By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
South Padre Parade
While some may dub them as hellcats on skates, don’t tell that to the women who make up the South Texas Rolleristas, the Rio Grande Valley’s very own roller derby league.
Tough? Yes. Brutal? At times. But these derby girls, who hail from Rio Grande City down to Brownsville, are sisters first.
“Derby is a release… a sisterhood,” said 27-year-old Brownsville resident Vanessa “Tita” Mata. “Yeah, we hit each other as hard as we can, but we’re all family.”
That sentiment was shared by Tita’s fellow teammates, all of whom come from various backgrounds but share common interests: skating, hitting and competition.
But before focusing on the bond shared by the Rolleristas, a little history is in order.
A mild-mannered art teacher by day, Tita is better known by her derby name, “La Tita Traviesa,” who by night is one of the toughest members on her team, the Traumakazes.
She also serves as the general manager of the South Texas Rolleristas, a non-profit organization that fields four teams – the Traumakazes, Fallout Brigade, the Nerdcore Harlots and a sort of all-star squad that travels to compete against other roller derby leagues.
And like every sport, there are rules in order to assure fair play. Despite it being a full contact sport in which hits are thrown, usually with competitors using their shoulders or elbow, there’s no punching, kicking or tripping allowed.
Derby athletes must also be 18 years of age or older to compete. Positions consist of a jammer, who’re identifiable by the star on their helmets, pivot (striped) and three blockers to make up a team of five. There can be upwards of 16 to 20 on a single squad, making up at least 14 players and two alternates per team.
Participants can practice up to five days a week – usually at Rink-n-Roll in Weslaco – and compete on Saturday nights at the De Leon Soccer Complex in McAllen.
Matches are often heavily attended, at times drawing approximately 1,000 people; and while there’s the obvious eye-candy factor thanks to the attractive girls in fishnets who make up these teams, it’s the girls’ athleticism that makes them stars.
Megamanda, whose real name is Amanda Gonzalez, can attest to as much. “I’ve had people come up to me and ask, ‘Are you Megamanda?’ That’s just so cool,” the 22-year-old McAllen native said.
A familiar tale for many, Megamanda was first turned on to the sport after watching the Ellen Page movie “Whip It,” and she’s been hooked ever since.
“I saw a part of that movie and wondered if they had that down here,” Megamanda said of the popular roller derby flick. “It’s been two years now that I’ve been in roller derby and everyone is super cool.”
Like Megamanda, 29-year-old JoAnna “JoJo” Espinoza of Weslaco has also been in the league for two years. She’s a talented jammer who works at Adidas and enjoys the friendships she’s made in the Rolleristas.
Still, she first had to work at developing her skills.
“A jammer is the one who scores points by lapping the other team, so in order to do it you’ve got to be in shape,” JoJo said. “It’s the same as being a forward in soccer. So I would practice almost every day. I’m very competitive.”
Ruthy Ann Williams, a 22-year-old Mission resident whose derby name is Peace War, shares JoJo’s enthusiasm.
“I tried a lot of sports, but this is the only one that caught my attention,” said Peace War, who is currently working her way through cosmetology school as a waitress.
Twenty-five year-old Harlingen resident Heather McClanahan, or Ann Hooligan as she’s known on skates, said she was recruited at a bar in Brownsville.
“Someone was passing out fliers and I picked one up,” she said before commenting on the benefits of roller derby. “It’s a way out of daily life, a way to let the aggression out. Besides, it feels great to be cheered on.”
Though each girl has a different story, they all share a bond – a sisterhood to quote them exactly. JoJo enjoys shopping with her teammates and on a bad day goes to the Rink-n-Roll to “hit someone,” Tita looks forward to making new friends and breaking in newbies, and Peace War keeps in touch with everyone on Facebook. “This is the first thing that’s felt like it belonged to us… to women,” Tita said. “I know there’s Zumba and all, but as far as a competitive sport that anyone can play, there’s nothing like roller derby.”