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Levi’s Skateboarding®: Milton Arellano on the Legs and Guts of Pura Pura

Milton Arellano is in a daze right now after making his contribution as the local leader for the construction of Pura Pura Skatepark high up on the slopes of La Paz, Bolivia. I talked to him to find out what it took to create the park, from the lean...

Cameron Cuchulainn

Cameron Cuchulainn

Some of the build team bomb through La Paz. Photos by Jonathan Mehring

Every skater has a first skateboarding story. Milton Arellano started skating because he had a crush on his babysitter, who skated. This disrupts your typical first story, which tends to be more about a friend­ bond between males, where this awesome thing is discovered with a homie across the street, or a badass older sibling or cousin, rather than an experience where you get into it because you wish you could be with someone romantically. In a wider sense too, Milton is a colorful, unique person who is jamming outside of standard molds. He’s in a soaring daze right now after making his contribution as the local leader for the construction of Pura Pura Skatepark high up on the slopes of La Paz, Bolivia.

In his words, “for whatever endeavor I choose to embark on, whether artistic or to make a living, I will really have a hard time envisioning anything I do that could match the scope of what the Pura Pura Skatepark project has become.” We talked to him to find out what it took to create the park, from the lean years of making noise without much of a response, to getting approval from city authorities, and finding active partners in foreign development organizations and Levi’s® Skateboarding.

VICE: From what I understand of your personal history before starting the Pura Pura project, you lived for a long time in New York, became a well­ known skater in the community here, and then chose to pack up and head to La Paz. What happened with that transition and your decision to go?
Milton Arellano:
Yeah, I lived in NYC for 11 years, and sort of got my second wind with skating, just from the close­knit and down­to­earth energy of the Brooklyn skate scene, and skateshops like KCDC and Autumn who were in my opinion what skateboarding should be: all heart, no hype! I worked in the fashion industry as a photo assistant for some pretty big photographers and had a fun time for a bit with the glitz and pampering that that industry provided.

It is a very particular and peculiar scene that I had one foot inside of and another out. I have skateboarding to thank for the constant reality check, and for the kind of unpolished creativity I was more interested in. Eventually I started shooting my own portfolio thinking that the next logical step would be to break out on my own and use all the experience and my connections to just be a professional photographer. After a year of going that route I realized that it really wasn't the kind of lifestyle best suited for me, and that there must be something else for me. That's when I told myself to take a break from NYC for a year or two, just to see what a totally different city and lifestyle could give me. A major part of that decision was because of various life changes that had a great impact on me, such as my mother passing away a few years before from cancer, and also the end of a long­term relationship. I reached my emotional limit and the NYC lifestyle isn't really conducive for healing. Most of my friends were either too caught up with fashion, chasing models, into being super sceney, or just into skating and not much else. So I said, "forget all this horse shit. I'm out!" It wasn't easy, but I'll never regret that choice.

What was your connection to Bolivia and La Paz before moving there from New York?
A lot of things just pointed to Bolivia. All my family is from there, and aside from my parents, who immigrated from La Paz to the U.S., the rest just stayed despite my parents' best efforts to get the rest of my aunts and uncles to come on over and live a "better life" in Gringolandia, as my cousins called it. Now I can appreciate why they wouldn't give up their roots to have a few more comforts. My father had already passed away in 1999, and so when my mother passed, my brother and I inherited her part of the family house in La Paz, which my great­grandfather built some time between 1895­1905. And after my aunt and uncle who had lived there for almost 40 years retired and moved to another city in Bolivia, talk came up about selling the old house, since only my cousin was living there, in this two­family house. So that's something major that tipped the scales for me. I lived in five different cities and that old house was the only permanent tie I had to childhood and family since I can remember, since we'd fly down every few years to visit the family.

How did you make your way in the photo industry, and do you still do photography work professionally?
I stumbled into the fashion world in NYC through a friend, who also stumbled into it. I think most straight guys who aren't super photo nerds just fall into it through friends who want to get their cool bros in. Actually, a lot of skaters are working in that biz now, assisting or doing props and set­building. There was a funny moment in the mid 2000s when people in fashion probably said "skateboarding is so hot right now.” Ridiculous. I've been into photography for decades, and really need to get back into the swing of it, now that I've taken such a step away from it, but with a different approach since I live in a place where there is no real fashion scene by NYC­European standards, and very little budgets meriting any substantial investment of professional productions with the bare minimum talent. It’s tough. But the economy is getting better and the middle and upper­middle class is getting larger, so hopefully there will be a place for me to cut myself off a slice of the pie. For now, I've mostly been living off of savings, the occasional photo shoot, and renting a room at my house. I was in a really fortunate place as far as my living costs in La Paz go, which allowed me to pursue any interest that didn’t really cost much money.

So, spearheading the progressive skate movement and planting that flag in city offices was just natural. I had the time, and I was full of opinions, comments, demands and answers. There was basically zero competition in terms of anyone else trying to provide information and creative solutions to the city to help address the need for alternative sports and all of the different groups which would benefit from my proposals. I was also really good at calling them "our" proposals, even though it was mostly just me doing all the leg work, and going to meetings. I would just always state that I was the president of the Asociación de Skateboard de La Paz (ASLP), and that we were really well­organized and knew exactly what we wanted and why. And when it came time to make serious presentations, I would recruit a few of the local skaters to help me out here and there. I made sure to say yes to most invitations from various city offices or groups involved in youth events and activities that would call me after they'd heard about us and wanted us to do demos with our little skate obstacles. So, I'd just organize it, maybe build one more little ramp, and then we'd create a few more allies that were working with youth groups. I think it was really important to create that interaction and participation, to help get other organizers to take notice and feel like we're including them into our little world, along with promoting our cause to other kids that might've only seen skating on TV. It’s way cooler in person, and kids just freak out over it since it’s so new to them.

In order to make Pura Pura happen, it seems like there were a lot of steps along the way. For example, you and your crew had to make detailed demands at city meetings, attend events and rallies, and get to know elected officials in local politics. What were the relationships and events with the actual people in La Paz' civic institutions that got you guys to "yes" and the start of construction?
The first city office that we established a relationship with was the Delegación de Promocion de Jovenes (Delegation for the Promotion of Youth), of the GAMLP (Gobierno Autónomo Municipal de La Paz). They're basically the branch of the city government that tries to figure out what adolescents and young adults are into, and helps them get organized and promote their interests in productive ways. They were assisting this campaign for the city called Plan 2040, which is about addressing the need to solve problems with short, mid­ and long­term goals for the development of the city. And the Youth Delegation was in charge of showcasing the interests and vision of adolescents, to both see what current trends and movements they’re currently interested in, along with their vision for the future of the city. This was such a huge opportunity for the skaters of La Paz, to step up and make a well­organized and well thought out proposal to address various problems within the city, and how the promotion and investment in alternative sports can help resolve or assist some of these issues (i.e. alternative transportation, bike routes, traffic congestion, health, at­risk youth, security, socio­economic and gender issues, etc.).

We got a hold of a city document that listed some of the major current problems in the city, and one by one we brainstormed how skateboarding, and moderately related activities could apply some support or change to each item, now and in the future. Since skateboarding in La Paz hasn’t developed at the rate at which it should, compared to other large cities, we had to include BMXers, and we had to tolerate roller bladers, at least to get the interest of the city officials to see that the skateboarders were really thinking about a wide range of alternative sports, and helping all the various groups out to progress. We created a 40­something page project proposal that included skateparks, multi­use public spaces and plazas with skate obstacles and future bike lanes, which would open up a skate circuit throughout the whole city to promote dialogue and interaction between various neighborhoods and youth, and a few other bells and whistles that would surely get the attention of city officials.

In April 2012, we were able to participate and present our project during the first
Youth Assembly of La Paz, for the Plan 2040, along with doing some skate/BMX demos with the ramps we had built previously for Go Skate Day. We even got the Mayor to skate. It was a huge success, and most officials were very impressed with the extent and seriousness of our proposal. I think that’s the day when I realized that something big was going to happen. Before getting involved in this civic stuff, I had no idea what I was doing. I mostly pretended to be an “expert.” But because this vision of mine was brewing and I really believed in these goals, I must have done something right.

To make the project legit, what do you advise people do at the very, very beginning when they have an idea for something like Pura Pura?
From the start I would say that the biggest obstacle for any one person or group of people is setting certain short­term and long­term goals, and taking the first active step in the road to realizing it. Man, La Paz and Bolivia in general have such a bad habit of accepting whatever is given, not taking responsibility for mistakes, being tardy and doing things half­assed at the last minute, and mostly taking advantage of situations and of others in the here and now, instead of sharing a vision to create a better future for everyone, even if you’re not going to savor the fruits of your hard work right away. This was the worst part of trying to help organize the skaters of La Paz. They didn’t really share my vision with the same depth and conviction, and were just really comfortable with their mediocre little three­obstacle skatepark in the rich neighborhood of La Paz. I clashed a lot with them so much, and was really frustrated that they’d ask me for help, but they wouldn’t take my advice, and then they’d get really upset with me when I’d call them out on being lazy, and would end up talking shit about me behind my back for being so opinionated and sarcastic. It was pretty funny actually, like I was in bizarro world or something.

So, I got to a point where I was like, “something good is going to happen in La Paz, with or without them. And they can just thank me later, or the next generation of skaters will.” I didn’t mean to turn this into a complaint about the past, but I really did learn something important during the first year of pushing to get something important going, and being tired of waiting and waiting for results.

Erik Wolsky from Levi’s® Skateboarding said the build took five weeks. Was there anything gnarly or "yeah, maybe this isn't gonna happen" that took place during all of that construction?
Yes, every day, from the very first day that the city didn’t deliver the materials that they said they’d have on site on the day they’d promised. I can’t imagine the stress level that Robin [Höning] and Max [Habel] must have felt, with the constant fear that the project would not be finished. This was also an incredible learning experience working with the city, that is just used to delay after delay, and making promises based on 80% good faith and 20% reality. We all thought it would be the other way around, since we’d been making plans and schedules with the city months before.

This is part of the problem with the culture of doing things last minute, even on a “professional” level. And it is citywide. The Director of the sports department of the city is a really progressive woman who believes in investing in new ideas and causes, and this project wouldn’t have happened without her, but unfortunately, she is dependant on all of the processes and various offices of the city that caused delay after delay. It also didn’t help that the city doesn’t have much heavy construction equipment, and was in in the middle of signing a new contract with a construction machinery provider. So, all the various projects around the city were shuffling the limited machinery right at the time that the skatepark pre­construction was beginning, and that’s why despite the promises that were made, machines arrived just around 30% of the time. But, when the machines or materials DID arrive, it was usually an immediate cause for celebration and dancing!

Josh Matthews and the Levi’s® Skateboarding crew on La Paz’ streets

I asked Jamie O'Brien about how Levi's got involved in renovating Skate World in South Africa and he said their connection happened from building a park previously for a creative studio that put in the good word when they were contacted. How did the Levi's® Skateboarding connection happen for you?
I didn’t know about that South Africa project, but I’m sure that all these kinds of projects just happen through word of mouth, mutual interest, and the trust and belief in our shared skate consciousness. I see it as such a strange and wonderful phenomena, for handfuls of people from such varied backgrounds, to just share one little idea, which spawns into some tremendous entity that has no body yet, but truly exists in the heart and spirit shared through skateboarding and the desire to create and progress.

To answer the question more directly, my good friend Jonathan Mehring passed the torch on, because he came down to Bolivia in 2011 for a Skateboard Mag article, then was in India documenting the Levi’s DIY build, and months later he was talking to the guys who organized it and South America was mentioned. He just mentioned my name, those tiny cosmic connections were made, and like the fruitful projects before through the shared vision of a few people at first, spread and grew into what would eventually become the Pura Pura Skatepark, and I’m sure the future projects to come.

When I first met with Jannet Ferrufino, from the Department of Sports of La Paz, I explained to her how crucial it is for skateboarders to plan, design, supervise and build any and all skateboard infrastructures, to ensure their success. And when the topic was broached about the impossibility of the city justifying the outrageous expenses of importing professional skatepark builders, I just promised her that I would personally figure out how to get them here, through my connections in the international skate community.

What’s funny is that I kind of forgot about that promise, until a few months later we had our first meeting involving an actual budget that the city was prepared to provide along with land. This was probably around the same time that the India project was taking shape, of which I wasn’t even aware of. Then I started writing various emails to skatepark construction companies, like Dreamland, Grindline, Team Pain, and California Skateparks to ask about the possibility of hiring freelancers to come down to La Paz, and just help me figure out what that side of the expenses would be like, so I could figure out how to campaign and fundraise to get enough money to pay these dudes to supervise the construction. I got zero responses from any of these companies, and I’m so grateful now for that.

I was told the amount of $10,000 US in that first meeting. It took me a lot of effort not to laugh, but I held it in and explained that to even get close to what we all agreed on what a proper skatepark with the minimal variety of obstacles, the city had to do way better. A couple months later Jannet happily informed me that she got a little more than $40,000 US. That’s when I said, “Whoa! I need to really get some builders down here. WHAT AM I GOING TO DO NOW?” A week later, the cosmic skate gods answered my freak­out, through an email and later the voice of Mr. Arne Hillerns, from Make Life Skate Life. THANK YOU UNIVERSE!! We spoke on Skype for over 30 minutes, and basically shared the same key points about helping communities through skateboard infrastructures, and integrating education into the projects. It honestly could not have been a more perfect match, and just seemed destined from the very beginning, before it was even any one person’s individual idea.

I truly believe that creation is sparked from shared belief and intent, which finds its own connections to the right people and places at the right time, like snow over a mountain range finding its way back to the ocean across miles of rivers and streams, with just the help of gravity. That’s the other more New Age side of my answer to the question.

The skate school component of Pura Pura pushes it beyond the creation of an environment for skateboarding. It makes it more active and engaged. Like in your fundraiser video on YouTube a while back, you said "What's amazing about the project is that it's gonna include a facility with all these donated skateboards. Where there's basically no excuses. Anyone can skate, no matter how old you are, what background you come from... and have a skate school. And it's all in one place." What's the day­to­day plan for the skate school and how did you guys create the infrastructure for it?
Well, the skateboards are still stuck in Customs, and the first volunteers that will run the programs at the Skate­Haus will arrive in mid­August, so the daily activities have yet to be determined. We’re still working on the structure for the skate school, since the city wants it to be an official city sports school, which requires a lot of paperwork and norms. I envision the week to week to be filled with kids doing some educational participation-­based activities in exchange for the right to use the skateboards, and potentially earn the right to just own the skateboards or various skate gear. So, we base the incentive to learn and be productive with the reward of skateboarding and having fun. And, at the end of the day, the kids will have a chance to see the fruits of their labor, whether it be learning about recycling, while cleaning the skatepark, or just learning how to kick turn for the first time, which is huge for a beginner.

There’s already been such a huge local interest from the locals who already come to the park that surrounds the skatepark, and are just curious about it and want their kids to have something fun to do. They often ask if we rent or sell skateboards, or give classes. I really can’t wait to get these things going on a big scale, and involve more and more communities. I think it’s such an innovative way to promote education, social responsibility, and of course the level of stoke which only skateboarding can provide. And most other sports like the almighty futbol are team sports and are practiced in a more sheltered and isolated environment.

David Gravette during the construction of Pura Pura

Skateboarding is so individual and can be practiced in every neighborhood, and can be so fun with just two pals, or in a huge skate­jam. I’ve already seen new friendships start at the Pura Pura Skatepark, just from the sheer curiosity and novelty of skateboarding with the local kids that are trying it for the first time. They sit around trying to figure out the differences in the trucks, wheels, and bushings, and are just so eager to figure out how to go faster and learn to carve. Its easy to just look at these kids and timewarp back to when I was that kid trying to figure it all out on my own, or with a couple other groms.

The infrastructure for a multi­purpose community center was there from the very beginning, but since we had some budget constraints, we had to look to fundraising to make it possible. At the same time that the Indiegogo thing was going on, we were waiting for a response from an application that we made to the German Embassy in La Paz, to sponsor a micro­project for the financing of the materials and construction of the Skate­Haus. That was another amazing story actually: In October when Max, Robin and Arne came down from Germany to do the planning and meeting with the city, we had met up with a few NGOs that worked in La Paz to see about the possibility of integrating them into the skatepark project, to ensure it’s social sustainability. The most productive meeting was with the German NGO Soforthilfe, who later helped sponsor us in the official solicitation for the micro­project. We had a great afternoon, giving them a presentation and explaining our vision for the project, and they just loved the idea and were happy to help. The administrator, Heidi Brandenburg, mentioned that the next day there was a big luncheon at the German ambassador’s house for the celebration of German Unification Day, and got us invited to attend.

The next day we show up at this very formal event, at a mansion with a huge beautiful lawn, populated by sharp suits and fancy dresses. We stuck out like a sore thumb, which was great because a lot of people were really curious about who we were and why we were there. I would guess that most people thought we were just in the wrong place and thought we were funny­looking, up until we started explaining the project over a lot of beers. More and more people showed more and more interest and support, which led to the suggestion that we apply for the micro­projects which the embassy awards every year. I think that a lot of “official” people gravitate towards innovative ways to help communities in need, and that’s just what we were trying to accomplish. I honestly haven’t had that many drinks all in one day in a really long time, and never surrounded by so many fancy people. It was great!

VICE published a story last year about child workers in Bolivia. From those pieces, it sounds like kids from working or poor families have to or are culturally encouraged to start working at a very young age. How do you feel an activity like skateboarding interacts with those conditions?
I think that a typical “First World” culture feels uncomfortable or is a bit shocked at children working at a young age, especially when it sacrifices their education and future higher education. In Bolivia, as I’m sure is the case in other “Third World” cultures, this is barely even an issue. More and more there are policies written to address the rights of children and their protection, but in Bolivia, and especially in La Paz, the bulk of the economy is supported by small family­run businesses. So, for a family that runs a little store, it’s the most common sight to see their 10­year­old kids tending to customers. It’s just the most normal thing for all family members to contribute to the well­being of the family unit, as long as they have the capacity to do so, which also goes for grandparents who should be retired.

I haven’t seen the VICE piece on this subject yet, but as far as how skateboarding can affect these conditions, I think that its too complex an issue to simplify it as to ‘what can one more passtime do?’ when it comes to the battle between what kids feel like doing, and what their respective families expect of them. I don’t know how skateboarding compares to playing video games, but at least it’s a way to get kids outdoors and interacting with other kids. An interesting fact about La Paz right now is that it has its largest population of adolescents – more than ever before – and the city is working to figure out what they should be doing with their spare time. I’m hoping that the unique nature of skateboarding will encourage kids from different backgrounds to share their personal conditions with each other, and learn to value themselves and learn to fight for what they want in life, even if it is outside of the norm or what is expected of them.

Now that the skatepark is finished, what do the neighbors, the moms, the city officials think of it?
Moms love it!! I think there have actually been more moms at the skatepark taking their kids to go goof off there, while the dads are at work. The neighbors initially were a bit confused as to why there were so many gringos in the area, but once they started coming by the build site, they were just mesmerized and incredibly grateful for the hard work that the volunteers were spilling into the project. We’ve made a lot of new friends and allies with the neighbors, because they know how important it is to keep the youth from turning into alcoholics or just from acting like idiots with nothing to do. I think that in general, city officials see it as a great experiment, and rightly so, for which they’re hoping for the best results, as do I, after personally making so many promises of how investing in this project will help countless lives.

The city has a lot of pride in being the most progressive municipality in Bolivia, where so many new ideas and projects get copied by other cities, so I’m guessing that they really look at this project with their personal stamp of success. It’s a really different perspective than the people that actually worked on the building of the skatepark, but I guess that’s how politics are. You really can’t escape it, and just have to figure out how to work with it, even if they want to later take all the credit for it, which I think skaters don’t really care that much about. We just want more place to skate, and more skaters to skate with, along with improving our own and others’ lives along the way. The politics are for politicians.

To sign off, I'd like to riff off of something you said in your Indiegogo video to fund the skate school. If the experience with Pura Pura could spark the growth of skateboarding beyond La Paz to all around Bolivia, what would that mean on the ground in a few years?
Well, if I could have it my way, that would mean a lot of work to get more and more spaces built, on various scales. The ASLP’s plan is to formalize, to help establish a lot of skate clubs around the city, help each skate community around La Paz to plan, propose and execute DIY builds in their local plazas, to turn them into multi­use spaces and increase their usage. For outside of the City of La Paz, we want to do some community outreach to small cities, or fringe communities doing the same type of constructions, along with providing them some donation skateboards. This would even include some communities and villages hours away from the city, where it would be terribly difficult for them to have access to skateboarding. This would also help create some skate tourism, and interaction with other foreign skaters who want to explore different cultures, skate interesting new spots, and be happy to share ideas and knowledge. We’d also love to help other major cities in Bolivia to educate the officials on the needs of our generation, and the future ones to come, and how investing in skateparks is worthwhile, using the great example of Pura Pura. And, hopefully be able to continue to acquire sponsorship by the international skate community and progressive corporations involved in skateboarding to invest in the future, even if they don’t sell product there.

Learn more about the Pura Pura Skatepark build and Levi’s skateboarding’s other DIY projects at www.levi.com/skateboarding