Quick question: Have you ever seen the movie The Fighter?
You know, the one that depicts the life of the boxer Micky Ward and his struggles to survive in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Oh, you have?
Then you understand there’s rarely any dreams of making it out of here. Lowell is where I’m from, too.
As a kid, I had to always be looking over my shoulder when I was walking through certain neighborhoods in Lowell, because if I was the wrong race or if I was wearing the wrong color in the wrong hood, that could be my life.
Even when I was eight years old, I remember knowing that could happen to me at any given moment. That was normal. That was my surroundings.
For those who don’t know, Lowell is a multi-ethnic working class town where you have to hustle for every single dollar. Nothing is given. Nothing is easy there. With neighborhoods infested with drugs and gang affiliations, it takes a miracle to make it out.
And I desperately wanted out.
I didn’t want to be another statistic in my town. You know, the “two kids by senior year with baby mama” drama, or the classic cliche Section 8 household. I didn’t want no part of that life. My sister did that. I was an uncle before the age of 12, and she dropped out of school. That kind of life was not an option for me. So I went to the one place I knew I could stay out of trouble.
The Boys and Girls Club.
The Boys and Girls Club really changed my life growing up. Just being out and meeting new people every day, I was able to learn a lot about life. The club let me be who I was. I mean, I was really outgoing, playing everything from football to basketball, but being there made it really easy to make friends. More importantly it kept me out of trouble.
But when I became a teenager, the Boys and Girls Club wasn’t the spot anymore. Suddenly it wasn’t “cool.” As you get older, you realize you can’t go to the club every day and you have to grow up. I wanted to get out, but I also didn’t want to be a total outcast. So I started to shy away from the Club.
One day, I was roaming around when I stumbled upon a skate park in a bad side of town. As I got closer, I noticed a group of Asian kids skating. Now, we were in a rough neighborhood and here were four kids just kicking it on their skateboards.
As I approached them, two thoughts were running through my mind.
First: I’m Puerto Rican. I’m not supposed to be interested in this kind of thing. If you were Puerto Rican in Lowell at that time, you basically had three options: you’re either playing basketball, dancing to house music, or taking an auto body class in vocational school.
You’re definitely not skateboarding.
Second thought: These kids were Asian. We were brought up to not get along. In Lowell, the Puerto Ricans were on one side of town and the Asians were on another. And here I was, thinking about skateboarding with them. But I decided to put that aside. I walked up to the first guy I saw and said, “Hey, you guys mind If I try?
Within seconds, they let me step on a board. Usually, I picked up on things fast, but I kept falling over. I couldn’t seem to find my balance. It was so frustrating, but that’s why it caught my interest. I wanted to keep getting on the board until I knew how to turn.
Once I did, it was magical. Every problem I had — whether it was an ex-girlfriend, school, problems at home — nothing mattered.
It was like my little oasis from reality. I would just zone out in my own world. I was completely happy on the board, and I had some newfound friends.
Picking up skateboarding seemed natural. Here I was, getting along with kids that I wasn’t supposed to be hanging with, and doing something I shouldn’t be doing, because let’s be honest, skating was considered a “white person’s thing.”
I didn’t care though. I felt like I finally found my identity. The problem was, most people didn’t see my happiness. They only saw the stereotypes. People were looking at me weird because I skated. When I returned to high school for my junior year, I had a new name: “Skater White-Boy Manny.”
Skater White-Boy Manny?
All because I skated?
People I thought were my friends were belittling me because I didn’t do what everyone considered “normal.”
But I didn’t care what they thought about me.
I knew what I wanted to be.
By my senior year, as I got better and started getting some exposure, one of my teachers even had problem with me being a skater. One day, he actually told me point-blank that I wouldn’t amount to anything. It was the typical “I’m going to put you down” thing. He didn’t really see me in the same light as the other kids. It was as if he was looking down on me because I skated.
But here’s the kicker.
I found out he had a son. And guess who his son’s favorite skater was?
Yep, Skater White-Boy Manny.
I think it killed him that I was his son’s favorite skater. Eventually he realized he was wrong about me, and he was wrong about the culture.
To people outside of the culture, the stereotypes of skateboarders is that we’re lazy or we’re all drug addicts, or we’re always out “causing mischief.”
But that’s not the case.
People within the culture of skateboarding take what we do very seriously and see this as a sport that can change lives.
It changed mine. All I ever wanted to do was get out of Lowell and see the world, like Micky Ward in The Fighter. Because of skateboarding, I’ve been to places like Puerto Rico, Paris, Barcelona, Brazil and Canada. I have little kids from all over the world tweeting at me. Little skaters — white, black, Puerto Rican, Asian — with the same big dreams I had.
It’s crazy to think that all of this came from a random meeting in a park in a bad neighborhood. All of this came from a weird kid with a funny smile going up to some kids who looked different from me and saying the magic words of the skateboarding culture.
“… mind if I join you guys?”