Sport has the ability to change the world, the power to inspire, the power to unite in a way little else can.
It speaks to the youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is an instrument for peace.
It’s a movement in motion.
In a country where a sport that represented social rebellion was unlikely to be tolerated, a small group of skaters created their own gear with whatever materials they could find– and started a small revolution.
Traffic is a playground. Darting between smog-choked ’58 Chevys, Havana’s sidewalk surfers are both fluid and elusive, emerging long enough for passersby to catch a glimpse before dissipating into the waves of afternoon haze.
But, in the land of baseball, rum, and Castro (in that order), spotting these mercurial figures isn’t as hard as it used to be. They are present more than ever, attached to four rackety wheels clattering over rutted pavement and ruptured sidewalks.
They are the faces of a sport on the rise: the newest generation of Cuban skateboarders.
While skateboarding has been in Cuba for over three decades it has remained underground during the touchy political climate of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Around the world, the sport has always represented a level of social rebellion. Its attitude wasn’t tolerated during the era that saw Castro tighten his political grip to keep his nation afloat.
This was the atmosphere when Che Alejandro Pando Napoles began
skateboarding at age 10.
“I’ve been skating for 30 years,” says Napoles, a popular Havana tattoo artist and considered one of the founding members of skating in Cuba. “In the beginning it was very difficult because there weren’t many materials…. No one had anything to skate with so they’d just invent things—boards, wheels, those kind of things.”
Slowly these little ingenuities birthed a small skate culture, and skaters like Che, as his boarding brethren know him, took to the streets of Havana.
They adopted the mantra, Patinar o Muerte (skate or die)—a clever play on Che Guevara’s famous call, Patria o Muerte (homeland or death)—and started hitting the small ledges, stair sets, and concrete structures around the city, and trying their hands at amateur filming.
Welcoming anyone wanting to skate, the pack frequented a public square that featured three small ledges and some park benches. The spot, at the corner of the capital city’s 23 and G avenues, became a gathering spot for skaters and the namesake of Godfather Che’s 23yG posse.
“I began skating because one day I came here to 23rd and G and saw a lot of people skating, Che, and others,” says 23yG member Carlos Yandri, 17. “I liked it, and ever since, skating has been part of my life.”
With the influence of the 23yG squad, the sport continued to gain a foothold on the island. In the mid-2000s the crew built a skate park in Havana, the first in all of Cuba.
Though it could hardly be considered anything but graffiti on concrete with a few handrails and ramps, the park represented a major step forward for a community that for many years had been entirely invisible.
“I like to go to the skate park with my friends,” says skater Orlando Rosales. “We share tricks and skate styles with each other.”
But despite the increased interest, the most daunting fact remains: Cubans have no domestic access to skate gear.
While at first glance skaters dress and act much like their American and European counterparts, a closer look reveals ripped, blown-out footwear and boards sporting fault-line cracks patched with old bumper stickers. Some even forego footwear altogether, sacrificing comfort and economy for a little more grip.
The recent relaxation of borders and an influx of tourists have helped. The situation brings in a slow trickle of skate supplies from the outside world but Che describes the aid as, “just a small drop in a big ocean.”
Organizations like American-born Cuba Skate and its parent organization, Skating for Peace, along with private contributors like pro skaters Ryan Sheckler and Bob Burnquist, have landed boards and supplies in Cuba.
But the process is difficult.
According to Che, packages must be small to get through strict Cuban customs offices, so there is no chance of delivering the mass supply of goods needed by skaters in the Caribbean nation.
Still, the sport has made inroads on the island. For one, it no longer sits in the shadows. The skate culture is young, vibrant and full of energy. In many ways skaters embody the Cuban mentality: adapting to less-than-ideal conditions, and skating on whatever they have and wherever they can.
“SK8,” as it’s commonly referenced, has become engrained in the nation’s sport culture, a necessary place for the sport’s survival into the future.
And it has a mission. Cuba Skate says on their Facebook page:
We are Americans and Cubans. We are skaters, surfers, and BMXers. We are brothers who love and support each other in every facet of life.
We will change the relations for the better between our two countries and we will do many other great things.
For many, including 23yG videographer Robert Gomez, a university student, skating is more than just a pastime.
“If I didn’t skate,” Gomez says like any American youth, “I really don’t know what I’d do.”
Via Skating for Peace/Cuba Skate/Vimeo