Head past fast-food restaurants and convenience stores on US-550 and head further still until the bundles of sprawling developments on 528 and McMansions on Idalia thin out.
Enter what might have once seemed the end of the known world and watch the warm summer wind exhale across the desert. Stark in the horizon stands the Santa Ana Star Center, where a new gust circles round the plain.
Here, on its new and first home track, and in the first game of its summer season, the Muñecas Muertas, the Duke City Derby league’s national team, takes on the San Diego Wildfires and takes the reins of its future.
In short, roller derby is a point-scoring game played by two teams on an oval track. There are two pivots with striped helmets who represent the front of the pack; six blockers who do exactly that, often physically; two jammers, set 20 feet behind the pack with stars (or, in some cases, Zia symbols) on their helmets, who score points. The first jammer to the front of the pack is declared “lead jammer” and can then score points by lapping members of the other team. Costumes are flamboyant and the action brutal.
The Muñecas players, almost half of whom hale from the Santa Fe Disco Brawlers, are used to traveling, having never had a home track or even a regulated practice space, making tonight a special one.
The 5-year-old team dons somber green and black, but not much else about its dress is regulated. Outfits run the gamut from sexy to severe to symbolic (lacy bloomers, bone socks, Zias), as do names and numbers (Muffin 350, Tronsexual 3.14, Neko Chase 3).
“Most people don’t expect us to be professionals, but we’ve got teachers; I’m a party planner; one of the girls was an archaeologist…We’ve got a cop on our team,” Angela “Killer Queen” Reece, a member of the Brawlers and Muñecas, says.
But watching them in action, it’s hard to imagine these women as pencil pushers. With 3:45 left in the first half, Meep Meep takes a swift blow from a Wildfire, hits the floor and is splayed momentarily on the ground.
She gets up only to find herself surrounded by the other team; a minute later she is free and named lead jammer.
As a team accustomed to skating on basketball courts, outdoor hockey rinks and the too-small and dangerous Midnight Rodeo bar—not-so-affectionately coined “the deathtrap” by visiting teams—the Muñecas pulls out all the stops for its track’s inaugural match.
With 14:35 left in the second half, Tronsexual is checked hard in the side by Wildfire’s Dahmernatrix—her former Muñecas captain and friend who now plays for San Diego but still bears her former area code, 505, on her back—sending Tron’s long blond dreads to the ground. With the wind barely back in her lungs, she’s up and after her old ally. It’s a story line sure, but it’s for real.
“A lot of people who’ve seen roller derby before think it’s staged. It’s not,” Julie “Savage Scout” Curtis, also a member of both Duke City Derby teams, says. Such stigmas result, in part, from derby’s past.
According to Albuquerque-based Derby News Network journalist Chris “Hurt Reynolds” Seale, what was a “big spectator sport throughout the ’50s and ’60s” had become a “spectacle” by the ’70s, as clearly defined rules yielded to WWE-style violence and scripting.
Today’s derby signifies a great departure, owing its genesis to a group of girls in Austin, Texas in 2001 who came upon many of derby’s current tenets, including aliases and outrageous outfits, through what Seale calls “a couple of accidents, a couple of unplanned happenstances.”
The most important “accident” was the flat track. The pink duct tape, which Muñecas Captain Kamikaze Kim skirts nimbly, denotes the derby track upon a floor used for myriad purposes. Derby was traditionally conducted on inclined, or banked, tracks, which cost upward of $30,000 and require lots of space and setup time. The girls in Austin realized, for practicality’s sake, the sport could be performed just as well on a flat track or, in this case, the base of the Santa Ana Star Center arena.
This realization has made possible derby’s incredible proliferation.
Derbyroster.com, a catalog of derby demographics, lists 395 roller derby leagues worldwide, more than 300 of them located in the US; that’s more than 15,000 active participants, according to Seale, most of whom are female.
The derby of today is “participant-driven, self-organized, kind of DIY punk rock: ‘We don’t need a professional; we can do this ourselves,’” Seale says.
The Muñecas women certainly have done it themselves. The team has steadily gotten better, more professional, scaling the ranks to 6th in the region and 13th in the nation, according to Women’s Flat Track Derby Association stats.
The clock hits zero on the new home-team scoreboard, the match ends 77-71 in the Muñecas’ favor and the players send up ebullient cheers, making it clear they’ve come a long way. They settle in to watch the next match and then head off to the after party at Fat Squirrel Pub & Grille, skates on feet, back out into the warm desert wind.