Cuban state media recently announced new customs restrictions on the amount of items allowed in the country through commercial travel. While the government says that the new rule is intended to cut down on a growing black market that undermines recent economic reforms, many fear unintended consequences. For example, the fledging Cuban skateboarding scene relies on skateboards and gear brought in from the outside world. Skaters on the island feel that the new rule may change their way of life. This is the first of a two part series on skateboarding in Cuba and its direct Miami connection.
It happened at 23 y G, an intersection in Havana, Cuba. It's nothing much really. Just a few small benches spread out among scrawny trees that offer scant protection from the sun's glare. But for one scrawny kid that day some 12 years ago, the humble parcel of land seemed like Eden.
At age 13, Fernando Verdecia Maseda finally found some other skaters. Maseda would go on to become one of Cuba's greatest skaters - but he had to emigrate to Miami to find widespread respect for his skills.
See also: Skateboarding Cuba
Years earlier, Maseda first discovered skateboarding at his next-door neighbor's house. The enterprising neighbor would let him play a half-hour's worth of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater for 5 Cuban pesos on a well-worn PlayStation.
"In the beginning, I thought that Tony Hawk was just a character," Maseda said through a translator. "But when I saw the real videos in the game of him, then I wanted to go out and do it."
Soon after, he made his first skateboard out of a two-by-four and ball bearings. For the next year, he didn't see a single other skateboarder (other than his uninterested and casual riding friends). That's until Che Pando, known as the godfather of Cuban skateboarding, spotted him riding in the neighborhood. Pando told the kid to check out the scene at an up and coming spot, where he might just fit in.
That's what led him to 23 y G. "The very first time I saw it, I was shocked. It was like looking at the video game, but it was with Cuban kids. It blew my mind," Maseda said.
Maseda thought he'd found his people -- until he started to skate. Small, thin and dressed like a normal kid from an average Cuban family, Maseda flailed around and failed to impress.
"I was terrible and ashamed," Maseda said. "So I refused to come back until I got better."
He disappeared off the skater's radar for a year, a boy in the wilderness. He kept going back to his neighbor's house and forking over money to play the video game. Like a coach reviewing game tape, Maseda poured over the moves that Tony Hawk could nail in the game. He played the tricks backwards in slow motion and memorized the synchronization and body position of each detail: where his body needed to be any moment, where to hold the board, how to land. Then he would go out and practice.
He also graduated to a toy skateboard, one made of weak pressed wood and plastic parts that nevertheless cost his mother a small fortune. Skateboards were rare on the island even then, before the enforcement of a recent law restricting the amount of skateboards that were allowed to come into Cuba through commercial travel. "I had to be very careful since it was a cheap knockoff," Maseda said.
Still not looking the part of a rough and radical skater, Maseda returned to 23 y G -- and put on a clinic by nailing advanced tricks like kick flips, 360 flips and heel flips. Jaws dropped.
"They looked at me the same way that I looked at them the first time. But more than anything, they were just happy to have another skater." At that time, the skating community was small, maybe just a few dozen in all of Havana.
Through sheer determination, Maseda overcame Cuba's anti-skateboarding culture to rank among the sport's best athletes on the island. But according to Che Pando, the man who directed Maseda to 23 Y G, today's kids might not have that same opportunity.
For years, Pando -- one of the original Cuban skateboarders -- has helped kids get involved in the sport and tried to legitimize it in the community despite periodic backlash and police crackdowns. "There's always haters," Pando says of those who don't support his aims.
Among the haters: The Cuban government itself, whose official party line is that skateboarding is not a real sport. That means that it's not entitled to the support and protection that pastimes like baseball and soccer get.
Despite the limitations, there is one government-sanctioned skate park in the country, which the skaters and other extreme sports enthusiasts use greatly. It sits on the outskirts of town in a drainage ditch that floods often.
Despite recent baby steps toward increased economic liberalization on the island under Raul Castro, Pando says that without support from the outside world, Cuba's skateboarding scene is in real trouble.
"The apathy here is amazing," Pando said. "You don't see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Coming next: How a Miami skateboarding organization plans to give skateboards to Cuban kids -- with or without Cuban government approval.
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