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."
Both Lecour and Abril — who didn't learn about each other's trip until after returning — had all that skateboard equipment to leave on the island, but they had to figure out who would receive it. Pando recommended they hold competitions.
Lecour agreed: "If you have a few boards, you want to give them to the best," he says now.
Both Lecour and Abril held competitions at Calle G and 23, ground zero for Havana's counterculture. Several hundred watched each time. Footage shot by Abril shows skaters performing flips, lip tricks, slides, and grinds.
The visitors all describe a sense of camaraderie they had never seen in the states. The kids cheered each other on. It was as if they had managed to turn one of the most individualistic endeavors into a team sport.
"We spent four days skating," Lecour says. "My son hung out with them 24 hours a day."
Both Lecour and Abril vow to return to the island again this year, this time with more boards. The trips have changed both men's lives.
Abril has been spending time collecting boards and organizing a large competition he hopes to hold in December. "One thing I've always wanted to do is help out the youth, give to others what skateboarding gave to me," he says, adding that he felt a closer bond with the Cuban skateboarders than with other natives of the island.
Lecour, who will open a skate park at Town Center in Sunny Isles Beach this Saturday, February 12, has also been organizing drives to collect boards. He plans a return trip in May. "Now that I've met them, I feel like I'm abandoning them," he says. "We need to look for ways we can teach them to help themselves."
When they returned to Miami, Lecour says, his son Kaya went to a local skate park. Kids were doing tricks on professionally made ramps and paying little attention to one another. "There were kids everywhere," Lecour says the boy told him. "But I never felt so alone."