What a Puerto Rican skater can teach the roller derby community

The discussions I’m having with roller derby athletes of color have really struck a nerve in the derbyverse. I’m thrilled these skaters have been heard, that their concerns are taken seriously, and that they are being used as examples across the globe of how derby can tackle legitimate issues that are driving people away from the sport.

I also hadn’t planned too far ahead to figure out what my next steps would be. Fortunately, new stories keep falling into my lap, like this one, which offers insight into the world of a Puerto Rican skater and how derby has failed the Latinx community.

After I released my interview with Dreadlocked N. Loaded, she followed up with me to suggest I talk to a skater who wasn’t involved with the Kansas City Roller Warriors. She explained this skater, Jalapeño Business, skated with another Kansas City league, Fountain City Roller Derby, which is a Modern Athletic Derby Endeavor, or M.A.D.E., league.

For those unfamiliar with M.A.D.E., the rules set is different from WFTDA’s, enough so that when players transfer from one league to another, it can be a challenge to learn the new way of playing. We typically welcome each other across the city and if we don’t know each other, we at least know of each other, because we are a niche community that tends to flock together. To my surprise, I didn’t know Jalapeño Business.

As a journalist who likes being able to research my stories ahead of time, I honestly wasn’t sure where to begin with talking to her. I purposely didn’t ask DLNL for insights so I could come in with one objective: to listen. I knew she was Latina; I didn’t know she was a Puerto Rican skater. However, she was quick to tell me how proud she was of her heritage.

From there, we both jumped right in and felt like fast friends. What I found was a vibrant, hilarious woman with rich insights. The longer I’ve sat on this interview, the more I’ve processed it and have been excited to share what we talked about. For full disclosure, she was incredibly nervous about talking to me. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

I started this interview by asking for a simple introduction.

Jalapeño Business stepped down from leadership

DLNL first introduced Jalapeño Business as an owner of Fountain City. Jalapeño quickly clarified that statement: she’s a former owner of Fountain City, and there’s a reason for that.

Understanding the history of Puerto Rico and the U.S.

I want to talk a bit about the history of Puerto Rico at this point, because I find quite often Americans don’t realize it’s been a part of the United States longer than some of our actual states have been.

In fact, Puerto Rico was first inhabited by the indigenous Taínos people. As you may know, Christopher Columbus discovered the island, and the Spanish ultimately colonized it. The island became a port for the Spanish, who found gold and a huge opportunity to build up exports with sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco. They also brought African slave labor, and for about 400 years, Puerto Rico was largely ruled by the Spanish until the country demanded independence, the abolition of slavery, and its own government.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 (I know I personally brushed over this war in school) was fought to bring independence to Cuba after the Spanish sunk a U.S. Naval ship in Havana Harbor. Puerto Rico joined the U.S. in an effort to gain independence from Spain. After a 10-week war fought with no allies on either side, the Treaty of Paris ended the war and the U.S. negotiated to gain temporary control of Cuba. The U.S. also gained ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

It’s important to note that at this point in Puerto Rico’s history, the island looked much like a post-Civil War South. It’s estimated that 2% of the island’s population owned the vast majority—approximately two-thirds—of the land and that about one-third of the island’s residents were descents of slaves who had neither land nor money.

Here’s where things get really eerie: in 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated Puerto Rico by killing over 3,000 people, leaving one of four people without homes, and causing millions of dollars of crop damage that decimated the island’s economy for years to come. In 2017, Hurricane Maria killed almost 3,000 people, caused $90 billion in damage, and is still behind in recovery. Don’t let me forget to mention what else occurred between 1899 and 2017: the Great Depression, and two more hurricanes in 1928 and 1932, which led to even more poverty.

I bring all of this up to make my first point: around 100 years ago, the vast majority of Puerto Rico was poor and uneducated, and now today, poverty and lack of aid has left a United States community completely in shambles.

Furthermore, the U.S. did not grant citizenship to Puerto Rico until 1917, when the U.S. needed young bodies to enter into World War I. It took until 1944 for Puerto Ricans to be allowed to elect their own governor. Today, the 3.2 million American citizens who live in Puerto Rico do not have the right to vote in America’s general elections, and there is a resident commissioner representing Puerto Rico who does not have a vote in Congress.

The Poet Laureate of Kansas is also Puerto Rican

I wanted to pause here and share a poem by Huascar Medina. The more I talked about the interview with Jalapeño Business, my husband suggested I talk to Huascar about his poem, Nuevo American. Huascar, who is a first-generation Puerto Rican and Panamanian immigrant, graciously gave me permission to share this poem. I want to mention that while Huascar is insanely talented, I also know he works several jobs and has yet to complete his degree. The fact that he was named the Poet Laureate of Kansas without a degree speaks volumes of his contribution to the arts (and I would argue should earn him a degree outright). He is also the first Latino poet laureate. When I heard him recite Nuevo American, I knew it belong alongside this story. And when I read this quote, I felt that was even more so the case:

While his work has constantly evolved, Medina said, he now spends much of his time pondering his place as a Latino male in the Midwest, and whether there is any place for him at all.

— Savanna Maue, Topeka Capital-Journal

I share Huascar’s work here with the hopes you will listen and be inspired before you continue to hear the rest of what Jalapeño Business had to say. One can’t deny the similarities between the Poet Laureate of Kansas and a Puerto Rican skater from the Bronx.

What a lack of empathy does within roller derby

Jalapeño Business said she hasn’t always experienced racism, but she recognizes it when she sees it. As a Puerto Rican skater, she struggled after Hurricane Maria with the hatred thrown toward Latin Americans, even within her roller derby community. The result? She protects herself and refuses to open herself up to some within her league.

She talks a lot about how she has felt alone. Even finding a community in roller derby didn’t truly give her a feeling of “community” the way it does for many skaters.

How stereotypes are damaging

Often, people ask stereotypical, uneducated questions about Jalapeño Business’ Puerto Rican heritage. Yet, as she explains her own background, she casually mentions deep insights into who she is. For example, English is her second language, yet she speaks English fluently. She openly discusses the effects of colorism within her family: her family disowned her grandmother for marrying a “black” Puerto Rican and her mother was abused for her dark skin. (For more insights, read this article on an Instagram account called The Darkest Hue, which is fighting against the systemic oppression of colorism.) She talks about her education and how she studied religion and was working to understand Ramadan. It’s obvious she is a highly intelligent woman with a rich cultural understanding, but she also is unafraid to talk about how she edits herself to fit the concept of what others believe her to be as a Latina. I’m fascinated by how wise she is, yet how she plays a role others expect of her.

Can roller derby embrace diversity?

The issues Jalapeño Business experiences in roller derby are similar to those of other skaters of color. She’s largely kept her issues to herself out of fear of retribution as the lone Puerto Rican skater. Still, she suggests people ask more questions to try to understand differences. A great example is how positively the roller derby community has responded to New Zealand’s Team Aotearoa haka dance, which is a posture dance in Māori (the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand) culture. Today, skaters across the globe expect the haka dance from Team Aotearoa at the Roller Derby World Cup. In my opinion, when the derby community demonstrates a willingness to embrace unknown cultures, it is beautiful and worth talking about.

It’s time to be aware

In her final thoughts during our interview, I asked Jalapeño Business what people should be aware of to create a welcoming culture for other Puerto Rican skaters and other skaters of color. Her answer was simple: put in the effort to understand them.

Regrouping with Jalapeño Business

After we initially talked, Jalapeño Business asked if we could have a follow-up conversation. To be candid, she’s been incredibly nervous about backlash from the roller derby community, but as the single Puerto Rican skater in her league, she felt she had to speak up. She wrote out her thoughts and wanted to share that she’s not trying to cause issues, but wants people to understand where she’s coming from.

Final thoughts

I asked Jalapeño Business how other Puerto Rican skaters and skaters of color could feel welcomed in roller derby. We talked a bit about the need for policy changes in derby and for equity discussions to be a regular part of league culture.

I also know has been a lot to process. Much of what we talked about reminded me of the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. This book delves into the history of global power systems and how caste systems affect modern day America. I encourage you to take the time to read it an educate yourself on how these systems are still fully operational within our society and how they’re imported from across the world. It’s a great supplement to what the two of us discussed in our conversations.

I’m grateful she was compelled enough to speak up. For full disclosure, she’s seen the videos and is thrilled with the outcome. It seems she’s shed a bit of her hesitation, but please know it’s still there. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for being open and for listening.

Finally, we leave you with this insight into creating accountability within the roller derby community.

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