossroads.”[29] And really, as an area so readily denigrated from without—too Mexican for mainstream America, too Americano for D.F. purists[30], too unsafe for rabid Washington, too brutal for U.S. hopefuls—it has been for a long time. Yet for skaters like Rodriguez, this crossroads is less petrifying than energizing, less all-consuming than art-inspiring. For him, the border grind is coming up from the underground at just the right time: “more skateparks are being made, and I keep seeing more kids at the [Edinburg] skatepark every time I show up there. The future is bright.”[31]

As oldschooler John Smythe once put it, “Skateboarding dwells in the present. Yesterday’s heroes, the mangled messages left molding by the all-fronts media blitz and tomorrow’s tragedies are all meaningless to the contemporary skater. All that matters is the act of skating.”[32] But skating in the Valley is, I’d wager, about something more than blatant escapism or a blissfully ignorant presentism. In the Valley, amid the sprawl and grime, crops and cows, the act of skating is about reaching for worlds beyond the enclosures, politics, and barbed wires so often mobilized as clickbait and bad television. It’s about landing darkflips over the language gap, about grinding the rails dividing kids from parents, civilians from officers, aquí from allá.[33] It’s about pursuing the best kind of motion, carving a new geography of possibility along an infamous, imposing frontera. And the birth of Buena Vista—its ramps, rails, and pipes—marks the strength of these skaters’ strivings.

So for the record: should Trump’s gran baboseada ever actually be built, I bet they’ll grind the shit out of it.

 

Notes

[1] “The Edinburg Skate Park, No. 1.” Personal photograph by author. 2014.

[2] Determined to piece together what I could of the park’s beginnings, I spent a few weeks calling city officials, eventually reaching Jesse Lopez, Edinburg’s Parks and Rec Manager. Lopez, surprised to receive a call about the park, explained city employees had assembled the equipment themselves, by hand. (He also mentioned local youth were eager to help, but, due to liability concerns, could not.)

[3] “Executive Order: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements.” The White House. January 25, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/25/executive-order-border-security-and-immigration-enforcement-improvements

[4] “The Edinburg Skate Park, No. 2.” Personal photograph by author. 2016.

[5] For more, see: Iain Borden, Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body (New York: Berg 2001).

[6] “A Car Full of Monkeys,” Sidewalk Surfer, no. 20 (September 1997), n.p.

[7] “Where?” R.A.D. no. 79 (September 1989), 18.

[8] Personal Interview with Mark Rodriguez. September 21, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “The Edinburg Skate Park, No. 3.” Personal photograph by author. 2016.

[11] This, of course, isn’t even to broach the topic of skating while brown and queer, brown

and female, brown and everything else.

[12] Like with jazz, most folks are mostly comfortable with the narrative that skateboarding began as an American invention. Born in SoCal via surfers gone street, it’s since become a truly global phenomenon, melding with the multi-modal energies of hip-hop, punk, and indie subcultures quite literally the world over. (At long last, in 2020, skateboarding will have a home at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.) And tracing its roots to the many LAs of the late 1940s thus makes it not only a postwar invention, but also arguably a product of a greater borderlands. Fast forward to early 2000s: young skaters like M. Rodriguez, T. Casillas, J. Gonzalez, I. Benavides, C. Cartwright, J. Lawrence, and huge numbers of others are asking questions about their borderlands environment through the technology of their boards, their stuntwood.

[13] “Evening at the Skate Park,” The Monitor. May 27, 2014. http://www.themonitor.com/gallery/news/evening-at-the-skate-park/collection_342ecd66-e607-11e3-aca2-0017a43b2370.html

[14] “The Edinburg Skate Park, No. 4.” Personal photograph by author. 2016.

[15] Personal Interview with Mark Rodriguez. September 21, 2016.

[16] “Mark Rodriguez’s Life of Skating.” YouTube. January 12, 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIOSBs0Lg3M

[17] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Rock Underground 1981-1991. (Boston, MA: Little 2001), 10.

[18] Rodney Mullen, “How Context Shapes Content.” TEDx at the University of Southern California. YouTube. June 4, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwjlDBjNzXk

[19] “The Edinburg Skate Park, No. 5.” Personal photograph by author. 2016.

[20] These days, teams like MAJER Crew and countless others are tearing up South Texas skateparks, pushing their acrobatics to new heights. For more, see: “MAJER Crew.” YouTube. Accessed September 21, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/user/MajerCrew

[21] Personal Interview with Mark Rodriguez. September 21, 2016.

[22] Zack Quaintance, “Skaters Ride Rough Roads Toward Future.” The Monitor. August 20, 2008. http://www.themonitor.com/entertainment/skaters-ride-rough-roads-toward-future/article_71cedbdc-91b8-5f63-b1df-8aa103418f22.html

[23] For more, consult the following: Rachel Taliaferro, “Skate Park Opens in Weslaco” The Monitor. August 8, 2007. http://www.themonitor.com/news/local/skate-park-opens-in-weslaco/article_3f64997d-edd3-5c37-bea7-536adad9bf22.html

[24] Vega, a Los Fresnos native, became friends with Elvis while serving in the U.S. Army.

[25] For more, see: Fernando Flores, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 (Chicago, IL: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography 2014).

[26] See Fernando del Valle, “Committee to Decide Between Two City Skate Park Designs,” The Valley Morning Star. July 31, 2015. http://www.valleymorningstar.com/news/local_news/article_d47a7b40-3736-11e5-9697-675866c445a8.html

[27] See Emily Sides, “Pharr to Build $300K Skate Park” The Monitor. May 21, 2015. http://www.themonitor.com/news/local/pharr-to-build-k-skate-park/article_6977e536-d01f-11e4-b9cf-eb6b39b33687.html

[28] Cue the perennial borderlands exposés: John Burnett and Marisa Peñaloza, “Corruption On The Border: Dismantling Misconduct in the Rio Grande Valley.” Morning Edition, National Public Radio. July 6, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/07/06/413463836/corruption-on-the-border-dismantling-misconduct-in-the-rio-grande-valley; Jason Cohen, “Rio Grande Valley Tops List of ‘America’s Poorest Cities’” Texas Monthly. January 21, 2013. http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/rio-grande-valley-tops-list-of-americas-poorest-cities

[29] Ben Salinas, “The Valley Needs a Public Voice, Now.” Ouch My Ego. April 13, 2014.  http://ouchmyego.com/culture/current-events-politics/kmbh-sale-new-voice/

[30] Here, I’m alluding to a well-documented friction between Chicanx and Mexican intellectuals. For one storied example, see: Octavio Paz, El Laberinto de la Soledad (México: Ediciones Cuadernos Americanos 1950). For another, see Luis Leal, “Octavio Paz and the Chicano” in Latin American Literary Review 5, no. 10 (1977): 115-23. And for still another, see Américo Paredes’s 1990 acceptance speech for the Orden Mexicana del Aguila Azteca, a significant portion of which appears in: Olga Nájera-Ramírez, “Encaminándonos: Américo Paredes as a Guiding Force in Transcending Borders” Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 125 No. 495, (Winter 2012), 69-90.

[31] Personal Interview with Mark Rodriguez. September 21, 2016.

[32] John Smythe, “The History of the World and Other Short Subjects, or, From Jan and Dean to Jae Jackson Unabridged” SkateBoarder, vol. 6 no. 10 (May 1980), 29.

[33] For more, see: Josh Kun “Allá in the Mix: Mexican Sonideros and the Musical Politics of Migrancy” in Public Culture 27:3 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2015), 533-555.


Jonathan Leal is a scholar, musician, sound designer, and essayist currently anchored in the Bay Area. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, he received a BA and MA in English from the University of North Texas while working as a percussion performer and music educator; he is now a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University.

By | 2017-05-13T14:12:01+00:00 April 28th, 2017|Featured Content, Nonfiction, Subversion|0 Comments