I first spotted Kelvin, Rene, Kevin and Eliseo cruising on skateboards down the interstate in a deserted part of southern Mexico. Kelvin was leading the pack, whooping wildly into the vast expanse. They had ridden over 400 miles from the capital of El Salvador. “The gangs grabbed our other skater friends back home,” says Kelvin. “They almost killed them. They beat them badly. So we’re going to Los Angeles to find a safe place to skate.”
He takes a drag on his cigarette and stares out over the dusty tracks of Mexico’s La Bestia (“The Beast”), the treacherous train passage that thousands of Central Americans ride to the U.S. border each year. Kelvin has sworn never to board it. He flicks ash onto his faded, second-hand basketball jersey, which reads “North Caroline.” Behind him in the street, his friend Rene coasts by on a beat up skateboard, his Beavis and Butthead t-shirt flapping loosely against his skinny frame. He slides to a stop beside us. “By the way,” he says. “Where is Los Angeles? Is it near California?”
Astounding stories of flight are not uncommon in the middle-of-nowhere Mexico, where undocumented Central Americans are often escaping violence and destitution, but these four skaters — or patinetos — are the rare group trying to enjoy the trip. “Using skateboarding to cross borders is really radical,” Kelvin says. “When skateboarding started, they broke the rules because they were prohibited from skating. There are some that still think that skating is bad. But it’s better to be on a skateboard, breaking barriers, breaking the law because, in reality, the world shouldn’t have borders.”
Back in El Salvador, skating was supposed to be a kind of protest. Shredding in the park meant not cowering from gangs. But things had gotten too dangerous. “You can’t even walk in the streets,” says Eliseo. “They’ll rob you on the corner or ask you where you’re from, and if you say the wrong neighborhood they’ll shoot you where you stand.”
In March, Kelvin and the other patinetos (who asked that I not use their last names) left San Salvador in the dead of night, and skated three hundred and fifty miles through Guatemala to the border town of Tecún Umán. That was the easy part. It’s fifteen hundred miles across Mexico, much of it past growing ranks of Mexican immigration security agents, kidnappers and extortionists. And then there’s the business of actually crossing into the US — where armed Border Patrol, infrared cameras, and electric fences make it one of the world’s most militarized borders.
The patinetos have discovered an unlikely advantage, though: attention-grabbing ollies and kick flips can be a form of camouflage. Officials tend to have certain qualities in mind when looking for migrants: poor, haggard and lost. The skaters, with their devil-may-care swagger, often coast by authorities without prompting a second glance. “Skating has served us well crossing Mexico,” says Rene. “It’s a new way to migrate.”