On Saturday July 9, 2016, in a wildly popular take on the centuries-old Spanish tradition of El Encierro, or The Running of the Bulls, more than 200 gleeful bat-wielding be-horned roller derby girls will pursued tens of thousands of willing victims along a mile-long course beginning and ending at The Sugar Mill, 1021 Convention Blvd, as part of the Crescent City’s 10th annual San Fermin en Nueva Orleans festival.
El Encierro is the heart of the world-famous festival of San Fermin. Falling every year between July 6 and July 14, each year in the Spanish city of Pamplona fighting bulls chase crowds of fleeing men along narrow streets in honor of Saint Fermin, who, it is said, met his untimely martyrdom being dragged through the city followed by savage herd of angry bulls.
Set to coincide with Pamplona’s encierro, this year’s San Fermin en Nueva Orleans will take place from Friday July 8 to Sunday July 10. In a weekend packed with live music, pre-parties, after parties, after-after parties, an Ernest Hemingway look-a-like contest, a dunk tank, and even, for the adventurously bouncy, a mechanical bull, for many people the joyously anarchic Running of the Bulls, starring New Orleans’ home roller derby team, the Big Easy Roller Girls (BERG), remains the highlight of San Fermin en Nueva Orleans.
Founded in 2005, the members of BERG were scattered by Hurricane Katrina. Thanks to an avalanche of support by other rollergirl leagues across America, BERG not only survived the storm, but came home and started recruiting.
One such post-Katrina recruit was artist Lauren Soboul Villegas. In 2007, Villegas, A.K.A. Cheap Thrills, participated in the very first Running of The Bulls here in New Orleans.
“Tracey Bellina-Milazzo, one of the founders of NOLA Bulls which puts on this event, was also a rollergirl, so she reached out to us,” remembered Villegas. “It was such a fledgling event, with maybe 13 skater-bulls in the French Quarter. We were hoping that maybe 100 people would show up. That first year, I think we got around 150, and we were just over the moon!”
As part of one of the fastest growing festivals in New Orleans, it didn’t take long until the Running of the Bulls outgrew its founders’ expectations and the French Quarter. During 2012, the event was also opened up to roller derby leagues from both across America and overseas, and, according to Tracey Bellina-Milazzo, A.K.A. Archbishop Pummel, this year spectators can expect to see more than 300 roller girls chasing anywhere between 15,000 to 18,000 runners.
“I think the run is so popular because it has that New Orleans sense of silliness, fun, and debauchery to it – without the risk of getting gored to death by an actual bull,” said Bellina – Milazzo. “And since this is our tenth run, it is going to be bigger and badder than ever before.”
A high-octane event for everyone involved, initially the rules of engagement between Roller Bulls and runners were somewhat slap-dash, according to Villegas. Today, safety stipulations regular both the type of bat used by the bulls and where on the runners’ bodies that bat can be used.
“We all use undecorated hollow, foam-covered bats,” said Villegas “We don’t hit people on their upper body, or the front of their body – we are not trying to hurt anyone. It is all in fun, although some people do like to come up and show us their butts afterwards.”
However, for Villegas – currently on roller derby sabbatical due to an injury she sustained in 2014 – being a former Big Easy Roller Girl and current participant in the Running of the Bulls means much more to her than just fun.
“Joining BERG helped me get over the trauma of Katrina,” said Villegas. “Roller derby was very cathartic. I could get out there and play, no matter what else was going on, and it gave me focus and a physical outlet for the intense emotions I was feeling at the time – my rage and my helplessness. For me, the Running of the Bulls is euphoric, good, light-hearted fun. It is the perfect amalgamation of the things people in this city love to do, and what people love to come to this city to do.”
And, said Villegas, while it is difficult to pick out just one favorite skater-bull memory from “so very many amazing memories,” one particular moment in 2014 does stand out above the rest.
“That was the year that I finally spotted my husband Devon in the crowd of runners,” she laughed. “He had eluded me for years! It was like, finally! I am coming to get you!”
This story appeared in the New Orleans Advocate at: