Skaters in Cuba

Among Havana’s 1950s cars, bikes and motorcycle sidecars, one occasionally hears the roll and smash of skateboards, a mix of Cuban and international — frequently American — influences. In Cuba, they are known as “patinadores” although their Emerica and Vans brands also identify them as “skaters,” many of their Facebook names appended with “sk” alluding to “sk8.”

The majority of articles written about skateboarding in Cuba touch on the sport’s short history on the island and the skateboarder’s lack of resources, but they often ignore the Cuban skater’s global outlook and frustrations with social, political and economic realities in Cuba. While the skaters in Havana have coined “patinar o muerte” (skate or die) as a play on the revolutionary “patria o muerte” (homeland or death), they are a group marked by apathy and a strong desire to leave the island due to a lack of opportunities. Grievances range from low quality ration book coffee to the ridiculousness of nightclubs closing early due to “electricity shortages” to the overabundance of construction or food service jobs with few other openings.

Skateboarding’s beginnings in Cuba are generally attributed to Che Alejandro Pando Napoles, a tattoo artist who introduced the sport to the island during the 1980s, having picked it up from tourists and crafting his own board. It became popular outside notable nationalistic landmarks around Havana, such as the Habana Libre hotel or the Monument to Estrada Palma on the well-known Calle G, despite disapproval by locals who consider skateboarding on these sites disrespectful. Che still skates, even though he is now forty-one years old and recently had his right arm in a cast from attempting a trick.

The torch of Cuban skating has been passed on to a younger generation called “23 y G” after the streets where they congregate. It has developed a different style and a distinct world outlook. These are boys who know more about my hometown (Seattle) and ‘90s television shows than I do, who tell me about the armed forces’ name — Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, joked as Fusilen a Raúl or Rematen a Fidel, ‘kill the president’ — and who speak rap-song English. The ages of the 23 y G skaters range from early teens to late 20s. Some are still in school, some have completed their military service (obligatory two-year service for men within the ages of 17-28) and most don’t work.

Skateboarding in Cuba is an equalizing sport, with the son of a famous Cuban artist doing tricks in blown-out shoes just like the boy next to him. Socioeconomic status among 23 y G skaters varies subtly: some have family living abroad sending remittances, a few live in the more obvious poverty of crumbling houses and limited food, and a handful hold food service or craftsman positions.

While a small sector of society, the boys — any girls present are girlfriends — express many of the frustrations and thoughts held by their generation in Cuba, though theirs seem to be particularly felt and critical. Skateboarding still exists on the fringes of acceptable society, viewed as socially suspicious and invasive. Recently it has been subject of a crackdown — the reason mostly unknown — at popular skating sites, forcing the various members to skate at night, in less suitable venues or not at all. The laws of where to skate are unclear, and while there is now the Patinodromo skate park created by 23 y G, it isn’t sufficient nor nearby. It’s joked that because there is the occasional tolerated competition and a documentary that aired on national television that skating is increasingly acceptable. As a rule, the police aren’t popular within the group, histories of misunderstandings and discrimination leading to constant tension. Any interaction with the police — such as trying to translate between Cuban police and Canadian tourist skaters — can start a fight and land a skater in jail, his board confiscated.

An important aspect of skating culture in Cuba is the limitations imposed by a lack of gear. If a board breaks or is taken away it could mean an indefinite end to skating, unless he’s lucky enough to have a back up with spare parts or a friend willing to lend him one. While the occasional visitor is aware of the still bourgeoning skating culture and brings decks, wheels, trucks and shoes to fortify the skating groups, any sort of aid exists within relationships of provision and advantage taking prevalent throughout the island. For example with a group visit, Che makes a list of skaters who have asked for specific items, which they sometimes sell at a markup instead of using themselves.

The organization Cuba Skate was started after founders Miles Jackson and Lauren Bradley studied abroad in Havana. Miles calls the skaters his brothers, and his trips to Havana to bring gear are characterized by hanging out at the local pizza place, potentially going to the Thursday-night club, and skating — almost twenty-four hours nonstop with the crew. To everyone, Cuban or American, skateboarding as a new extension of Cuban culture fosters a strong sense of solidarity. Regardless, the tension of being a benefactor here is ever-present, Miles expressing his own frustration that “Cubans, especially skaters, have this mentality of expectations… that we should feel obligated to give them things.” Skaters rely on donations from abroad, and while Miles with the patinadores — and tourists with Cubans in general — are frequently asked to pay for food or to gift the shirt off your back and the shoes off your feet to a friend, the Cubans are similarly unhappy with the sometimes unfair division of goods knowing that if these organizations fail, they are the ones left hanging with no way to fill the gap.

Almost all the patinadores have plans of some sort to leave the island, either for Canada or the United States. Their clothing and music choices reflect their mental outlook. Many have friends or family living in Miami, New Jersey or Las Vegas. All are friendly, helpful and funny, and mostly stick to self-deprecating comments or political jokes to acknowledge hardships. Sometimes, however, the true frustration shows itself and their seemingly relaxed existence is put in perspective.