Skateboarders in Cuba find a niche despite outlaw image

Not a single skateboard shop exists in Cuba.

Yet visit these days, and you are likely to see skateboarders on the promenade that abuts Old Havana, and in some parks. Inline skating, once popular, has fallen off in favor of skateboards.

The skateboards have all come as donations from abroad. And obtaining one, even if it is dinged up, splintered or patched together, is a feat.

“If I tell you how I got this, you will laugh,” said Andrea Hernández, a 27-year-old former tour guide carrying her colorfully painted skateboard along the Paseo del Prado promenade. “I built this. People gave me the parts.”

Skateboarding is another example of how Cubans have learned to make do as they try to emulate trends elsewhere that have not received official sanction in the island nation.

Much as the lack of Internet connections has given rise to semi-clandestine services that download Western movies and television shows to portable hard drives that allow viewers to stay current on the latest entertainment on their home computers, skateboarders have found work-arounds to pursue a passion that is not yet officially recognized as a sport or recreational activity.

Only in the past month or two have authorities offered signs of acceptance. Skateboarding and its practitioners still walk a fine line, and in some neighborhoods skateboarders are harassed.

“Police don’t like it. They kick us out. They take kids to the police station. … They say, ‘My boss doesn’t let you skate here,’” Hernandez said.

But skateboarders have poked and probed and found a niche. Far from central Havana, in a park behind a hospital, they gather in the concrete basin of an abandoned and drained man-made pond. Ramps rise from the surface. Boarders do ollies, railslides and kickflips, riding up and down the ramps. In the late afternoon, the sounds are percussive: whap, thump, slap.

Overseeing the crew is Yojany Pérez Rivera, whose dreadlocks fly in the wind as he barrels up and down ramps, among the most veteran of Cuban skateboarders.

“We’ve been trying to teach people that it’s not a kids’ thing, that it’s an art form, like photography. It’s a way to express yourself,” said Pérez, whose friends call him by his nickname, “Mamerto,” the rough equivalent of “dummy.” He doesn’t seem insulted.

A daredevil by nature, Pérez makes his living as a window-washer of high-rise buildings, scaling the tallest hotels in Havana. He surfs and now skateboards. He is aware of what many older Cubans think.

“They think we are a bunch of bums with too much time on our hands,” he said.

In Cuba, recreational options are limited. A handful of skateboards entered the country in the 1980s and 1990s. A short English-language documentary that came out in 2007, “Cuban Skateboard Crisis,” raised awareness in the global skateboard community of the difficulties of obtaining boards in Cuba.

“I saw that and thought, ‘That’s pretty harsh,’” said Scott McDonald, 41, a lifelong Canadian skateboarder from Hamilton, Ontario. A restaurant and nightclub owner, McDonald rallied friends to donate new and used boards to take to Cuba.

He said he’s taken a total of around 400 skateboards to Cuba since then and comes under a group called Amigo Skate Cuba. Other nonprofit groups, notably, say they are also taking skateboards. Each trip rejuvenates the activity in the streets.

“It’s like rainfall in the desert. Everything pops back up again. It’s an awesome feeling,” McDonald said. “It’s the only (skateboard) scene in the world that’s 100 percent completely dependent on the generosity of others.”

Skateboarding still retains an outcast image here, adding to its appeal.

“When I saw it, I was really attracted. I’d never heard of it. It was completely new,” said Raciel Pereda Bernet, who has been skateboarding now for about a decade.

“We rely on donations. It’s kind of sad because this is a healthy sport,” said Pereda, who earns his living as a tattoo artist. In scripted letters across his chest reads an English-language tattoo: “We are the generation of different concepts.”

Rene Lecour, the son of Cuban immigrants to South Florida, is a founder of Amigo Skate Cuba and a former skateboard shop owner. For years, he and his friends, too, have been taking skateboards to the island.

“We thought we were kind of under the radar. We were smuggling the stuff in,” Lecour said in a telephone interview. But something odd happened. “It’s grown to where the Cuban government contacted us to see if we would partner with them in a new skate park.”

So Lecour, McDonald and a series of skateboard park designers from places like Denmark, Sweden, Puerto Rico, the United States and Canada are collaborating on site plans for the park.

“We’re looking at building concrete bowls, banks and ledges,” McDonald said.

Lecour said he could still hardly believe the turn of events.

“A couple of hooligans partnering with the Cuban government on a skate park? It sounds like a movie,” he said.

The National Institute of Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, Cuba’s state sports branch, has taken an interest. Lecour said the institute would issue ID cards later this year to those skateboarders wanting to come under its purview. Not everyone will embrace the government’s intervention.

“Some guys won’t go to a skate park. They just want to skate on the streets,” Lecour said.

Even if the skateboard park gets built, the Cuban government is still unlikely to permit a private skateboard shop. That means not all young Cubans who want a skateboard will get one. Nor do they normally wear kneepads, helmets or elbow protectors. Such padding is not readily available.

Swollen and twisted ankles are common, as are skinned knees.

“I’ve fallen a few times,” said Jose Alejandro Hermida, pointing to a scab on his knee.

The rustic ramps at the drained pond are not always smooth, ripping up clothing.

“See how my shoes are worn out?” said Ezequiel Betanquourt, a 20-year-old skateboarder. He lifts a sole with a hole in it. Other boarders said they have to use silicone to repair shoes.

Even as they make do with poor equipment, camaraderie is tight. Arriving skateboarders greet everyone individually at the pond, a quick hand slap and a fist bump, a few words of salutation.

“It is so delicious, so cool. I like it, brother,” Betanquourt said. “I have to be on the board every day.”