Havana, Cuba, has a weathered, beat-up skatepark. Most of the obstacles are made of steel, rusted to a dark, brownish red. The park is a stark contrast to the smooth, concrete parks that are all over the U.S. and Canada. It looks like it was built in the 1990’s for BMX riders. The dilapidated state of the park doesn’t slow the Cuban skaters and bikers, though—especially when we held a huge event there in February.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Havana three times with a charity called Amigo Skate. We travel heavily loaded with donated skateboard products and clothing to give to the city’s skateboarders. It’s impossible find skateboarding equipment in Cuba—it can’t be imported—and most Cubans wouldn’t have money to buy it, anyway. The charity is championed by two Floridians, Rene Lecour and his wife Yilka, who own several skate shops around Miami, and the pair has taken nine trips to deliver things like wheels, decks, clothes, and helmets since they started the charity in 2009.
The couple saw the need for skate products in Cuba after seeing a documentary called The Cuban Skate Crisis. In the film, one skater recounted how kids would be very careful not to break their boards. Like the vintage cars that Havana is know for, skateboards need to be taken great care of in Cuba because replacements are impossible to find. The young skater teared up as he described the period of time when he didn’t have a functional skateboard as “the dark months.” So, they wanted to help these kids. Skateboarders can be a bit of a tribe or an extended family that takes care of each other. Rene rallied his friends and those who were interested for that first trip six years ago.
The beat-up skate park is located in a forested area with a patinodromo, an outdoor roller-blading rink. There are also several worn buildings in the area, of which only two are functional. One serves as a kind of ranger station and the other as a bar that sells Cuban soda and beer, when they have it. The other buildings are completely ruined and covered in graffiti. But that day of the event, the park was alive. We had a DJ that was kicking out the jams and the elder Cuban skaters pumped up the crowd, instigating a raucous product toss and a group-skate session. The only hitch was that a government official who oversees the park informed us that playing rap music was prohibited, and he’d shut the event down if we continued. We complied—these strange things sometimes happen in Cuba.
The kids that come out to the events range in ages from about 9 to 19 and they are always psyched. There doesn’t seem to be too many fun events or activities for kids in Cuba, and that may be one of the reasons we have such a strong turn out every time. The events are publicized by word-of-mouth only. We don’t do any marketing because we don’t want to attract attention from outside the skate scene—the events need to fly under the radar because otherwise, we’d need the government’s approval, which is hard to get. We have just begun to speak with some officials about building another “official” skatepark.
Many of the kids don’t have boards or bikes so they just watch the action. Some girls come to the events but few skate; however, there may be more Cuban girls skating soon. You can see some signs of that scene growing, but traditional roles in Cuban society may be slowing girls’ entrance to skateboarding. Greater availability of skate products and more travel by women and girl skaters from other countries may help change that.
When you give a skateboard to young kid who has very little, you can see how happy it makes him. Many of them are are unabashedly grateful. I was really struck by the first skater who thanked me for “not forgetting about us.” Getting a first skateboard and entering the word of skateboarding can be a life-changing event. In our years of trips we’ve seen Cuban skaters mature to become the elders of the skate scene. They seem eager to foster the scene with the younger skaters and they certainly seem to be appreciative of our efforts and friendship.
For this year’s event, we were joined by a contingent of Canadians and New Yorkers who were charged to do their part for the skate scene. They were fired up with a zeal that we had expected from such a fine group. The Canadians had established a rapport with a Czech skateboader named Jakob who worked at the Czech embassy and had been building some new concrete obstacles at the park. The plan was to meet at the park two days after the contest and to assist in any way we could. Jakob is a fine guy who showed his appreciation for our efforts with the gift of some Cohibas. We had to leave early the next day, so we bid everyone farewell just as the mosquitoes came out. Although we didn’t get to skate the finished obstacle, it was great to hang out with a bunch of new friends and come together to help the family we never knew we had.
The year is not over for Amigo Skate Cuba, with a trip planned for Go Skateboarding Day in June, and another to build more skate obstacles when temperatures start to cool in December. More trips will go in early 2016 as well. If you’re interested in getting involved or would like more info, check out there website at Amigoskate.com. We’d love for you to join us.