WORDS: Stu Gomez
Jenn Soto has a bold tattoo her neck. The fairly fresh-looking ink says “Fly Past The Moon,” a tribute to one of her grandma’s favorite sayings. And, as far as tattoo phrases go, this one suits Soto especially well. The 22-year-old Jersey girl placed first at the London Street League Pro Open in May—guaranteeing her a spot in the 2018 SLS season—and she got second-place at Dew Tour Long Beach last week. But just two years ago, she hadn’t even entered a skate contest: she was driving cross-country to California with a dollar and a dream… no plan. Spontaneity is at the root of Soto’s success. After all, the first step in flying past the moon is simply winging it.
Soto’s life has become exceptionally structured in recent months. Last year’s “Skate Girls” series (for Urban Outfitters) featured her and her homies at the Ladies Skate House, a loosey-goosey apartment in LA, with plenty of time for impromptu seshes. Nowadays, after getting on the Skullcandy and adidas teams, her schedule leaves little wiggle room. But luckily, Soto had time to visit The Berrics this week for a chat, bringing all the homies with her for a sesh in the park. We talked about how she got her start, cooking, and her thoughts on girl power, delivering unexpected takes on each topic.
Incredibly bright and intelligent, Soto is a retro breed of skateboarder—she dials back the emphasis on “female empowerment” and focuses more on progression and relationships, building on what’s already been done to bring skateboarding into the future. If they can put a man on the moon, it just might be Soto who flies past him.
Soto at the SLS Pro Open in London, May 26. Photo: Paulo Macedo
The first time I heard of you was around when “Skate Girls” came out. Catch me up on your skate life leading up to “Skate Girls.”
I started skating when I was twelve. I saw one of my homies doing a heelflip over a manhole, and I was like, Damn that’s cool. So I bugged my dad for a board and he finally got me one in the sixth grade.
Do you remember which board it was?
It was an Element Bam Margera, purple, with purple Venture trucks with some purple Bones. Everything had to be color coordinated—it was an all purple/black board.
Yep. Bam grip: black with purple bats! I wish I didn’t throw it away. It would’ve been nice to still have that setup. That was my first board. I didn’t want to pop or scuff it up; I was that kid.
When you saw that first heelflip, was that your motivation to start? To do some tricks?
It just never really occurred to me as a possibility. I was like, Oh what’s that? I saw it on TV and shit but until I saw someone that I knew doing it, I didn’t think about it. That inspired me to bug my dad for one. [laughs]
How long until you actually started to learn stuff?
I had the board for a year and, you know, we’re kids and we’re just doing flat mannys just as long as we could send it. But in sixth grade that’s when I met my homie Jade Abelo and he didn’t have kickflips and I didn’t have kickflips. We just had these baby ollies, so the moment when he learned kickflips I was like: Shit… game time!
You just motivated each other.
Yeah, for the longest time. We didn’t even go to any skateparks—we didn’t know if there were skateparks around us—so we’d skate at the train on the way home and miss a couple of trains.
This was in Jersey?
Yeah, Jersey City. Right across the river from New York. In later years we would go there more, but mostly it was just flat at the train station on the way home or in the morning before school.
How long until you learned to kickflip?
Three months. We used to play SKATE with one-foot kickflips: If you’d flick your board and land with your back foot on, that was a back foot kickflip; if you landed with your front foot on, that was a front foot kickflip. We counted that in games of SKATE! It was so cheesy, but once we got both feet on we cut that shit out fast. We really wanted to play but we just didn’t know how to do it until I saw him do it.
When was this?
2006, I think. I was twelve… haha. Had to do some math real quick!
How did your move to California come about?
I’ve been here for two years. Being young, we’d always talk about it, like, “Damn, we go to go to Cali!” But, eventually, when you start growing up your homies are going to college or they have to start working so they do their own thing. But I was still down to go to Cali.
Was there a specific goal that brought you here?
I just knew that this is where you have to be—California and Barcelona. Just from watching skate videos and interviews, I knew that I had to come over here. It’s paradise.
There was no “I wanna make this my career,” I just wanted to come out here for skating. Alone. Even if I had to get a job and pay rent. I’m going have to do that eventually anyway, so why not do it in a place that I want to be at?
Did you have connections here already?
Through skateboarding, you’re gonna know somebody. So as soon as I hit the California state lines I hit up Manny Santiago. I was like, “Yo, I kinda need a place to stay… I didn’t plan this very well—I could’ve hit you up a couple days ago, but you know: wingin’ it.” He was nice enough to let me stay for like two months without rent. Just waking up with a skatepark in the back was beautiful.
You had a lot of faith when you moved here!
Dude, it was the leap of faith! I just sent it without a plan. I met Manny once at my local skate shop, and then at Woodward. The love was there, so I thought maybe he’d hold it down. I was so happy that he did.
What happened after the two-month stay?
I hit the point where I had to start thinking long term. Back home, I didn’t even say bye to anybody because I didn’t even think I’d be out here this long. I could couch hop, but I’d be asking for things. So I wanted to be independent financially. I only came out here with a thousand bucks, but then I spent four hundred on gas. So with food and all that it was running low.
I met Vanessa Torres at X Games, and she lived close to downtown with another roommate. And we had the Pizzanista connection, through Lacey ’cause she knew Salman [Agah].
Was this the “Ladies Skate House”?
This was the little Skate House; the little skate apartment. But Vanessa is very clean so I learned a lot! I’m very “skate rat”: just go skate all day, then come home and just sleep. So I learned the value of making your bed to start your day. It’s the little things in between that matter.
So Salman hooked it up at Pizzanista and I busted my ass there, getting as many hours as I could. I was on salads, because I used to work at a deli before and I had experience. I wanted to be a pizza cook, but you have to be very committed. And I had to travel. Salman understands that stuff—if I have to go do a contest, he’s like, “All right, you’ve got it off.” It was sick. Any time you need off, as long as you let him know before the schedule is made, then you can have it off. I love food, so working at the deli and then Pizzanista was really tight.
Jenn Soto, in Downtown LA. Photo: Yoon Sul.
So, you got some cooking skills under your belt?
Ahhh, I got a little some-some. [laughs] I think I’d be cooking if I was not able to skate. It’s just as creative. I like homestyle cooking—I’m not one to look up “a teaspoon of this, a teaspoon of that”—I’m just like, “All right, let’s fuckin’ go!” I grew up watching my mom and shit like that. Just taste as you go and don’t be afraid to add salt and pepper!
How would you define “homestyle” cooking?
Well, I don’t eat meat so it would make some Spanish-style rice and beans. If I was gonna go crazy I’d have the tofu on the side, but usually I have the fat stack of broccoli, asparagus, potatoes. You can eat a lot when you take away the meat.
How long have you been vegetarian?
I’ve been vegan for one year, and I was vegetarian for one year before that.
What inspired it?
A bet. Honestly, I was just lying in bed watching a video with a homie of a baby chick getting thrown into a grinder. It was so sad. And anyone can say, “Damn, that’s so sad,” and not doing anything about it. My friend said, “Bet you won’t.” They even made turkey bacon that night, because they know I like turkey bacon, and I was like, “No.”
But you don’t continue to be vegan because of the bet; it’s because your heart’s in it.
Yeah, it’s not even for health. If everyone had the mentality of “if I just stop eating it, nothing’s gonna happen,” then no progress is made. At least for me I can say I’m not eating it.
There’s a ripple effect, though. One person influences another, then bit by bit the food industry starts changing. Now you can get the “Impossible Burger” pretty much everywhere.
And it’s so good. As long as you can get grilled char taste…
It’s legit. And you’re out here winning contests so it’s not like being vegan is affecting your performance!
Dude, I feel better performance-wise. When I ate meat, I loved it. I’m not gonna lie. But if I ate a fat burger and some fries, I’d want to take a nap after. I can eat an Impossible Burger and stuff and still be awake. You can get sluggish if you add all the carbs, but you’re chillin’. It’s not just sitting there like a rock [in your stomach].
I feel bad for the animals that have to go through that. People tell me, “But there are so many fish!” I’m like, “But bro if someone pulled ME up out the water I’d be bummed!”
On to more positive topics: What was it like living at the Skate House? Besides cleanliness, how else did Vanessa influence you?
Vanessa has definitely helped mature into a young, independent adult.
For sure. Was she like your house mother?
Definitely. She was my mom. I just look up to her so much because she has those life talks with me and teaches me what’s up. And, assurance—if I’m feeling one type of way, I can talk to her about it and she understands. It’s not like, “Oh, you shouldn’t feel like that.”
Leaving the Skate House was a little sad, especially because we had a cat. But I’m only six miles way from her. I live with Momo [Monique O'Toole]—she filmed Quit Your Day Job , which was an all-female skate video. So we got a filmer at the house, and we got my homie Chris from back home to come. So it’s a nice little skate house: good vibes, we keep the house clean and we each have our own space. And this is the first time in two years that I’ve had a door!
Oh, you have your own room!
Yeah, and I got to buy a mattress—I’ve never had that luxury before. Just doing adult stuff! We have TWO balconies. My balcony, dude, as soon as I stepped out on it I saw that there’s a fuckin’ vegan cafe behind it.
That could be dangerous.
Well, before we had a fridge I would eat there every day. At least I was eating there and not, like, Subway or some bullshit! You could see the Hollywood sign from there, too, so it’s just like a nice little reminder. It’s nice to wake up and see the palm trees; I’m a sucker for a good view.
Yeah. Just a nice, classic California view.
I’ve been here for two years, and I’m still like, Damn, I’m here! [laughs] I don’t think that will ever not be a thing. It’s just so different.
Well, you’ve started picking up more sponsors with Skullcandy and adidas Skateboarding. Is adidas pretty recent?
It’s been in the works for a while, so now that I can actually talk about it it’s pretty exciting.
How did you get on the team?
Well, I knew that they were planning something with my teammate Mariah for a long time. And then when I started coming out here—showing my face more, being on the scene—they included me in those plans. My manager was holding it down for both of us, just being the liaison and getting a good deal—making sure that we were getting what we needed to get. Making sure both sides are happy.
I’m so happy with it! I feel like everyone is; it’s a great team. Just mad supportive, talented people. I love it!
You and Mariah killed it at Dew Tour last weekend.
Dude, that’s my homie for life. She just has such good energy; she’s a ball of positivity. We just dance and skate—it’s awesome.
It’s fun for me to see people having fun. Especially in a contest environment.
It’s important. Isn’t that why we skate? I understand when people get caught up in the moment. I mean, I get caught up in the moment—the passion of learning a trick—but, ultimately, you gotta let that go.
And dancing can alleviate a lot of stress. That’s my go-to! Just wiggle it out.
Is that mainly why you have your headphones in when you’re skating runs?
Yeah, definitely. That and… I love hearing the crowd cheer, but it distracts me. ‘Cause my brain is already floating around everywhere so putting on my headphones, even if I don’t have a specific song on, is cutting out that one sense. It makes me one step closer to me and my board. I can’t really block everything out with my eyes, but I can with my ears.
I’ve never heard it described that way before, just one step closer to the board. It worked for Street League and Dew Tour, for sure.
Yeah, I had to. It just gets me closer to my focus. I never have anything specific playing when I’m skating, either, because that just stresses me out. There’s no “I need this, I need that,” it’s just, Fuck it, put on a random playlist! Just chill.
Street League Pro Open in London, May 26. Mariah Duran, Jenn Soto, and Lacey Baker. Photo: Paulo Macedo.
You taking Street League, I don’t know, that seemed super unexpected.
Yeah, I never thought I was a contest skater… growing up, there was no contests around for me to practice or anything. So I’ve felt like I have to work a little harder now, focus on my consistency and stuff. And for that to work out, just for that to happen has been amazing. And it definitely gave me the confidence—now I know I’m capable of doing it—so when I go out there I’m not trying to compete with anyone. I’m just trying to compete with myself. [I'll think] “All right, I got first last time. Let’s at least try to get podium.” Or, “I got third, let’s try to get second next time.”
Just incremental improvements…
Yeah, just for me. Because it’ll never go “as planned,” but I just try to prepare as much as I can for it. It’s tricky. You never know until you wake up that day. Even the day before in practice, you could be killing it and having so much fun, but you might wake up the next day and you’re sore. It depends on the day, you never know. Always, even with a regular sesh.
Just a regular sesh, you’ll still build it up to a high standard.
It’s like cutting out that expectation, honestly. Like, “All right, just another sesh.” Luckily, we have the same girls competing all the time so have that relationship making it feel like a sesh.
How competitive does it get with the girls?
Obviously, everyone wants to win but if my homie gets up there I’m just as stoked… It’s competitive but it doesn’t matter if we’re skating or not. If we were out bowling we’d want to beat each other! But it’s all love. And since it’s all love, whoever is on the podium the competitor in you is like, “Woo!” The skater in you will be like, “Damn, I wanted to get that one trick.” But you can’t blame that on the other homie because she killed it—you just gotta work on your tricks!
At Dew Tour, the competitor in me was hyped to get second place but the skater in me was thinking, “Damn, I want to get that front blunt!”
What’s your opinion of the current wave of girls skateboarding?
It’s all progression. It’s super sick—the trick difficulties are gnarlier. The consistency of it is… you don’t really see a back boardslide in a contest anymore, or any “safety tricks” like that now. People are throwing the front feebles, throwing the back lips, throwing the flip front boards. Sending it. In that sense, you’re either with the progression or you fall back. Everyone’s keeping up with each other and keeping the bar higher.
In the grand scheme of things, do you think in terms of girl skaters/guy skaters, or just skateboarding?
It’s just skateboarding. For me, growing up, I thought I was the only girl because I didn’t see any other girls, so I always skated with dudes. It wasn’t until I moved out here that I was like, Oh, there are other girls! I love skating with them but it’s not like I’m on some girl power “Yay, let’s rally up the girls and go skate!” It’s just, “Yo, who wants to skate?” It doesn’t really matter—it just so happens that the ladies are super chill!
So, the girl power thing…
It can get corny. There’s a very fine line of support and corniness in “girl power.”
You’re not really backing that female empowerment angle.
I’m about it, but the more you focus on it the more you’re separating it. Just blend it. If you want to do a kickflip back tail, do one. Do the tricks that you want to do at your own pace; skate with the group that you want to skate with. Don’t overthink or analyze it too much. That’s when it gets complicated.
Yeah, that seems to be your M.O.
Don’t overthink it, man! You’ve got to skate with people who are at a different level if you want to keep up. That’s why I like skating with dudes, though: they’re doing kickflip back tail backside flip out, and you’re like, “Shit, let me do that.”
Skating at the same level as the guys.
That’s for me, though. But I think that we’re all capable of it—we just gotta see it more. Look at Alexis Sablone and Marisa Dal Santo. They did the kickflip front boards for years. That’s what inspired me. Hopefully, another girl will be like, “Oh shit, she’s doing it. Let me do it.” The next girl’s gonna do a kickflip crook, and it’s just gonna be like once we see it we’ll know it’s possible.
So do you think that there’s just some universal block that girl skaters have?
I think it’s a block with anybody. Nobody was really doing 270 lips until some other dude did it. Then they were like, “Shit, let me do 270 lip 270 out.”
Someone just has to open the door.
That’s all it is. And the way I see it with girls is that we’re just a couple of years behind still. If you want to break it down, we’re still in the early-2000s of skating. [laughs] We’re not there yet! But, eventually, we’ll get there.
What else is coming up for you?
X Games and Street League Los Angeles are coming up. Obviously it’d be nice to win, or even be on the podium. Like I said, you never know until you get there so I’m gonna keep exercising, focusing, and preparing as much as I can.
Do you feel more pressure being on the adidas program?
Not at all. adidas supports contests but it’s really not what we’re all about. We’re about being original, going in the streets, and having fun. [When it comes to contests] it’s nice when you win but it’s not like “You’re off the team if you don’t get podium!” It’s more like, “Dude, sick, now go film a street part.” That’s what I want to do now.
How long have you been riding for Primitive?
I’ve been flow with them for quite a while. Three or four years. When I first saw that gold board drop I was like, “Man, I want to get on that.” Coming out here and skating with them more, establishing a relationship, has made it super tight. They’re also family that I want to skate with. I just gotta hold up my end and drop a part. ‘Cause that’s the elite team—I feel like they’re the gold standard, no pun intended.
Can we look forward to a part soon?
I want to start one soon, but it’s been hectic! This is the first time in my life when I’ve tried to plan things but my schedule is actually full, which is so strange to me. Just coming here, alone, to California, there was no plan. So now I have to plan everything!
You’re a victim of your own success, Jenn.
I love it, though! There are moments when I’m like, Damn. But it’s the best feeling, though. It’s like what I’ve always asked for—like I’m coming out of that phase of dreaming it and then living it. It’s been a dream for so long, “I can’t wait, I can’t wait!” And it turns into, “Oh, shit. I didn’t think we’d get this far. What do we do now to keep it?”
Just finding that balance and finding time skate for yourself, and not because you’re obligated to.
The personal seshes rejuvenate you so you can pump out the obligatory seshes.
Yeah, and there’s no handbook for how to be pro. So, throughout your life when you’re dreaming of it and how to do it, you’re not thinking about what it takes. But I’m down. It’s just one trick and clip at a time.
Photo: Yoon Sul.