HAVANA – Some call Che Pando the godfather of Havana’s skateboarding scene, and the 40-year-old tattoo artist can still recall how tough things were in the 1980s when he and a handful of other pioneers first started shredding in public squares.
Like listening to rock music in the 1960s, interest in such a uniquely American import marked the young skaters as socially suspicious, and sometimes for rough treatment by police and arrest, though their experiences were perhaps not all that different from confrontations between U.S. skaters and civic authorities concerned about the destruction of public property.
“One time we were a big group of kids skating on the smooth floor in front of the Havana Libre,” Pando said. “The hotel security and the cops came running out.”
“It was difficult because we were misunderstood by most people,” added Pando, who was named after revolutionary commander Ernesto “Che” Guevara. “They used to kick us out everywhere.”
Attitudes have largely done a 180 ollie, to borrow the term for a popular aerial manoeuvr, and today a small but thriving urban tribe of pierced youths prowls Havana’s streets, looking to have fun and, just maybe, land the perfect trick.
Familiarity has come through high-profile visits by professional skateboarders and brands such as Red Bull; a brief partnership with a local cigarette company that helped build a skate ramp, and a series of semi-sanctioned or at least tolerated trick competitions. A program documenting skaters’ lives even aired on state television, the official arbiter of all things acceptable.
“It’s on the TV, so it’s going to be OK,” Pando said.
At first glance Cuba’s skaters look like they could be from anywhere. They pass around videos of their tricks set to thumping hip-hop soundtracks. They seize on fashion trends from imported magazines and video clips, accessories such as baggy shorts, wallet chains, nose rings and hats worn askew.
There’s no formal organization or leadership. They just meet casually at homes before skating off in a pack to whatever park, plaza, fountain or monument offers challenging features like ramps, steps, benches or holes to jump.
Recently a friend of the community opened his home to what may have been Cuba’s first art and photography show dedicated to skateboarding. Painted on one wall was a crucified Jesus silhouette nailed to a neon cross of interlocking skateboards. Dozens showed up to hang out, joke around and sip rum.
That’s not to say life still can’t be a little bit gnarly for skateboarders in Cuba.
In this Communist-run country where government salaries average around $20 a month, few can afford skateboards that can cost north of $100. In fact, there’s not a single store here that sells boards or supplies.
“You could have a skate shop here but it would be like a museum,” said Miles Jackson, a 25-year-old from Washington, D.C. “You can look, but nobody can buy anything.”
Jackson is co-founder of Cuba Skate, one of a handful of foreign nonprofits that import donated equipment for Cuban skaters.
He arrived in Havana recently with six 110-kilogram suitcases stuffed with swag: 25 boards, 10 pairs of shoes, hats, stickers and shirts emblazoned with the logo of 23rd and G, the downtown Havana intersection that’s the centre of skating activity.
On a recent afternoon he watched as a couple dozen teens and young men â€” no women have joined the 50-some skaters who make up the core of the city’s skate community â€” rolled around the concrete plaza for hours pulling off ollies and 360 degree flips.
Roberto Torres, a 17-year-old student, let out a shout of disgust when a hard landing split his board.
Days later he was back at it, using one of the newly imported boards in a trick contest held at a staircase outside Havana’s main sports complex.
As the shadows grew long, shirt-backs became sweaty and dirty from repeated, grunting tumbles to the pavement.
Alfredo Lam, a slender 15-year-old nicknamed “Chino,” won the day with a complicated manoeuvr called a hardflip, where the board rotates 180 degrees and flips. He chose as his prize a pair of blue and black Vans shoes brought by Jackson. They were more or less the right size.
“It’s really exciting,” he said.
Lam said it was his first time landing the trick. Last time he tried, he snapped his board.
With trick skating, a board may have a life expectancy of a month or less. Not knowing where the next one may come from, Cubans say they’re often cautious about what tricks they attempt.
Gifts from family overseas and visiting strangers are their lifeline.
About once a month, Jackson hears from someone like Andreas Sabitzer, a 30-year-old camera assistant from Vienna who found Cuba Skate through Google while planning a trip to the island. He ended up bringing a duffel full of boards, tape, wheels, ball bearings and a skate wrench.
“I learned there is a scene … and I also learned they don’t have anything to buy here, so I thought I need to bring some stuff to support the community,” Sabitzer said.
“I can’t imagine (how they are) getting shoes and stuff. It all costs a lot of money,” he added. “Even for back home, people sometimes have trouble affording it especially when they are young.”
Jackson is part of a team that’s making a documentary short about skating in Cuba for a U.S. television network and he travelled to Cuba under a journalists’ exception to the U.S. embargo.
The embargo bars Americans from financial transactions with the Cuban government, but allows humanitarian donations that go directly to private citizens.
Other difficulties plaguing Havana skaters include potholed or cobblestone streets. While a sunken concrete BMX and skate park was updated in 2010, it was full of weeds and stagnant water at the time of a recent visit, its ramps rusty from lack of maintenance.
Skateboarding was imported to the island around three decades ago by the children of diplomats and other Cubans sent on foreign missions.
As with many other aspects of Cuban society, scarcity gave birth to desperate invention.
Pando said he made his first board from a piece of plywood and metal wheels scavenged from Winchester roller skates that predated the 1959 Cuban Revolution. He still dreams about it occasionally.
While others from his generation stopped skating as they got older, he keeps going as an escape from his frustrations with daily life.
“You know how we’re living here. People are too stressed out,” Pando said. “You do this, you don’t need anything.”