Skateboarding Cuba

Punk rock blares from a car radio. Graffiti is scrawled on the sides of an empty fountain. A gaggle of teenagers, some sporting tattoos, others shaved heads or short Mohawks, are skateboarding, doing tricks along the fountain's concrete ledge. Everyone is speaking Spanish.

It could be Miami. But look closer. That street sign appears strangely out of place, and in the background, only old cars cruise the nearly empty street.

The scene is unfolding as it does every day on the corner of Calle G (Avenida de los Presidentes) and 23rd Street in the heart of Havana, where several dozen teenagers have taken up a skateboarding lifestyle that values individuality over teamwork and rebelliousness over conformity, the very things the Communist regime frowns upon.

"The majority of the skaters are very American-looking," says Daniel Abril, a 27-year-old Cuban-American freelance photographer and videographer from Coconut Grove who first visited the island this past June. "Skateboarding represents the counterculture no matter where you are. There are no rules, no limitations."

Perhaps surprisingly, Abril — who's thin with wavy black hair — found the Communist government lets the kids skate their hearts out. If anything, skateboarders are freer in Cuba, he says. There's no private property, and many government structures — such as drainage ditches and fountains — are empty or abandoned, making them prime places to skate.

Abril wasn't alone. This past November, Rene Lecour was watching Internet clips of the Cuban skateboard scene. The tattooed, bearded 43-year-old Cuban-American owner of a skate park and three skating stores was researching a family trip when he came across a short British documentary called Cuban Skateboarding Crisis. One scene, he recalls, showed a teenager's reaction when his board cracked in half. The young man buried his face in his hands to hide the tears. The video showed that most of the boards were battered and taped-up. Some, snapped in half, had been put back together with nailed patches of plywood."When you break your board in Cuba, it's death," says Lecour. "You could be without a board for three, four, five months."

Lecour decided to fulfill his lifelong dream of visiting the island. His parents had left shortly before the 1959 Cuban revolution, and he had never been there.

So, this past December and January, both men boarded flights to Cuba with small groups of family and friends. They'd never met and didn't know about each other's plans. Also unbeknown to each other, they both lugged duffle bags filled with boards, trucks, wheels, and bearings that they had gathered from donors.

Abril, accompanied by his brother, Josh, and two local skating aficionados, was the first to arrive in mid-December. He managed to sneak in 17 boards without paying customs duties. Lecour, along with his business partner, Shane Shackel; his wife, Yilka; and their 16-year-old son, Kaya, arrived two weeks later. He brought in 25.

Shortly after Lecour's entourage landed, Shackel and Kaya took to the streets on their boards. Soon they were approached by a tattooed man with a shaved head, and ear and nose rings. The man looked American, and he had all the lingo down — "Rip it up," "Cheers, dude," and "Keeping it real," he said in English. Of course, he pronounced it all with a Cuban accent.

His name was Che Alejandro Pando Napoles. He was a forty-ish tattoo artist who had been skating and building plywood skateboards since a visiting Russian gave him a board in the 1980s. Soon, Lecour arrived and the three began talking.

"It was like, 'Holy shit, we're the same person,' " Lecour says. Both men had ample amounts of tattoos, listened to punk rock, and were obsessed with skateboarding.

Pando quickly began talking about himself. The skater explained he had been named after the two supreme leaders of the revolution, Che Guevara and Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. He told story after story about skateboarding's early days on the Communist island. "Back in the '80s, if you were into skateboarding, you had to pray to find someone who would give one to you," he said in a video. "Some people traveled to the Soviet Union and brought back boards, or people coming over would give us their stuff."

Pando explained that he had started building his own boards. "I would steal plywood from my work station, stick it in water, and bend it with a press I made myself."

Over time, other visitors to the island, often inspired by the plight of Cuban skaters chronicled on the Internet, began to bring boards. There was a generous group from Tampa and an Irishman who arrived annually for years. Then there was the guy from Cleveland whose name Pando can't pronounce.

Pando told them how over the years he had become the elder statesman of Cuban skateboarding, teaching new generations of kids how to do tricks he learned from videos delivered from abroad. They scrutinized the moves until the tapes wore out. "Since I've been skating for so long, young people see me as one of them," Pando said. "I skate, buy a bottle of rum for the kids, skate, have fun."

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22 comments
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Sophia Green
Sophia Green

Hi cutie, Could you hit me up on--- RichFlirts.C'om---A dating club for successful, beautiful people.I am a smart&pretty gal. seeking a sweet man.pls Check out my username myshine,serious...

Guest
Guest

NI SOY REFUGIADO, VERDADERAMENTE NO TENGO NI EL MAS MINIMO COMPASION POR GENTE TAN ESTUPIDA DE LA CUAL TU ERES UNO DE ELOS, TU RESPUESTA LA VERDAD NO TIENE PESO NINGUNO...Y A TI NI DIOS TE SALVARA..CAKA DUTY....

Alank10
Alank10

It says more about US, in some ways, than Cuba.Years ago when I photographed professionally in Bahia, Brazil, we had an annual Collective Show called FotoBahia. All photographers, big and small, amateur and professional put in one photo, and enjoyed together. They helped and encouraged one another during the year.Back in Miami I got a position at FIU. I asked to use the school's photo lab to make one enlargement, and was told I had to take a course first. Here, it's all about competition -- all about ME. It's a cultural disaster for us.

Guest
Guest

SO , A RULE IS A RULE YOU HAVE TO TAKE A COURSE....WHATS THE BIG DEAL...

rdiaz21
rdiaz21

Dude, then punch a plane ticket out of here. I am sure Brazil is littered with publically opened photo labs for your personal enjoyment. Those are the benefits a country offers when almost 75% of their population is starving/poverty.

This says more about CUBA then here. Today if i wanted to i could pick up any board,wheels,pads,helmet i wanted to and bob burnquist my ass out. In cuba you cant buy that even if you had the money!

Gutierrez_m0810
Gutierrez_m0810

I love it! Keep up the awesome work....Who would've known skaters in Cuba:)

Lia
Lia

Cuba needs to wake up and do what they did in Egypt. Stop talking so much crap and get to work. Lazy no good for nothing Cubans.

Ani
Ani

I guess your not Cuban :)

inspired1
inspired1

No, folks, WE'RE the ones who ought to emulate the Egyptians who are trying to throw off the dictatorship OUR government (your taxes) funds!! Wake up, kiddies.

Ed
Ed

la puta de tu madre maricona

rdiaz21
rdiaz21

hey ed...you look like a faggot bouncer, drop the kango hat douchebag...your not rakim. (someone had to get lia's back lol)

Billy Ray Sumbich
Billy Ray Sumbich

Looks like I have stumbled into the Spanish version of the NT... Which is not all wrong, since it conclusive proof that some skaters can read and write.

Gabepenn
Gabepenn

Oh!!...hahaha! and also...jajaja!

NeGGiE
NeGGiE

Awesome to see this. Skate on Cuban brothers & Sisters

Elpinareno
Elpinareno

dale una botella de run y una tabla de patinar a los jovenes en Cuba, y todos estaran con -tentos, los Castros seguiran gobernando otros cincuenta anitos., pobres Damas de Blancosi no fuera por ellas no habria ni la mas minima protesta en ese pais oprimido.

Gabepenn
Gabepenn

Oye Pinareño! tu no saes na!

Chico, tu no ves que los carrioleros son una revoluciôn en si?

Gabepenn
Gabepenn

Oye Pinareño...tu no saes na!

Guest
Guest

LA JUVENTUD EN EGIPTO PORTESTAN ACTIVAMENTE POR QUITARSE UNA DICTADURADE (30) ANOS, LOS CUBANOS CON UNA DICTADURA DE MAS DE (50) ANOS, A QUE SE DEDICAN; A LA COMEDERA DE MIERDA DE PATINETAS Y CUALQUIER OTRA BASURA, SON COBARDES SIN SANGRE EN LAS VENAS, VAGOS, PREFIEREN SER COMIDA DE TIBURONES QUE ENFRENTARSE AL COCHINO DE LOS CASTROS.

GabitoElCubanito
GabitoElCubanito

Luisito, la verdad que tu eres un ignorante y un tremendazo imbecil, Y aparte de eso no tines compacion ni amor a tu gente ni a tu patria. No solo eres un refugiado, como yo, pero tambien un trieste despatriado. Gracias a Dios la gente como tu pronto desapareceran del mundo. Que Dios te salve! Me entricecen gente tan sola como tu.

Guest
Guest

NI SOY REUFGIADO, NI SIQUIERA SOY DE UN PAIS DONDE HAY TANTOS MISERABLES COMO TU , GRACIAS A LA NATURALEZA GENTE COMO TU TIENDEN A DESAPARECER DEL MUNDO, SIN SALVACION NINGUNA...NI SIQUIERA ME CONCIERNE QUE GENTE COMO TU SE DEDIQUE A DEFENDER LOS -"INDEFENDIBLES"...OISTE PENDEJO !

ROCKY2
ROCKY2

al parecer te molesta lo que dijo el tal Luisito, pero la verdad es la verdad, yo diria que falta agregar que las "DAMAS DE BLANCO" tienen mas cojones que la juventud cubana

 
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