By Kaj Dekker
Scene 1: Another sunny day at the Xonaca skate park in Puebla, Mexico. People are skateboarding, filming or having conversations while secretly sharing caguamones, a bottled liter of beer. A group of friends is sitting in the hot sun, enjoying their conversation as well as their beer. Suddenly, one of them challenges a friend. “I call a bet! If the next guy jumping down the stairs makes his trick, I buy you a new board. If he lands the trick, you buy me one, alright?” The friend agrees and they wait until someone approaches the stairs. In the meantime, cigarettes are shared, jokes are made and fun is had. After some time, a skateboarder starts checking out the set of stairs, clearly trying to visualize his trick. As he takes a few steps back to gain some speed for the jump, he accelerates. He approaches the stairs and jumps. In the middle of the jump he fails to get his position straight. As he lands he breaks his board, he sees the bunch of friends going wild. Seemingly out of nowhere a guy comes up to the skater and asks him if he would like to buy a new skateboard. The friends overhear this conversation and whistle to signal the salesman to come over. What does a shop-less salesman do at the skate park of Xonaca? The friends buy a skateboard from him, which he gets from the trunk of his car. They give the old deck to the skater who broke his board. In the end, one skateboarder broke his boards and two got a new one. How does this informal economy come about in a commerce-free setting as the Xonaca skate park?
Scene 2: “Hey everybody! How are you doing? I know you’re thinking ‘what the hell does Denzel Washington know about skateboarding?’ But no. This is your boy Gary Rogers with another episode of Skateline NBD and let’s get to it! Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it!” This is Rogers starting an episode of Skateline, a homemade program on the ins and outs of the world of skateboarding. On November 5, 2013, Rogers gave a rant about a Nike ad running in skateboard videos for a mobile app about to be released. First, he promotes the app, then continues:
“Don’t worry. After the first month you might notice some small, some eeny meeny tiny things. The J in your text messages is now converted into the Nike logo. Your screen is now also camouflaged into a Nike stencil, so you can’t see anything on your phone except the Nike SB app. Then, Nike now owns your phone so you’re no longer part of your actual telephone provider; you’re just a part of Nike.”
Rogers mocks Nike for taking control of the skateboarding scene, and does so in a very entertaining way. This funny approach to situations is very characteristic for the skateboard scene. As Nike is slowly taking over your phone, or the skateboard community in a metaphorical way, the ‘real’ participants of the skateboard scene are still enjoying themselves. While global capitalism is penetrating informal, small-scale commerce, the skateboarding scene is challenging this through creative ways of fun.
This interplay between seriousness and fun is fascinating to me. In Puebla, participants in the skateboard scene engage in an informal economy, buying and selling skateboard products straight from the trunk of a car or in a small shop. This provides the salesman and the consumer with the opportunity to bypass the rules and regulations of the capitalist system while having fun. On the face of it, young Mexican skateboarders do not seem to have much opportunity to combat the capitalist system. Yet, they have tons of fun doing just that, whether deliberate or not. In this ethnographic study, conducted for my Master’s in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, I examine the politics of fun in the skateboarding scene in Puebla, in relation to youthful practices and experiences, creativity, subcultural capital, and ways of engaging with the forces of global capitalism. How does the seriousness of commerce in a global capitalist world correspond to the creative ways skateboarders tend to approach this world? How is this informal economy creatively used to challenge the seemingly dominating force of global capitalism?
In this study I wish to shed light on the collective power of youth. From an outsider perspective the skateboarders in Puebla might look like a bunch of unregulated rascals. While in fact there is a whole shadow economy going on, as well as dreams and aspirations these skateboarders have which are pursued through effort. This research points out that the capitalist system is not at all as powerful as it seems. In fact, there are ways to work around the system and build an alternative structure more comparable to collective effort.
Framing the alternative economy and subculture of skateboarders
My study focuses on the creative ways in which skateboarders provide both entertainment and a living for themselves and, possibly, others around them. An ethnographic study of skateboarding culture can offer us a critical appraisal of the relationship between the politics of fun and the seriousness of global capitalism, by showing that the two are not mutually exclusive. The politics of fun concern the ways power dynamics are engaged in through the use of fun. Moreover, in the case of skateboarders, fun is a key element of their subculture, it is present in all their everyday engagements, thus also their commercial engagements. This made me formulate the following research question: How do participants of the skateboard scene in Puebla, Mexico, use fun as subcultural practice to negotiate the dynamic between small-scale commerce and global capitalism?
The following image can clarify the focus of my research, small-scale commerce, which is part of the informal economy. The alternative economy of skateboarding is based on the wants and desires of the skateboarding community. This alternative economy overlaps with both the formal and informal economy. On the one hand, skateboarding products originate in the formal economy from where they are distributed to the alternative economy, small-scale vendors and ultimately to the skateboarder. On the other hand, products can also originate in the informal economy as so-called pirateria (piracy) products; fake brands of inferior quality. These products are distributed towards the formal economy, sometimes without shop owners being aware that they sell ‘false’ products in their shop. The formal, alternative and informal economy are thus interconnected.
Comaroff and Comaroff (2000) state that the global market exercises decontextualization from the socio-moral pressures of particular locations. This is a blessing in disguise for alternative economies, especially where laws are less restrictive. Opportunities arise in this relative freedom from business restrictions, especially for entrepreneurial youth. Engaging in an informal economy does not require papers or being an adult. Comaroff and Comaroff also argue that, in terms of culture, technology and interest, youth are at the frontier of the transnational, where the global meets the local. By their relative marginalization vis-a-vis the normative order they form a ‘counter nation’ with its own ‘twilight economies’. Since they are not fully accepted citizens, in terms of wage at least, many take it to the streets. In my case literally, since the streets is where skateboarding is practiced and small-scale vendors operate. I don’t know if skateboarders in Mexico unwittingly aspire resistance towards the nation, but they do indeed constitute an alternative economy. Above all, they seem to have a good time running this economy.
I should note that by ‘youth’ I mean participants of the subculture at issue, not young people per se. Since subculture is conceived as a youth culture I speak of ‘youth’ as members of this subculture even though they are not minors. Thornton (1995) states that youth gain prestige from leisure as opposed to adults who acquire prestige from occupation. Youth make do with what they have. This is exactly why they do not resign to their position in this stratified society. As a social category youth tend to aspire autonomy, as the Don’t Do It Foundation shows.
The Don’t Do It Foundation, coming from the brand Consolidated Skateboards, is a movement whose main objective is to keep the skateboarding industry in the hands of skateboarders. They try to make the skateboarding scene aware of the influence of big corporations, as seen in the name which is a spoof for ’Just Do it’; Nike’s slogan. This corporate influence concerns the investment of capital and the consequent loss of ‘feeling’. I see this as an instrumental rationality versus a value-oriented rationality as the Don’t Do It Foundation promotes. Although Consolidated Skateboards is also a company, it is founded by skateboarders and from the love of skateboarding, as opposed to the love of money, which they blame Nike for. On their webpage they state their ideology clearly:
The Snow, Skate and Surf industries were born out of passion. These passionate hands are what nurtures and guides the industry to grow on the proper path. We all have the power to help direct the course of these industries by what we purchase and who we support. We encourage you to empower those companies who were born out of passion rather than those companies who wish to take someone else’s passion down their own path. KEEP OUR INDUSTRY IN PASSIONATE HANDS.
What is it exactly that the Don’t Do it Foundation opposes? Why would one company be ‘tight’ (good) and the other not? This has to do with subcultural capital in relation to legitimacy. Bourdieu (1984) introduced the concepts of habitus, field and capital. Habitus refers to the internalized norms and values of the actor in any particular field, where capital is the quantity of power or prestige the actor can exert in this field. Thornton (1995) has added ‘subcultural capital’ to these concepts. This form of capital is the ‘being in the know’ of a particular subculture. What skateboard movies are hot at the moment? What brands to wear? In short, the do’s and the don’ts of the scene. Subcultural capital can be objectified or embodied. Subcultural capital raises respect in the scene, but when overdone fakers are easily spotted.
Interestingly, skateboarding youth can support the Don’t Do it Foundation, but still choose to wear Nike sneakers because they like the quality or it fits their style. Although this seems contradictory, a skater’s opinion can be in harmony with his taste. This is an interesting position in the apparent contradiction between political stance and cultural practice, which is solely understandable from the perspective of youth culture as cultural practice.
Initially, most work on youth subcultures was done in the neo-Marxist and semiotic tradition of the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies, which mainly described youth cultures as a source of rebellion against mainstream society. Due to this political bias, the CCCS approach overlooks the intrinsic value and significance of everyday practices, though some sophisticated scholars from the CCCS, such as Dick Hebdige and Stuart Hall, do recognize these important aspects and promote a politics without guarantees when looking at youth culture. Youth subcultures can be a source of rebellion but in my opinion this is not the appropriate starting point for my case. I rather agree with Bucholtz, who argues that:
… the explanatory power of resistance becomes less adequate as youth identities move further away from the class-based cultural styles that the concept was designed to account for. [Youth cultures] are better understood as founded on a politics of distinction, in which [cultural taste and practice] is tied not only to pleasure or social identity but also to forms of power. This is a very different kind of oppositionality than is implied by the concept of resistance, for it is based not on a rejection of a powerless structural position but rather on a rejection of an undiscerning mainstream culture. (Bucholtz, 2002: 541)
This politics of distinction links very well to the concept of subcultural capital as a basis for just that. By collectively engaging in the skateboarding subculture instead of conforming to the mainstream culture the skaters create their own realm on the basis of their shared interest in skateboarding instead of traditional class-based divisions. As Beal and Weidman (2003) argue, this realm is largely constituted on the values and norms of authenticity and legitimacy.
Beal and Weidman identify two fundamental differences between traditional youth sports and skateboarding. First, skateboarding is not organized by adults. In this recreational sense, it is an autonomous activity. It is up to the skaters what, when and how to go about it. Second, it does not rely on competition. Again, in the recreational sense it does not, in a professional sense it can. Professional skateboarders can compete in contests where each rider has several minutes in a skate park to show his skills. But only a small group of pros participate in these contests. Most prefer working on video parts, consisting of a series of tricks accompanied by a song. As one my respondents, Morado, put it: “[I prefer] working on a video part because it’s more real. [..] I think skateboarding is, well, it’s from the streets”. The skateboarders in Beal and Weidman’s research make clear that skateboarders feel free and able to express themselves owing to the lack of formality in non-professional skateboarding. Still, there is discipline in skateboarding, as another respondent, Krusty clarifies:
“Yeah, much is discipline, it’s not just getting on a board. Many drink, many smoke. Like this is just what people see you know? But behind this there is a discipline, because a body doesn’t endure all these slams or all this exhaustion. There is discipline in this, you have to be organized”.
The discipline, though, remains informal. This lack of formality is what makes skateboarding so creative. Beal and Weidman define creativity in skateboarding as the opportunity to set one’s own standards and not having a judge. This in contrast with traditional sports since in skateboarding there is nothing comparable to a trainer who will force a schedule on a skateboarder. There are no outside demands, rules or qualifications. This freedom can be filled creatively in a personal manner, as a collective. Skateboarders feel creative and free while practicing skateboarding, since in skateboarding they have the privilege to set their own standards. No other person can order anyone to do a certain trick in a certain way. The style, location and choice of tricks are all up to the skateboarder. Furthermore, creativity also emerges in the interaction between skateboarders. I perceive skateboarders in general as very creative in finding ways to entertain themselves. This creativity in having fun, with or without ordinary means to do so, intrigues me. Finally, creativity is also useful in managing a business. What are good, fun tactics to make a business get by?
In focusing on the issue of fun in this research, I hold an analytical distinction between the concepts of ‘fun’ and ‘play’. In his classic book, Homo Ludens, Huizinga (1938) argued that play is distinct from everyday life and that there is no profit to be gained from play. However, my case shows that play actually is everyday life for skateboarders, since the freedom and creativity in skateboarding breaks down any boundary between a ‘play realm’ and the ‘real world’. This breaking of boundaries is what skaters achieve through their playfulness, that is, fun. Their engagement in an informal economy shows that profit can indeed be gained from playful practices, from fun.
I define fun as an emotion that follows from a subjective manner to provide entertainment for oneself and possibly others. Fun is a state of being and can in addition be strategic, as the word ‘politics’ implies. Play on the other hand is typically associated with games. A game is not essential for fun, as it is for play. Fun is an affect that can arise from play as well as from commerce, or any other dimension of life. The skateboarders’ perception of fun offers a window into their subjectivity. This subjectivity is lived in the moment, which is what makes it captivating, contextual and embodied. Furthermore, fun adds legitimacy to the small-scale salesmen, it gives them a degree of subcultural capital. In order to acknowledge fun in this very broad sense I prefer this term over play as a central concept in my research. My respondent Gato showed me that fun is even broader than I initially thought it was:
“Well, I say that fun is like love right? It’s a form of love. I mean, if you do everything while having fun, you are in the act of loving no?”
The research and the scene in Puebla
I conducted this ethnographic study through three months of fieldwork, living with, and following skateboarders in Puebla wherever they went in order to unravel their perspectives on fun and small-scale commerce. As a result of a previous visit to Puebla I was already familiar with the relatively new skateboard scene that has emerged here since a few years. Because of this former visit, gaining access to the skateboard scene was extremely easy. Spending time with the skaters in Puebla is, for me, just like spending time with friends in Amsterdam. As a fellow skateboarder and friend I am blessed with this opportunity to delve deeply into their lifeworld. By participating in the skateboard scene of Puebla, and living with and spending considerable time with my respondents, I have become familiar with this scene on such a level that I have developed a deep understanding of the skaters’ performance and perception of fun as well as their engagement with the forces of global capitalism through small-scale commerce.
Since fun is a social construct based in practice I decided on following my respondents rather than being attached to specific locations. The skate park of Xonaca was normally the place to meet up. After skateboarding we would get some beers and drink in front of a skate shop next to the skate park. What happened next was quite diverse and could go from hanging around and having some beers in the car while driving or making a house party out of this. Mariwas shows the normativity of drinking beer quite vividly when talking about an appropriate time for drinking.“Eh, in the weekends, or when I don’t have anything to do, or when it’s warm, or after dinner.”
Besides participant observation I conducted semi-structured interviews. These interviews were about past events where the politics of fun were practiced and how a skateboarding entrepreneur manages his small-scale business. In addition, I held unstructured interviews, or rather, recorded informal conversations. I chose to do so since recording interviews in a hot car to avoid the noise of bypassing traffic changed the normal order of interaction. Normally the skaters know me as a fellow skater, or friend. But the situation naturally became more formal when I came by with a list of written questions. In order to relax my informants I chose to switch to unstructured interviews without preparation. These proved to be much more casual in terms of the respondent’s answers.
During my fieldwork it was quite hard finding a balance between work and fun, which is very indicative for my research. When writing reports, more often than not friends would invite me to pass some time. There was not much understanding on their side about my studies; why could I not do my work some other day? Frequently friends or neighbors would knock on my door and drop by with some beers, indicative of the collectivist Mexican society. I can safely state that I had a lived experience in regard of the complications when fun (personal interest) and work (research) are intertwined. This was hard at times but in retrospect I enjoyed experiencing this complicated dynamic between work and fun in Puebla.
Mexico’s fourth largest city, Puebla hosts the largest number of universities in the country after Mexico City. This makes it attractive to students from all over Mexico since the universities here are more accessible than Mexico City’s. This reputation as a student city gives rise to a large student population, and correspondingly there are skateboarders coming from all over the country. My respondents are mostly males, aged 19 to 30, with the exception of youthful 39-year-old Burpe. They have finished or are currently involved in further non-compulsory education. Some work, some do not, some have started their own skateboard brands and some have not. The skaters are generally middle class since the lower classes live their lives in a different socioeconomic and cultural sphere and are thus unlikely to be involved in skateboarding, although the skate park of Xonaca is situated near a barrio (ghetto). This made local kids as well as varilles (thugs) come by the park every now and then. Varilles are even more common when skating street spots, because these spots can be practically anywhere, including barrios. But danger on the streets of Puebla is perceived as something quite normal. According to Krusty:
“In Mexico it’s something insecure, but it’s not always like this. It’s simply when it happens, you understand? Yeah, when they get you they get you. It’s not every day but you always have to watch out.”
Oddly, this big city only became host to some skate parks since 2010. Morado is not very pleased about this: “I think we are still very, very backward. Well, you’ve seen that Puebla is a big city right? And there’s only like three skate parks that function!” How skateboarding exactly came about in Mexico remains unclear to me due to the lack of relevant literature on this topic. But in terms of significance, for the skaters the origin of their beloved activity in Puebla is more focused on oral histories than it is on historical facts. Burpe would be the most knowledgeable on this subject due to his age and long-time involvement in the scene.
According to Burpe, skateboarding emerged when Mexicans brought skateboards back from trips to the United States in the 1980s. Burpe started skating when growing up in the mid-1980s. He had a neighbor who passed by his house on the sidewalk on an old-school skateboard with clay wheels. Seeing this, he could not imagine that anybody could perform tricks on this piece of wood with four wheels underneath. His neighbor regularly visited the United States and would bring back professional skateboards to Puebla. Burpe had never seen a professional skateboard before, just the plastic skateboards from the toy store. He initially knew no other people skateboarding besides his neighbors. One of them came from Pennsylvania and knew some tricks, he taught Burpe how to do the basics like an Ollie (jumping on a skateboard), backside, frontside (jumping while making a 180° turn; back- and frontside refer to the direction). These neighbors would also sell Burpe their old skateboards so that he could skate as well. The early banda (crew) consisted of around ten kids, they would all go and practice skateboarding together. Occasionally someone would bring a camera and they would imitate the professional videos they had seen on VHS. This period in his life was a lot of fun and very padre (cool), Burpe explained:
“In the holidays we would meet up very early and go out to skate. We had our spots; La Flor, La Margarita, Plaza Dorada and Paseo Bravo. We always got by on skateboard. We made a parade [skating in a line with the crew] to a spot, we skated, we went to the store to buy frituras [fried food], sodas, we hydrated ourselves! And from there we skated to another spot, I mean, we never used transport, besides skateboards that is. And yeah, it was fun because it wasn’t common to see another skater on the streets. When seeing another skater it would be like; chido [cool]! What brand is your skateboard? Which brand are your wheels? Because it wasn’t very common, it was not like today, right? That you see a skater, he sees you, and yeah, they give you a dirty look.”
According to Burpe, back in the days the scene was more like a brotherhood. Because the scene had very few participants, the skaters became relatively close to one another. Now the situation has become more complicated, due to an increase in broken homes and drugs abuse, which is giving the scene a bad name.
“It’s different now, right? Nowadays there’s more, I don’t know, negligence? There are a lot of kids I know and their moms are, well, they’re single moms you know. And they work, so I guess the kids don’t get much attention at home. […] At a certain point, an abandoned kid comes to the park and we have had some cases. They repeatedly get too much into mona [paint thinner which is sniffed], well, into very cheap drugs. And also alcohol, I mean, they shape up to be teporochos [drunkards]. Besides that we’re rejected (or outcasts) in society as skaters, for the image or what we stand for, we rejected these chavos [kids] even more”.
Burpe reasons that the kids feel lonelier now than they did in the past. To fight this, the kids need to leave the mona. His generation grew up in solid families, there were not that many problems with drug addiction. Now there is mona and inhalants, kids use whatever is cheap and affects them the most, while in Burpe’s time the drug of choice was mainly mota (weed).
As is often the case with feelings of nostalgia, Burpe feels that the skate scene was more ‘pure’ in the past. It was not ‘rotten’ by drugs, broken homes or gangs as it is now. When skateboarding in Puebla, especially at the Xonaca skate park, we often see kids who use mona pass by, recognizable by their worn-out faces and the typical fist under their nose as a manner to sniff the paint thinner. Among the skaters with whom I interacted on a deeper level this drug was not consumed and severely looked down upon. Though consuming mona is mocked rather frequently, as shown in the picture above. The skaters I spent time with all had their fair share of problems, but I never heard of any complaints about broken homes or severe money problems.
Recently the scene is becoming more like a community again. In 2010 the Xonaca skate park was built, owing to Burpe’s efforts This is one of the better skate parks in Mexico and has thus given a great boost to the skateboarding scene in Puebla. Since then, some other skate parks have also been built in Puebla. The skaters now have solid locations to meet up and skate together, whereas previously they would use any pavement without too many cracks to practice skateboarding. Surely a skater would not run into many other skaters in such a big city without designated locations to practice skating. This rediscovered sense of community is clearly expressed in collective practices of fun.
Typical for the skateboarders’ style of conduct is to challenge others with offensive jokes. A person who is really adept in this is called a castroso; someone who grabs you by the balls. This is quite a telling name, since this is actually how it is experienced, someone grabs you by the balls and does not let go. You have to watch out, be aware, since the person holding your balls might just make unexpected movements. On the face of it this seems quite unfriendly, as I initially experienced it myself. Later, I realized that this is actually a method to include others into the group. As Mariwas put it: “If they don’t fuck with you, they don’t accept you!” By this he means that if a person is not mocked, he is most likely excluded from the group. Thus, in order to show good companionship it is expected to “chingar” (fuck around) with friends. This is a clear indicator of the politics of fun as practiced in everyday life, as a sign of collectivity.
The significance of collective fun is most evident in the event of parties. While in a car ride to Cotonete’s birthday party Cotofest, I asked Morado and Kinder what they were looking forward to at this party:
Morado: “Beers, bitches, mini-ramp, fun.“
Kinder: “Mini-ramp, skateboarding, musica chida [cool], I think everything is going to be fun at the party. We’re having a party attitude today!“
Morado: “I want to spend some time with the gang, have some good times together, no? Who knows what Cotofest holds in store for us, but I’m sure there’s gonna be many smiles.”
Throughout my fieldwork there were many parties. Nearing the end of my stay I also had a goodbye party, almost all of my friends were present. Not everyone would fit into my reasonably big house, about ten people would hang out on the patio. Everyone got drunk from the aguas locas (crazy water; 20 liters of water, any cheap liquor at hand mixed with lemonade powder). As the sun rose and most of the guests had left, some of us kept drinking on the roof until about 11 in the morning. One friend, Chino, had gotten very drunk during the night. He had desperately tried to hook up with the girls present, all of them. He fell asleep at sunrise. Since I had no furniture, there were not many places to sleep comfortably. Chino had passed out on the sleeping sofa. When I woke up in the afternoon, three friends were still hanging around, drinking and having fun. As I entered the living room they told me enthusiastically: “No way, Kaj! Chino tried to kiss Mariwas when they were sleeping together on the sleeping sofa!” Apparently, Chino was still in the mood to hook up and tried so with a male friend while sleeping. This caused great laughs and we continued to mock Chino with it to this day.
The amusing part is the twisting of social norms. Chino was mocked for allegedly being gay while he is clearly not. This is an indicator of the heteronormative masculine society in which the skaters of Puebla were clearly embedded. Yet it is also about more than that. The question is who has the ‘right’ to mock others for certain behavior? This has to do with legitimacy and subcultural capital. A skater with sufficient subcultural capital can get away with jokingly insulting others. The skater’s subcultural capital grants him the legitimacy to practice this form of fun.
But when I asked the skaters in my interviews what they themselves would consider fun, besides skateboarding, or what fun really means to them, the responses I got indicated broader meanings than the politics of mocking suggest, rather pointing to an attitude in life. Krusty’s response:
“Well, look at life this way, in a positive manner, no? Don’t look at anything in a negative way. […] If you look positively at everything, you’re enjoying yourself. […] If you look negatively at everything, that’s bad. You fill yourself with negative ideas and things can happen to you, or you won’t do anything in your life. So it’s indispensable, absolutely, dedicating your life to something you like. So that you can live happily, because if you do something that you don’t like, I don’t think you could live very happily.”
Krusty feels the way a person approaches things in life will reflect back on him. It is up to oneself whether to be positive or negative. In this sense fun is a choice. If fun is a choice, fun can be developed by agency. Thus, fun is a conscious state that can be acquired by the effect of taking action. For Krusty, fun signifies keeping a positive attitude as a person. While talking with Morado in the heat of his closed car next to Xonaca skate park, Morado elaborated on another aspect of fun:
“For me, what I like a lot in skateboarding, apart from enjoying myself, well, is that I can hang out with people with whom I would otherwise never had the possibility to hang out, right? For example, in this case it’s you, you’re from Holland. […] If I wouldn’t be skating, I mean, I could see you on the street and think ‘ah well, it’s a güero [blondy] and that’s that. So, its very pleasing that you can really broaden your horizon, your frontiers. And be thankful for that piece of wood that can help you get to know other states, as well as other countries, other forms of thinking […] that stick with you as well as other cultures and friends.”
Morado values the social aspect of skateboarding, not only for its sociability, but also to increase his social capital. He can make friends and even learn how to better himself by the way he sees others’ approach to life. He can get acquainted with people he would normally not engage with. Instead of simply raising his social capital he wishes to expand his social circle with associates that he considers ‘special’ in the sense that he would ‘normally’ not engage with them. Burpe has a similar view. When asked what he likes about the skateboarding scene, Burpe tells enthusiastically:
“Well, I like to start off with, when you really encounter people that are in the same canal [state of mind] as you right? I mean, the brotherhood, the unity. Like skateboarding is a link for me to, to get to know people, to realize my dreams, right?”
Since these skaters are all male, perhaps a female perspective can provide a different perception of fun. Explaining the difference between her skateboarding and non-skateboarding friends, Mónica (23) mentions that the skaters “smoke weed all day, and that’s okay, I told you I like that,” she considers that fun as well. Mónica feels a connection to the skaters because of the consumption of weed. Further on in the interview she speaks about skateboarding being the only sport she likes to watch, for two reasons. She likes the guys who skateboard and she likes that it is radical, there is some danger involved. Like Mónica, many other girls are attracted to the practice of skateboarding as well as to the skateboarders. For the skateboarders this is interesting since they have an interest towards girls correspondingly. Getting attention from girls could be seen as a consequence of having fun. In sum, for the skateboarders, fun is about sociability in various respects. Fun, as subcultural capital, is deployed to gain social capital, including popularity among girls.
As mentioned, subcultural capital is the ‘being in the know’ of a particular subculture (Thornton, 1995). Subcultural capital can also be displayed to demonstrate legitimacy in the skateboarding scene. Thereby, personal benefits can be gained. A good skateboarder, for example, uses his skills in skateboarding and converts this to popularity, which is social capital. This can subsequently be used to rise in the symbolic field, to gain prestige. Morado explained this as follows:
“You get popular because you’re the center of attention. Inside and outside the skate scene. For example, if there are 100 guys skating, and three are really good, the rumors will start about the three good guys right? And these rumors will reach everyone, because of that you might gain some popularity. […] I don’t want to brag but I’m somewhat known in other states besides Puebla. It’s simply because I have travelled [to other states in Mexico], they’ve gotten to know me. I’ve been working on that, […] when I come around and many banda [gang] go ‘Órale [wow] you skate good! Where are you from? Puebla, ah! Órale, so unas chelas [some beers]!’ So, that’s how you increase your circle, and they will get to know you like this.[…] Krusty is somewhat less known. […] He is very good! He has the best style in Puebla in my opinion, he is very relaxed and makes his tricks really smooth and clean [without effort], but he doesn’t go outside of Puebla.”
Here Morado explains that fame can be gained by getting exposure. If a skater gets noticed, he can increase his social circle. Firstly, his skateboarding skills speak for itself and will draw attention. This attention can be seen as prestige or respect. If a skater acquires prestige, or fame, the logical result is a bigger social circle. This social circle is the skater’s social capital. A skater rises in the field of popularity with important players in his social circle. Simply by good skateboarding, a skater comes into contact with others. To acquire more fame, Morado perceives it as a necessity to visit other states in Mexico to broaden his social circle. By deploying subcultural capital as a starting point, his social and symbolic capital can be increased. With sparks in his eyes Morado continues:
“The morras [chicks] always look for the alpha macho. You might not be particularly handsome physically, but if you skate well you take the chick’s attention. It’s always like that; ‘Uy! He is the best and I want to be with the best’. […] The girls just come suddenly and look at the guys skating. After a while a chava [girl] came up to me: ‘Hey! What’s your name?’ And well, then you start building a friendship and start going out in groups and well, then you get with her. […] It’s also something strange, right, I mean, you get chicks but they are not real [honest]. Yeah, several times you have to ask them, Oye! You like me because I skate or because of who I am? You are the best for 2, 3 days and bye! I mean, you don’t want a girlfriend that just wants to be with you for that!”
Morado mentions standing out in skateboarding as a criterion for getting girls’ attention. These girls notice the prestige of the skater by his social capital, they see the skater making contact with other skaters. The girls also take notice of the subcultural capital of the skater; what does he look like, what brands does he wear, and whether he pulls it off smoothly. The incentive for these girls is quite similar to the skaters’. If the girl is able to connect with a popular skater, his prestige will reflect on her as well. Morado’s experience with girls is not unusual. When skateboarding with Morado it occurred several times that a girl asks us for our names or if she could take pictures of us skateboarding. Sometimes a girl would tell us that a friend of hers liked one of us, Morado was not very charmed by that and would blow it off quite fast: “If she does not even dare to talk to me in the first place, how is this ever going to be fun?”
While skateboarding in Mexico I was asked several times if I happened to be a professional skateboarder. This was probably because of my white skin, indicating a tendency for people to associate white skin with something ‘better’, in terms of higher value, better qualities and thus higher in rank. My skin color gave me symbolic capital. This capital was then, automatically by getting approached, transferred to social capital. As demonstrated above, social capital is in itself a source of fun in Mexico. This means that by having white skin this can ultimately lead to increasing my social circle, ergo having fun. There are many dark-skinned professional skateboarders and my skateboarding skills indicate clearly that I am not a professional. Skaters with sufficient subcultural capital would recognize this. Thus, when asked if I was a professional, this revealed more about the person asking the question than to whom the question was directed.
Besides increasing the skater’s social, cultural and symbolic capital there are other forms that I see as indicators of the politics of fun. Now that I have sketched how fun is practiced and subcultural capital is deployed by skateboarders in Puebla, I want to move on to how these subcultural entrepreneurs perceive fun in their businesses and how they deploy subcultural capital in their interactions with costumers.
Managing subcultural businesses
One day I went to visit Burpe’s shop and saw that he had jeans for sale. Burpe’s products were on and off, when he happened to have some products in stock he would sell those, if he did not have anything he would not make any sales. I was checking out jeans as he was eating next door in a restaurant. He opened up his shop for me and left me alone to try on some of the jeans. It was nice of him to trust me alone in his shop. I checked out the jeans and came to the conclusion that I liked them. He told me the public price was $350 (E 19,80), for me he would make it $300 (E17). I decided to buy three pairs. Because of this he lowered the price again, $750 (E42,40) for all three, and if I wanted to, I could pay later as well.
I was still looking through the jeans as two girls entered the store. Burpe started cuddling with them. “I like your little skirt,” Burpe said, which seemed closer to a belt than a dress. The conversation went from talking about clothing to when she would invite Burpe to her house and ultimately turned to the subject of alcohol. One of the girls said: “Pull out the tequila!” And so Burpe did pull out the tequila. Later that afternoon he told me the two girls live together and might be into a threesome. They just left and Burpe intensely hoped they would just go for a stroll and would return shortly after. What does this all mean for Burpe’s forms of capital?
Burpe allowed his shop to be a social meeting place, there would always be people in his shop just hanging out. From the afternoon onwards he would have beers with friends or girls. Since Burpe designed the park and has been involved in the national skate scene for an extensive period, he has acquired much subcultural capital. This is, just as Morado does, converted into social capital. The skaters at Xonaca skate park would usually have some beers with Burpe after, or while, skateboarding. Since drinking publicly is forbidden and severely checked on by the police, beers would be consumed in his shop. Likewise, smoking mota would be done in a car nearby to prevent the police from smelling the substance. This resulted in a steady stream of customers visiting the small store. It is considered chido to hang around with such a big player in the scene. .
Chapa also owns a skate shop a few streets down from Burpe’s. This shop is less frequented by customers, probably because Chapa is relatively new to the skate scene in Puebla. He moved to Puebla from Mexico City seven months before the start of my research. Before opening his shop, he made a living selling products at skate parks straight from his backpack. One day I came by his shop to buy trucks and wheels. After discussing the quality and origin of the products, we came to the moment of payment:
“Look, the American trucks I have for $510 and the wheels I have for $280, the Mexican ones. I can let you have the trucks for $490 and the wheels for $260. We make discounts in all forms so that the goods keep flowing. Well, so that [people] can get to know the brands and this shop. […] So, I’m gonna give you the check. Those are $490, for the two of them. We have the wheels for $260 and the hardware [screws] for $40. That makes $790 pesos. I don’t have change though. […] One, two, three, four, five, seven, eight hundred. Thank you very much. I will give you a bag, oh, are you going to take it in your backpack? Look, a gift. I give you some stickers, I don’t have the one from Meejo! [his brand] but here, I can give you some magazines as well.”
Chapa presents himself as very familiar with me. I met him while skating around but before the interview we had not talked much. He gives me small discounts up to $40 (E2,20). Occasionally Chapa comes by the skate park to announce that he has new products. If lucky, he will give you a first look, before others have a chance to pick their favorite products. What is interesting is that he hands out stickers, which is very good for his own promotion. Besides stickers he hands out magazines as well. It is common practice for skateboard shops all over the world to hand out magazines when selling something more expensive than usual. Skateboard magazines are relatively expensive, they cost about 6 or 7 Euro’s. When a salesperson is prepared to give magazines for free this is very much appreciated by the customer. The shops probably receive these magazines from brands to promote sales, they lose no money on handing out magazines from other brands, they simply create a personal ambiance with their customers. Burpe did the same with magazines, Gato did not.
Gato is considered the most successful shop owner in Puebla. Besides owning the brand Viva Skateboards, he owns a shop in the upscale shopping center Las Animas. Giro Skate is a small shop, as are most skate shops, with average prices. A deck would cost about $350 (20 Euro) including the griptape. Giro Skate has all a skateboarder needs right in stock, including trucks, wheels, bearings, t-shirts, hoodies, shoes, caps and much more. Besides running his shop Gato is quite famous for his exceptional skills in filming and editing skateboard clips. He also manages a skateboard team, always pushing the seven riders on his team to the limits to make them go bigger, faster, harder. When I asked Gato how he helps his team riders, he responds:
“Well, I give them everything. […] I mean, when we go on a trip I pay everything for them, I give them decks. Around 4 decks a month for each rider. And well, wheels, bearings, everything they are going to need I give it to them. Clothing, everything, everything.”
This is of course only for the skaters on his team. One of these skaters, though, told me a different story. He said he did not know if he could even get a skateboard off of Gato. Gato did not always call when they went filming and when he did, it was quite often that he had already left before the skater arrived. This made the skater a bit insecure. In his mind the deal was that he would obtain footage (clips of his tricks) to get the benefits of the sponsorship deal. In the end he did not get the ‘clothing, everything, everything’ which Gato says he supplies to his team riders. But how does Gato go about the ordinary customers who are not on his team? Gato explains:
“For example the photographer is a super good friend. I mean, this friend tells me ‘Oye [listen up] I need a deck’, so I give it to him. Also, there are several kids that I don’t sponsor or anything like that but, well, I don’t know, I see that they’re really enjoying themselves and really don’t have any money to go forward in this. I give them a hand at times with decks and stuff. Maybe not new decks but the ones that get left here I give them to the kids.”
Gato helps the kids who lack the means to buy skateboards for themselves. As a result, these kids look up to him. Among these children Gato’s subcultural capital as a famous shop owner is very high. This information is likely to go from word to mouth, granting him a steady stream of loyal young customers. Besides friends I am still curious how Gato helps out acquaintances who visit his shop:
“Acquaintances I give a discount. I mean, I don’t give them stuff but the majority, for example, I skate a lot in Pueblo Nuevo [local skatepark] and then it’s like, ‘Oye, Gato, how much for a deck?’ $350 I tell them, but for you its $310. I mean, I give them a discount but it’s not much, like 30 or 40 pesos. So they can pay for the trip to the shop, or whatever, buy a sandwich or something. […] Apart from the discount, it’s service, right? I’m always like ‘Ah, órale, what’s up! How’ve you been?’ And I skate with them. I really relate to the people. [It’s good for business] because if you don’t have a good character people say ‘why would I give my money to him, behind the fact that I give him my money, I’ve got to bear with him, no?”
Gato gives the people he knows by face small discounts, since this will bind the customer to him. In addition, his high status in the subcultural field, being well-known in the skateboarding scene, certainly helps his business as well. When a customer has the feeling of being included in Gato’s social circle, by obtaining discounts as an indicator of friendship, the customer feels as if he is also an important player in the scene. This experience makes the customer return in order to maintain this ‘friendship’.
When talking with Gato in the office above his skate shop, he told me the name Giro started off as a joke. The shop also started as a joke as he initially saw his business as a game. Gato explained:
“Look man, before there was this thing MSN Messenger. When you wrote ‘Giro:/’ there would appear a moving image of two homosexuals that were going at it. One of the dudes was using his thing to make giros [turns, like a helicopter]”.
This is yet another instance of turning social norms upside down. Normally it is not considered chido (cool) to like homosexual activities. But when homosexuality is mocked, this is considered amusing. Gato goes on: “So we were always telling the others ‘we’re going to give you a giro!’. Krusty and Ivan named us the giros, and after that we made a blog and named it Giro Skating.” Eventually this blog grew into his skate shop. Nowadays Gato can get away with this joke owing to his acquisition of different forms of capital. If ‘a nobody’ would explain this origin of naming, it would be frowned upon at least. Since Gato is an important player in the scene, he is able to position himself in a vulnerable position regarding the origin of the name of his shop.
Gato also makes a joke of the title of his upcoming full-length skateboarding film, Chido Tu Cotorreo. This can be translated as ‘cool talk, man’ which is intended sarcastically. In Mexico this is a famous expression due to an internet meme, as displayed here. In this context chido tu cotorreo can be translated into: ‘I don’t care about what you’re saying at all’, and is used when someone is telling an uninteresting story. Krusty and some of his friends are also working on an independent full-length film that has a double-meaning word joke, or albur, in its title. They decided on the name Roll Away. Pronounced in Spanish this sounds like ‘rola, wey’, which means ‘pass it on, dude’. Undoubtedly this is a reference to passing on a joint. It could also be interpreted as ‘keep rolling away’, just keep on rolling those joints or your skateboard.
As these examples show, the social and the joking aspect of fun are inseparable from skateboarding entrepreneurialism. But it is always also more than that. Whether in enterprise or in everyday practice, skateboarding is their passion, their joy in life. Gato explains:
“I dedicate myself to filming a lot. I like making clips a lot and film all of that. […] And photography, all of this motivates me. […] Well, when you land a trick, the part where you’re [actually] landing a trick, I mean, you get filled with emotion in this moment, it’s something you can’t explain, no? I mean, only someone who skates would understand this. You land a trick and all your friends come up and congratulate you. It’s frustrating when you can’t make a trick, but afterwards the joy comes.”
Gato gets filled with joy when his friends come up to him and go wild over a trick he just made. On moments like that, any boundary between business and enjoyment is irrelevant. But this is not to say there are no such boundaries whatsoever.
Blurry boundaries: Burpe’s effort
Around 6 ‘o clock in the evening several people were still skateboarding at Xonaca. It was very hot and as the day came to an end, everyone was quite relaxed. A few people next to me started rolling a joint. While lighting it, Burpe walked by with a woman and two men. The woman started taking pictures of the guys smoking while Burpe desperately tried to get her away from them. After the woman had left, Burpe came rushing back, furiously angry while throwing rocks:
“Why are you guys destroying what I build? Don’t be pendejos [assholes]! Who lighted it! Do you smoke outside of your house as well? You, I help you get your skateboards, pinche pendejo [fucking asshole]! And you, you think you can do whatever you wants because you make a lot of money, pinche pipope [fucking pipope, an insult for people from Puebla, Pinche Poblano Pendejo, as people from Puebla are alleged to be picky and demanding]!”
The woman who accompanied Burpe appeared to be the wife of the head of the municipality. She came to inspect the park before she would give funding to Burpe’s association Copapue to support an upcoming skateboarding event. Burpe’s anger shows that unwritten rules were broken and lines concerning fun were crossed, lines that Burpe drew. I talked with him about this incident a few days later:
“Well, it’s like giving these people motives to stop supporting whenever I apply for help again, no? […] They judge you by your looks or your actions wey [man]. And it bothers me that, well, they do that. Because the police can come independently or people from the government or town hall. I mean, parents come with their kids. It changes into a place where people don’t want to bring their kids to practice skateboarding. […] I mean, they discredit us. The police extort us, I mean, I smoke, but not in public sight. I look for a small corner or a quiet place.”
After addressing the ‘normal’ issues concerning smoking in Xonaca, he switched to the particular incident of some days before:
“One [person] challenged me right? Like ‘what! Everyone smokes here’, others kept silent, didn’t know what to say. [One skater] for example made excuses, because he… For me he is the image of Puebla, he’s an outstanding skateboarder and if he does this in public I can’t keep on supporting someone like that, right? […] Don’t be pendejos! I explained the situation to them; don’t give the police any reason, they come and they know we are no delinquents but the way mota is criminalized over here.. […] They notice you because it smells right? And they will get some of your money, get your phone and yeah they send you to the authorities. Who likes this? I don’t like this to happen to me. It happened to me before and I said it’s enough, no? And they [the skaters] look like they like this situation but, really, it comes back as something that damages us because it really affects the image of the park.”
For Burpe this is about keeping a good image for the park and the skateboarders who are already dealing with stigmatization. Burpe is always in front of his shop looking at ‘his’ skate park. Surely he has no official authority to say what can and cannot happen here. But since he designed the park and made sure it was built properly, he obtained a degree of legitimacy to speak out on matters concerning the park. Burpe obtains this legitimacy through his subcultural capital that grants him his voice to be heard. For some this proved to be difficult, such as the skaters challenging him during this weed incident. Ultimately Burpe knows he has no official power, just an informal way in which he can exert influence. Still, because of his subcultural capital his voice is considered to have more weight than another skater’s voice in this type of situation.
It seems Burpe has a strong opinion regarding certain ways of practicing fun, such as smoking weed, and he draws imaginary lines where he considers these practices (in)appropriate. These lines are subjective and not made in consensus. For Burpe these lines are very clear, this is why he gets upset with others not taking notice of these lines. By giving, or rather shouting, his opinion right in the face of the skaters after the woman left the park, he indicates his subtle form of power, his legitimacy based on his deep involvement in the skateboarding scene. While all skaters have the same amount of rights to speak out, Burpe can actually have his voice heard because of his familiarity with many people within, as well as outside, the skateboarding scene in Puebla. Because of his social and symbolic capital, Burpe’s opinion is taken more seriously than that of any other person who would let his voice be heard. Subcultural capital is thus again deployed as an indicator of legitimacy in the skateboarding scene. In Burpe’s case, formal recognition from the municipality lends further weight to his legitimacy. Ultimately, though, it is not the formal but informal recognition that allows him to get his way, as the following example illustrates.
Burpe with the Governor of Puebla
On March 22, 2014, Burpe organized the first skateboarding contest of the season at the Xonaca skate park. He put quite an effort into organizing this event. As is normally done with such events, several sponsors were approached and confirmed their willingness to give sponsorship (some two or three thousand Pesos) in order to make the event happen. However, DIF (Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, a Mexican public institution engaged in social work) retreated as a sponsor just two days before the event was scheduled. Perhaps they withdrew their support due to the weed incident? This posed a problem for Burpe, because now he was lacking money for the event. He already did the publicity, so the skaters in Puebla were expecting a contest on March 22. This is what Burpe had to say about the incident:
“Sss, it was like a different cause right? For the DIF municipality, that helped us [his civil association Copapue] with paint [to paint the skate park] and prizes [to hand out at contests]. But two days before the event they cancelled it out! This was quite unexpected. We had to get support quickly, in two days, in order to not cancel the event, because that’s lame. So I asked other brands for their support. That wasn’t hard, it was pretty easy. I just explained the situation and quickly they told me, ‘yeah, I’ll give you a board and a t-shirt’. I’ve told you; obviously I put in a part as well, no? Yeah, in this case it was just my own personal money. It wasn’t that much, I think this event was like, I don’t know. It was a contest of two or three thousand pesos [112-170 Euros]. Ey, I mean, it’s not much, but well, if you sum it all up, the expenses are like three thousand pesos.”
Due to the DIF retreating their funds, Burpe was unable to hold the contest because of the expenses of the sound system, prizes for the winners and all other expenses. But when he threw his social capital in the mix he was very quick to find other brands, most likely owned by fellow skateboarders, to step in and make the event come through. Burpe does all this voluntarily, I doubt he paid anyone to help organize this contest. Particularly interesting is that he never considered cancelling the contest because that would be ‘mala onda’. This can be translated as; giving a bad vibe or being lame. He did not want to let the skaters down after spreading the word about the contest. Therefore he pulled out some money of his own pocket.
Flyer for the contest Burpe organized
The brands that do help sponsor these events quite often do not give Burpe only money to pay for expenses but products as well. He usually gets half of the sponsorship in cash and the other half in products which he can then sell in his small shop. For the sponsoring brand it is an advantage to send products instead of money. It is likely that they spend less money on manufacturing these products than they might earn from selling them.
To me the most interesting aspect in this case is that Burpe was not willing to let the commercial forces, the necessity of sponsors, win over having good times. He even went as far as putting in his own money to make the contest happen. Indeed, he cannot let the scene down if it has given him so much. This tension between commerce and fun, the support versus the contest, is ultimately overcome with the help of his social and symbolic capital. Befriended brand owners are willing to help Burpe out in sponsoring an event. This might be on account of their friendship, his longtime involvement in the scene, or a combination of these two. However, while the subcultural economy of skateboarders in Puebla might thus seem to be self-sufficient, skateboarding entrepreneurs still face dilemmas in their relationship to the formal economy.
Dilemmas of going formal
According to Fidel, the person I lived with in Mexico, to enjoy copyright protection a skateboarding entrepreneur will have to register at IMPI (Instituto Mexicano de la Propiedad Industrial). To obtain a business license he needs to go to SAT (Sistema de Administración Tributaria), which is part of the hacienda, the ministry of finance where shops and brands have to be officially registered. But not all entrepreneurs go through this trouble. It is possible and not uncommon to maintain a shop without registration but with the occasional mordida, a bribe to the police. However, the hacienda provides some protection, in the sense that no other person can register a shop, brand or design that is not his. Skaters are very well aware of the risk of stolen brands. Registration at the hacienda is quite revealing in terms of how a skater sees his brand and where he wants to go with this.
When the application is approved, a salesman can start selling products and run his business. In addition, a skater can also register his brand, this is optional but highly recommended. The chosen options have much to do with the type of business a salesman is running. Inspectors mostly focus on food and drinks. So if a skater is selling skateboards without a solid location, such as a shop, it can be difficult for the inspectors to take notice. In the skateboarding scene it is considered safe to not complete all these registrations. But the decision to register or not is not straightforward, since it has pros as well as cons. The pros are obvious; to run a legitimate business without the risk of being shut down by the authorities. The cons are that taxes need to be paid over incomes. In a developing country with rather loose regulations the incentive to not run a registered business, even more so in the skateboarding industry, is rather high.
Fidel, as a graduate in marketing and skater himself, also told me he is ‘fed up’ with all these people trying to make a business out of skateboarding. He considers the majority of the brands as more of the same. He explains:
“Some people just get a shitty logo, some drawings or design and think they’re set. There’s a lot of planning they’re lacking I think. But they seem to be in a rush and come out and ask people to buy their stuff even though it’s shitty. I don’t know why people buy these products, I mean, I’m talking about ‘brands’ that I’ve only seen once, maybe they don’t even exist anymore. But sure, there are a lot of good new brands as well.”
While Fidel claims to be ‘fed up’ with all these brands, not everyone agrees on this issue. Many skateboarders in Puebla are rather enthusiastic about starting their own brands. This made me curious about the initial stages of starting a skateboarding brand, which was precisely the stage Krusty, Cotonete and Chapa were in at the moment of my research. I decided to delve deeper into their opinions regarding registration at the hacienda. I consider the hacienda a state apparatus that tries to conform entrepreneurs to the formal economy. As such it is one of the sites of negotiation between the small-scale salesmen and the system of global capitalism. What do the newly established skateboarding entrepreneurs have to say about this?
During my time in the field, Krusty was about to launch his brand Ilegal Skateboards. I consider this an interesting stage in the process of starting a brand since now is the time to decide on how to go about managing it. Krusty would like to register at the hacienda since he considers this to be a necessity, although he needs to save up some money before he can do so.
“Ah, no! I’m still not registered. I have to save up some money first to register the brand. But for now, no. But I do want to register because it’s necessary, no? It can be that I’m doing really well with my brand and that in another state, or whatever other, any other person could register Ilegal to his own name. And I will lose it because I had never registered. They can rob it all! So it’s crucial to register the brand.”
Krusty is afraid that someone might ‘steal’ his brand. Stealing in this sense is registering an unregistered brand on your name even though someone else started this brand. In Mexico this seemed to be a serious concern for many. Further on in the interview Krusty addresses the disadvantage of not working with a registered brand:
“I told you the disadvantage is the risk, that they can make you quit your brand because it’s not registered. But if you do register, well, I think that that’s better, obviously no? Aha, nobody can rob my brand, that’s the advantage if I register.”
According to Krusty the risk is twofold: the authorities can make one quit the brand or someone else can steal it. Cotonete follows a different logic but comes to the same conclusion:
“I think that I don’t even have enough sales yet. My earnings are really small, no? I believe that according to the growth of the business I will have to do it , right? Yeah, I got this in my planning. But lately the business is growing. And registering at the hacienda is also protecting your business, right? Because no one can use your name, or when someone robs a design of a t-shirt you can legally act up to that person.”
Cotonete’s brand Quetzal
Cotonete prefers to wait until his income increases before registering at the hacienda. An entrepreneur who is involved for a longer period in the skateboarding trade might look different at this issue. Maybe Gato can shed a different light:
“Yeah, two years after I started I registered. I started without registration because I thought that it was all a game. After that it came down on me, the hacienda came up to me and it went like: ‘Well yeah, you have to get registered’ because at any moment they wanted to close me down. So I registered. I have to register the brand so that I’m the official boss. […] Well, in Mexico everybody does it like this [starting without registration].”
Gato started without registering, just like Cotonete and Krusty are doing now. But Gato does not mention the possibility of someone else stealing his brand. He is more concerned about getting shut down by the authorities. This might be due to the fact that he owns an actual store and does not sell in a mobile manner. Since he has this established store he also puts advertisements in skateboard magazines. This can be difficult; dodging authorities while trying to reach customers. This might be the difference between him and the other skateboarding entrepreneurs. How does Chapa go about this issue since he just recently opened up a store? Does he register the store, his brand, none or both?
“That what’s registered is the brand Meejo!, but the registration hasn’t been handed over to the hacienda yet. I didn’t do it yet because then I’d have to hand over 15 or 16 percent to the I.V.A. [Value Added Tax]. This means I’d have to sell my products for more money. I mean I shouldn’t put that much on myself, neither on my clients. The difference between being, or not being registered is that you’d have to pay taxes. You pay the hacienda 16 percent, on the other hand, if you’re not registered the fiscos can come and they’ll collect all of your merchandise.”
Chapa seems the most economical thinker. He is mainly concerned about paying taxes and does not even address the possibility of being robbed of his brand. He does not want to put higher prices on his wares to compensate for higher costs due to taxes. This poses him with a dilemma. He can choose to register but this would mean a disadvantage for himself as well as his costumers. Or he can decide not to register and run the risk of having his business closed down. His choice to keep a fair price for his customers rather than following the restrictions of the formal economy is his way of working around the forces of global capitalism. In various ways, then, the issue of registration illustrates how the skateboarding entrepreneurs attempt to keep control of their subcultural businesses.
Chapa’s store after he painted the front with some friends
Facing capitalism: ‘They are monsters’
I was talking with Gato in his office above his store and wanted to know where he orders his products. I was a bit nervous to be honest, because Gato is a true salesman in the sense of not giving away his secrets. When asked where he got his products he was a bit vague but nonetheless provided me with useful information:
“Those [products] of Viva Skateboards, are made in different parts of Mexico. The boards, I order to be made in Tijuana, that’s where the factory is at the moment. But for the clothing and stuff, I go to textile factories. I mean, I work with textile factories, people who make the t-shirts, sweaters and the caps. Yeah, everything is from Mexico. Also, I bought a machine of … well, to press wheels. So, nowadays I’m really immersed in the [production of] wheels. I mean, I’m preparing everything so that I can produce all of the wheels in the future.”
Besides producing all of his products in Mexico and focusing on wheels, Gato had another interesting revelation about being approached by textile workers:
“The products arrive at my shop straight from the factory. All the other stuff I go and get from the factories myself [the ones that don’t send their products]. [The factories are] in Tehuacán, San Martín and Xoxtla, it’s just over an hour drive to get there. Obviously you go [to the textile factory] and well, one thing leads to another, no? I started working with a woman who fabricated small quantities [of clothing]. Soon after somebody found out that I was producing more. Someone contacted me and it went like ‘Oye, I come to offer my services, wouldn’t you like that?’ I mean, the people who are dedicated to this are looking for people like me [to get more business].”
Instead of looking for textile workers to produce his clothing, the textile workers approach Gato. He received a call from textile workers who noticed that he needed larger quantities of clothing. Apparently it is easier for the textile workers to approach shops that sell clothing than it is for them to be approached by the shops. Moreover, Gato gets his products from all over the country. This makes me wonder, global capitalism has the word ‘global’ in it, so do others order their products from abroad? In contrast to Gato’s account, Chapa told me that many products have their origin in China:
“Yeah, obviously many forms of merchandise are manufactured in China, afterwards they get moved to the United States and they sell them there. It’s a triangle; China, United States, Mexico. Yeah, it’s a triangle.”
This is an obvious trait of global capitalism; ordering products elsewhere in order to produce cheap and sell high. The only problem, for Mexico, is that products first flow towards the United States and only afterwards are moved to Mexico. I suppose the price would be raised due to this route. If Mexicans would skip this passing by the United States, the salesmen would be able to get the benefit of the deal for themselves. For me this raises the question whether it is not difficult competing with big American brands such as Nike SB, Flip, Toy Machine, Blind or DGK (Dirty Ghetto Kids). Krusty has this to say about the competition with American companies:
“Yeah, competing with them is something, well, I look at it as something very difficult, no? Because they, well they’re something really professional. I told you that I’m just starting so it’s difficult competing with them. […] Growing is the plan, man, but you know that it’s difficult. There are a shitload of brands over here in Mexico. That makes it difficult as well. It’s not like in the United States. In the United States it’s something more professional because the brands are bigger there. It’s also more difficult because of the economy. Well, the dollar values more I think. Here in Mexico we have pesos right? So that’s the difference. Well, also the culture if I can say so. Because it’s [the skate scene] just starting over here and in the United States it’s real easy because they are on it for a long time already. Here it’s just the beginning.”
Burpe displaying Krusty’s new brand
Skateboarding arrived in Mexico at a later stage than in the United States; according to Krusty this is a hardship in terms of competition. They have better technology and more experienced people over there than they do in Mexico. There is a strong tendency in Mexico to regard all products that come from the United States as of superior quality than Mexican products. Morado corroborates this point:
“So, the [American] brands sell quantities and puff puff puff. Apart from that, we [Mexicans] are like 30 years behind in the industry, no? I don’t think I could support a brand from the United States for 100%, because I know they will get success at a certain moment. […] And I’d [support] many brands that are just starting and are throwing in a lot of good effort. I mean, obviously, the Mexican brands are not in the same league of quality as such brands like Nike and Vans, because they are monsters no? [Laughs]. [I call them monsters] because they are monsters. I mean, they dominate. Just imagine; Nike entered the market without at least having a history in the skateboarding scene. They simply saw business in skateboarding so they put in the technology, the publicity and grabbed some elite skaters and continued being Nike. I mean, even though they didn’t sell skate shoes, which is silly, because we know that Nike entered [the skate scene] and everyone wants to get Nikes now. Because of this I say they are monsters, I mean, you just can’t compete with them.”
Like Krusty, Morado points to the difficult competition with American brands. Even more so, he calls the big American companies monsters, because ‘you just can’t compete with them’. Does this mean that these big companies produce fear or harm by their actions, as monsters do? Are they evil or morally objectionable? To the young Mexican entrepreneurs they might indeed produce fear in terms of the heavy competition they constitute. Are these brands morally objectionable and psychologically hideous as monsters are? Since Nike is known for its morally objectionable ways of production in terms of child labor and dominating particular markets, this aspect of monsters does hold up. How does Gato perceive these ‘monsters’ from the United States? Gato agrees that the United States are a big source of competition for Mexican brands. He explains why:
“It’s super difficult wey [man]! They have a real solid infrastructure, no? I mean, to start with, you put effort into organizing an event, I dunno, you put extreme effort into it and are able to hand out 5 or 6 thousand pesos, even more than you made yourself. Then a gringo [American] company comes by and holds an event and they hand out 10 thousand or 12 thousand pesos! And they make a super setting as well. Well, the people in Mexico are very elitist, no? Despite that we´re fucked, people still want to wear or use some brands and they don’t support national brands.”
Gato emphasizes that the Americans have more money to invest and are thus quickly successful in managing a business. For small-scale entrepreneurs in a developing country it is hard to compete with the companies of a capitalist giant neighboring country. Why is there such a big focus on the United States and the way they approach these things? Cotonete’s concept might shed light on the other side of the coin. He prefers to get his products closer to his home and create jobs for the people around him:
“For example, there are some t-shirts, it’s a normal t-shirt but it has like a pocket on the chest. And this pocket is sewn by some ladies close to my house. They make like, crafts you know? So I give some work to these ladies, well, because it’s good, no? It’s a good production and the money stays inside the country. For sure [that I like to help people], that’s the objective as well, no? The t-shirt designs of the brand are designs from the people of Puebla.”
In contrast to the other brands, Cotonete does indeed focus on Mexican history and locality as a concept for his brand. In doing so, he not only supports the local industry, but also finds his own niche in the skateboarding market, offering authentically local products that Nike can’t provide.
In a different way, Chapa also creates his own niche in the skateboarding market. He told me he exclusively sells a selected few international skateboard brands in his shop: Baker Skateboards, Habitat, Sk8mafia, Shake Junt, Toy Machine, Slave, Pig, Spitmetal, Santa Cruz, Krooked, Creature, Zipzinger and Alien Workshop (the latter went bankrupt May 2014). The only Mexican brand he sells is Hysteria. He said he has a close friend who works at a distribution center. He knows this friend, for twelve years already, from skateboarding the same district in Mexico City. This distribution center is situated in Mexico City and provides the whole of Latin America with the supplies of these American brands. Chapa got good deals through this friend. Again, then, social capital aids the merchant in many ways.
As noted, besides the newly opened Over Skateshop, Chapa recently launched his brand Meejo! Meejo is a lija (griptape) brand, griptape is the layer on top of the skateboard which is similar to sandpaper. Chapa sponsors a few skaters and supplies them with griptape when needed. He also has t-shirts with a print of his brand name. In Mexico I came across local skateboard brands of practically every skateboard-related article, but a brand of griptape is something I had not seen before. I asked Chapa why he had chosen to focus on griptape.
Chapa’s brand Meejo! spray painted on griptape
“What it is, we were looking for an article that wasn’t saturated that much. And nowadays that’s griptape. […] I buy [the long rolls of griptape] from a distributor, they get them from Taiwan. […] I buy the roll clean and smooth, with no brand on it, all black. So what I do is cut the roll up [into standard skateboard sizes] and put my brand on it. I used to put the brand on with a serigraphy but that cost me a lot, I didn’t even have a profit. I opted to use the technique of a stencil and graffiti spray. So now we have griptape of the same quality.”
Chapa’s engagement with commercial forces is thus twofold. First, he considered which profitable skateboard article to engage in. This proved to be griptape, an article which few brands specialize in. Second, and this aspect is more related to the global of global capitalism, the griptape he sells is produced in Taiwan. He buys the rolls of griptape without print. Normally griptape does not even have a brand logo on it. But Chapa paints his brand name on the brand-less strokes of griptape. It is unclear whether the skateboarders of Puebla consider this griptape Taiwanese, Mexican or even origin-less. In the end this does not matter, ultimately the griptape comes from Chapa. He literally marks his product.
’Where’s the fun? Where’s the passion?’
Whether tricked, scammed or by other ways of persuasion by the big skateboarding companies, the ultimate decision for a purchase is in the hands of the consumer. This grants the consumer a certain amount of power. No sales equals no active brand in the skateboard scene. Through the consumers’ decision to buy or not buy certain brands, these brands will survive and shape the international skateboarding scene at the local level. Paradoxically, then, the consumer is both the weakest and the strongest link in the chain of global capitalism. Strong in the sense that without having a steady stream of consumers, a brand would die out. Weak in the sense that consumers are influenced by the ‘monster’ companies and their marketing teams. I asked Morado about this. He told me about a brand that he would rather not support:
“From the United States? Maybe Plan B, wey [man]. Because back in the days when Danny Way, Jeremy Gray, Collin McCay and all of those were on [the] Plan B [team]. They were like futa [wow]! Now they’re still going at it, but that’s the other side of Plan B, I mean Plan B just has the big stars now. They just have the weys who already lost their passion, they only [skate] because they have to. Because they’re pros and they can, because they’ve been doing it for all their lives. […] That’s right, you still see a lot of pros with a smile on their face, no? But those guys [from Plan B], they’re robots! […] Where’s the fun? Where’s the passion? Where’s the thing that made you start skating?”
Earlier on in this interview Morado told me about his position as a consumer towards certain ‘dishonest’ brands: “I think supporting honest brands is the most correct thing to do, right?” What does ‘dishonest’ mean according to Morado? And why does he mind whether the professional skateboarders smile?
Morado criticizes Plan B for losing passion. The whole team is made up of stars but they do not wear smiles on their faces while skateboarding anymore. For Morado this aspect of not smiling makes him value the brand less than he did before when they did smile. The smile is an indicator of fun. When this indicator of fun is lost, their legitimacy is lost as well. Skateboarding for the skaters in Puebla is first and foremost fun. Skateboarding can be many things; making friends, relaxing or having some exercise, but the primary aspect of skateboarding is having fun. When a professional team, such as Plan B, does not show this aspect of fun, Morado does cannot see the purpose of skateboarding. If you are not having fun, why skate? Skateboarding, so to say, loses its essence when the characteristic of fun is left out.
But this raises other questions. Surely big brands from the United States would have a marketing team behind every single publication they make, be it a video part, commercial, YouTube joke or anything else. And they often use pro-skaters with international fame. Gato agrees on this:
“Yeah, of course. I mean, [the companies] are having double goals all the time, no? They are enjoying themselves and they know that this motivates people. I mean, it goes like ‘oh, I want to be like Antwuan Dixon or like Dustin Dollin’ and this includes that people start dressing the same way [as pro skaters]. I tell you there is a lot of marketing. For sure [that I do this too].”
Gato is very aware of the influence a popular skater can have. He uses this in his own team as well. He tries to advertise all his clothing through a child prodigy he has on his team. Thus, both the big American companies and the small-scale Mexican salesman exploit fun to their own benefit. But, whereas for the big American companies this benefit is strictly economic, for the small-scale Mexican salesman this is to have fun and make a living as well. The difference is that companies such as Nike make a billion dollar profit out of others people’s passion, exploiting a branch that is originally ‘not theirs’. Nike, for example, simply entered the skateboarding industry to make profits without making any genuine contributions to the skateboarding scene. For local skateboarders, the skateboarding entrepreneurs in Puebla have more legitimacy in the skateboard industry on account of their subcultural capital.
While talking about these issues with me in his steaming hot car outside of the Xonaca skate park, Krusty put into words rather casually how he would manage the competition with the brands from the United States:“I don’t know, simply throwing in fun at the start and hope that everything goes well afterwards.” What Krusty says here is exactly the essence of this research. Throw in the fun casually and enjoy what you are doing. Use your social circle and at the very least the skater will have a good time, at best he will own a successful brand.
Fun can be experienced in different ways in relation to commercial activities. For Burpe, fun is derived from giving back to the skateboard scene by organizing events. He even goes as far as financing an event with his own money. He does not receive payment for organizing these events. Instead of payment he receives fun, as well as adding to his subcultural capital. Chapa experiences fun in finding a niche in the skateboard industry by selling griptape. He ‘Mexicanizes’ his product by spray painting his own brand name on it.
Ultimately the consumer decides which companies the money goes to. A consumer can choose between a small local brand or a brand from a billion-dollar multinational corporation. Both exploit fun for commercial purposes. The difference is that the local brand has more subcultural legitimacy to do so, which can be seen as having sincere love for the skateboarding scene. The small-scale salesman sells his product with a sincere smile and a discount for friends, whereas the businessman in a two-piece suit who works at Nike has never even made a trick on a skateboard. In the last quote Krusty points out that starting a brand is an adventure, whether growing into a commercially successful brand or declaring bankrupt after a few months. In a worst case scenario the salesman still has fun for the time his brand exists.
Either way, the skater wins.
Conclusion: Who can legitimately commercialize fun?
The skaters have a lot of fun through being social, be this with new or old friends. The expansion of a skaters’ social circle is achieved by getting to know people through skateboarding skills or being surrounded by an air of coolness, ergo subcultural capital. Having lots of social capital can help a skater to gain popularity with girls while having a lot of subcultural capital can increase a skater’s social capital. These different forms of capital are intertwined with the politics of fun, fun that has social or political consequences such as gaining entrance to a prestigious group. Some of the shop owners play around with this by giving customers the idea of being included in the shop owners’ circle. This leads to a steady stream of loyal customers to the skate shops who are actually shopping for social, symbolic and subcultural capital.
The skateboarding entrepreneurs in Puebla are less positive concerning their position regarding the American skateboard industry. They experience disadvantage due to being relatively new in the global skateboard industry. Morado even terms the American companies ‘monsters’. Chapa on the other hand orders his griptape from Taiwan and converts this to a Mexican product by spray painting his own brand name on it. Chapa has fun finding his niche, keeping his customers happy with the lowest prices possible and maintaining his contact at a distribution center. Meanwhile, Burpe derives fun from giving back to the skate scene that has given him so much fun in the last two decades of skating, by organizing events and promoting certain brands which he all does voluntarily.
The consumer has the last word in all of this since the consumer decides where the money goes to. Morado prefers not to support a brand in which he does not see any smiles. A company’s legitimacy dissolves if there are no smiles since skateboarding is supposed to be fun. Both big American companies and local small-scale skateboarding entrepreneurs exploit fun to make sales. The difference is that the subcultural entrepreneurs in Mexico do so in order to give back to the scene whereas big companies such as Nike exploit fun to fill the pockets of suited up businessmen who never even stood on a skateboard. Krusty concluded that in the end it does not really matter what you do or achieve with your brand, as long as you keep investing in fun.
My position regarding this subject is that big companies who enter the skateboard industry solely for the financial benefits should not engage in the skateboarding industry since these companies do not give anything genuine back to the skateboard community such as a skate park. The website Jenkem, which is quite critical of big corporations in the skateboard scene, has several articles and interviews concerning the influence of big corporations and explain very clearly the direction the skateboard industry is going if this influence continues and increases as it is doing now. As the professional skater Jerry Hsu explains in a recent interview with Jenkem, he quit a brand with a very fun image, stating that the marketing strategies lose touch with the essence of skateboarding.
Furthermore, I would like to state that ‘the poor and marginalized’ are not always less powerful than ‘the rich’. In practice, as my research shows, youth in Puebla have a lot of agency to determine their own course in life and get by perfectly with what they have. This is by using agency in very creative ways. Success is not determined by socioeconomic position alone. The skateboarders in Puebla have a lot of fun starting their own skate brands without having much financial capital. The financial capital they lack is made up by the huge amount of social and symbolic, or subcultural capital they do command. The projects the skaters are working on might not ‘pay out’ in hard cash but it surely does pay out in fun. In these projects are embedded all the interests, social and subcultural capital the skaters have. The end is not the goal for the skaters, the process is. For them, money is not the main indicator of success. The competition with the big American companies is thus seen from different perspectives. If asked who is more successful, or in other words ‘wins’ this competition, I would have to return a question; in what sense? In the sense of passion and fun or in the sense of financial gain? It is up to the skater to decide which of these he regards as more important. My research indicates that the skaters in Puebla are able to creatively work around the forces of global capitalism. In doing so, they get the help from other skaters around them. The amount of fun invested in small-scale commerce is paid out in social and subcultural capital, which can be deployed to gain popularity. The skaters do not pose a competition to the American multinationals, nevertheless they are more justified in exploiting fun.
Kaj Dekker is MSc in Cultural Anthropology, specializing in the anthropology of fun. He obtained his Master’s degree in September 2014 at the University of Amsterdam. This paper is an adapted version of his Master’s thesis. Currently he is getting his professional life on track while in the meantime enjoying himself. Connect with Kaj on LinkedIn.
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All images © Kaj Dekker.