Skateboarders in Cuba find a niche despite outlaw image
BY TIM JOHNSON
McClatchy Foreign Staff
Not a single skateboard shop exists in Cuba.
Yet visit these days, and you are likely to see skateboarders on the
promenade that abuts Old Havana, and in some parks. Inline skating, once
popular, has fallen off in favor of skateboards.
The skateboards have all come as donations from abroad. And obtaining
one, even if it is dinged up, splintered or patched together, is a feat.
"If I tell you how I got this, you will laugh," said Andrea Hernández, a
27-year-old former tour guide carrying her colorfully painted skateboard
along the Paseo del Prado promenade. "I built this. People gave me the
Skateboarding is another example of how Cubans have learned to make do
as they try to emulate trends elsewhere that have not received official
sanction in the island nation.
Much as the lack of Internet connections has given rise to
semi-clandestine services that download Western movies and television
shows to portable hard drives that allow viewers to stay current on the
latest entertainment on their home computers, skateboarders have found
work-arounds to pursue a passion that is not yet officially recognized
as a sport or recreational activity.
Only in the past month or two have authorities offered signs of
acceptance. Skateboarding and its practitioners still walk a fine line,
and in some neighborhoods skateboarders are harassed.
"Police don't like it. They kick us out. They take kids to the police
station. … They say, 'My boss doesn't let you skate here,'" Hernandez said.
But skateboarders have poked and probed and found a niche. Far from
central Havana, in a park behind a hospital, they gather in the concrete
basin of an abandoned and drained man-made pond. Ramps rise from the
surface. Boarders do ollies, railslides and kickflips, riding up and
down the ramps. In the late afternoon, the sounds are percussive: whap,
Overseeing the crew is Yojany Pérez Rivera, whose dreadlocks fly in the
wind as he barrels up and down ramps, among the most veteran of Cuban
"We've been trying to teach people that it's not a kids' thing, that
it's an art form, like photography. It's a way to express yourself,"
said Pérez, whose friends call him by his nickname, "Mamerto," the rough
equivalent of "dummy." He doesn't seem insulted.
A daredevil by nature, Pérez makes his living as a window-washer of
high-rise buildings, scaling the tallest hotels in Havana. He surfs and
now skateboards. He is aware of what many older Cubans think.
"They think we are a bunch of bums with too much time on our hands," he
In Cuba, recreational options are limited. A handful of skateboards
entered the country in the 1980s and 1990s. A short English-language
documentary that came out in 2007, "Cuban Skateboard Crisis," raised
awareness in the global skateboard community of the difficulties of
obtaining boards in Cuba.
"I saw that and thought, 'That's pretty harsh,'" said Scott McDonald,
41, a lifelong Canadian skateboarder from Hamilton, Ontario. A
restaurant and nightclub owner, McDonald rallied friends to donate new
and used boards to take to Cuba.
He said he's taken a total of around 400 skateboards to Cuba since then
and comes under a group called Amigo Skate Cuba. Other nonprofit groups,
notably cubaskate.com, say they are also taking skateboards. Each trip
rejuvenates the activity in the streets.
"It's like rainfall in the desert. Everything pops back up again. It's
an awesome feeling," McDonald said. "It's the only (skateboard) scene in
the world that's 100 percent completely dependent on the generosity of
Skateboarding still retains an outcast image here, adding to its appeal.
"When I saw it, I was really attracted. I'd never heard of it. It was
completely new," said Raciel Pereda Bernet, who has been skateboarding
now for about a decade.
"We rely on donations. It's kind of sad because this is a healthy
sport," said Pereda, who earns his living as a tattoo artist. In
scripted letters across his chest reads an English-language tattoo: "We
are the generation of different concepts."
Rene Lecour, the son of Cuban immigrants to South Florida, is a founder
of Amigo Skate Cuba and a former skateboard shop owner. For years, he
and his friends, too, have been taking skateboards to the island.
"We thought we were kind of under the radar. We were smuggling the stuff
in," Lecour said in a telephone interview. But something odd happened.
"It's grown to where the Cuban government contacted us to see if we
would partner with them in a new skate park."
So Lecour, McDonald and a series of skateboard park designers from
places like Denmark, Sweden, Puerto Rico, the United States and Canada
are collaborating on site plans for the park.
"We're looking at building concrete bowls, banks and ledges," McDonald said.
Lecour said he could still hardly believe the turn of events.
"A couple of hooligans partnering with the Cuban government on a skate
park? It sounds like a movie," he said.
The National Institute of Sport, Physical Education and Recreation,
Cuba's state sports branch, has taken an interest. Lecour said the
institute would issue ID cards later this year to those skateboarders
wanting to come under its purview. Not everyone will embrace the
"Some guys won't go to a skate park. They just want to skate on the
streets," Lecour said.
Even if the skateboard park gets built, the Cuban government is still
unlikely to permit a private skateboard shop. That means not all young
Cubans who want a skateboard will get one. Nor do they normally wear
kneepads, helmets or elbow protectors. Such padding is not readily
Swollen and twisted ankles are common, as are skinned knees.
"I've fallen a few times," said Jose Alejandro Hermida, pointing to a
scab on his knee.
The rustic ramps at the drained pond are not always smooth, ripping up
"See how my shoes are worn out?" said Ezequiel Betanquourt, a
20-year-old skateboarder. He lifts a sole with a hole in it. Other
boarders said they have to use silicone to repair shoes.
Even as they make do with poor equipment, camaraderie is tight. Arriving
skateboarders greet everyone individually at the pond, a quick hand slap
and a fist bump, a few words of salutation.
"It is so delicious, so cool. I like it, brother," Betanquourt said. "I
have to be on the board every day."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @timjohnson4
Source: Skateboarders in Cuba find a niche despite outlaw image | Miami
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