DIY skateboarding culture has been around since the early 80s in Cuba, and it continues to thrive.
One such skater on the scene from the old guard is Che Alejandro Pando Napoles. A Havana tattoo artist and a kind of a father figure to the youngsters that skate today. OutsideOnline spoke with Napoles earlier this October, about where he found the ability to skate and what it takes to skate in a country with little access to skateboards.
“I’ve been skating for 30 years,” says Naples. “In the beginning it was very difficult [because] there weren’t many materials…. No one had anything to skate with so they’d invent things—boards, wheels, those things.”
The toughest thing facing Cuban kids that want to skateboard is where to find the equipment. This isn’t as simple as it would seem. Somehow, through the goodwill of visitors, and the various ad hoc pieces of bric-a-brac wheels, ball bearings and plywood found wherever they can be, Cuban skaters have endured for decades.
Basic planks of wood and an errant wheel suffice if someone can’t find a board. Gradually, there’s been a relaxation at the borders and a meager amount of boards have made their way into Cuba over the last decade. Still, it’s a trickle to fill an ocean of kid’s wants and needs.
“I would steal plywood from my work station, stick it in water and bend it with a press I made myself,” said Pando Napoles about building his own boards in an interview with the Miami New Times.
The cloistered group of Cuban youngsters Naples boarded with during the inchoate days of Cuban skating ended up congregating in Cuba’s capital of Havana. Specifically, the public square at the corner of 23 and G avenues, or the “23 y G.” Some may know the area as the tumultuous and rebellious Punks of G Street, but Naples and his friends just wanted to skate, not make a political statement.
In their skating oasis at 23 y G, they built their own ramps, wheels and boards. It was all very DIY, and breaking a real deck, even today, meant waiting months, or even years, before being able to find a suitable replacement. ”Back in the 80s, if you were into skateboarding, you had to pray to find someone who would give one to you. Some people traveled to the Soviet Union and brought back boards, or people coming over would give us their stuff,” said Napoles about the paucity of boards back in the day.
As Napoles said, Cuban skaters primarily rely on the generosity of outsiders to get their boards, or they try and make-due with their own handcrafted ones.
Two men in particular have helped with more skateboards in recent years. One is Daniel Abril, a Cuban-American from Coconut Grove, Florida, who spoke in the same 2011 Miami New Times piece Napoles was quoted from. Abril actually had some ironic things to say about the current climate for skaters in Cuba. In some regards it’s more skate-friendly than right here in America (except the equipment part).
“If anything, skateboarders are freer in Cuba,” says Abril. “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.”
That, however, still doesn’t change the shoddy state of Cuban skaters equipment.
One other Cuban-American visited Cuba back in 2011, unbeknownst to Abril. CNN profiled Rene LeCour, the owner of a chain of skateboard shops in Southern Florida. LeCour traveled to Cuba around the same time as Abril after seeing the independent British Documentary, Cuban Skateboard Crisis, and witnessing the anguish on the face of a youngster who had just broken his board. He decided to do something and prepared to tavel to Cuba with skateboards and his family as a sort of humanitarian vacation.
Both Abril and LeCour brought boards during their initial visit to help distribute to Cuban skaters. Initially, LeCour had run into problems finding boards from wholesalers scared off by the stringent import laws and political quagmire of Cuba, but any boards would do. Youngsters and smaller skate shops started donating their used boards to LeCour after hearing about his trip.
There’s such a dearth of skating equipment in Cuba, anything will help, even if it means taking parts off and re-using them. Cuban kids love to skate so much, they’re willing to take turns with a single board so they all have a chance to try.
Together Abril and LeCour brought in only around 25 boards last year during the visit mentioned. They realized, after seeing how many Cuban skaters there actually were, it wouldn’t be nearly enough for everyone. They had also been introduced to Napoles during their trip (he’s impossible to miss if you’re skating in a country as small as Cuba), and he assured them the kids would share, such is their enthusiasm for skating.
Today there are organizations like Skating for Peace, that try to use skateboarding as a conduit for diplomacy and change while also helping to bring skate decks to places like Cuba. Obvious tensions still persist with Cuba and the United States, but the ongoing political situation doesn’t change how industrious the Cuban people have been and how much some, like Abril and LeCour, have tried to help.
Hopefully, Cuban skaters will continue to skate and one day they’ll have equipment that matches their enthusiasm.