HAVANA, Cuba â€” Some call Che Pando the godfather of Havanaâ€™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.
â€œOne time we were a big group of kids skating on the smooth floor in front of the Havana Libre,â€? Pando said. â€œThe hotel security and the cops came running out.â€?
â€œIt was difficult because we were misunderstood by most people,â€? added Pando, who was named after revolutionary commander Ernesto â€œCheâ€? Guevara. â€œThey used to kick us out everywhere.â€?
Attitudes have largely done a 180 and today a small but thriving urban tribe of pierced youths prowls Havanaâ€™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 skatersâ€™ lives even aired on state television, the official arbiter of all things acceptable.
â€œItâ€™s on the TV, so itâ€™s going to be OK,â€? Pando said.
At first glance Cubaâ€™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.
Thereâ€™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 Cubaâ€™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.
Thatâ€™s not to say life still canâ€™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, thereâ€™s not a single store here that sells boards or supplies.
â€œYou could have a skate shop here but it would be like a museum,â€? said Miles Jackson, a 25-year-old from Washington, D.C. â€œYou can look, but nobody can buy anything.â€?
Jackson is co-founder of Cuba Skate, one of a handful of foreign non-profit 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 thatâ€™s the centre of skating activity.