Revolución de Skateboard Cuba

Board game: Ryan
Sheckler kickflips over
a rail in Havana
Revoluci ón
de Skateboard Cuba
Using homemade or second-hand equipment is a world away from
his normal life, but as our man in Havana, US Skate Champion
Ryan Sheckler, found out, skateboarders always push the boundaries,
whatever their circumstances
Words: Ruth Morgan Photography: Jody Morris
Ryan Sheckler with 23 y G skaters (from left) Fernando, Roberto
and unofficial crew ‘leader’ Che. “You can sit around and be bummed
out by how little you’ve got or you can decide to be happy with life
and make it work and be proactive,” says Sheckler. “And that’s what
I like about Cuba. The skaters here make it fun and take it to that other
side. They make boards if they have to, and find shoes to wear somehow”
athed in the orange light of a
Havana sunset, crowds gather
along the Malecón to meet friends
and catch up over shared bottles
of rum. The hum of voices joins
the unending symphony of horn
blasts and mechanical splutters
from ancient American cars as
they roll past the architectural patchwork of buildings
that stand in silent testimony to Cuba’s tumultuous
past. Among the sounds that have long defined the
city at dusk, the roll and scrape of skate wheels on
concrete is audible. Collective cries of victory and
commiseration fill the Prado main street as Havana’s
skateboarders converge in a small square for a night
of competition. Tonight’s crowd is larger than usual:
US skate champion Ryan Sheckler is in town. In
a country officially shaded from the global flow of
information, Sheckler’s fame here demonstrates the
ingenuity and passion of Cuban skaters determined
to bring the outside world in. Skateboard videos and
magazines have been passed on by visitors, and
illegal internet connections made and shared by
hushed groups in small rooms. The Cuban youth
doesn’t have the luxury of adopting a passing craze
– here a life on four wheels must be fought for.
A man named Che is judging the contest with
Sheckler. Che, 36, has been skating for 26 years and
has become skating’s unofficial figurehead in Havana.
As a professional tattoo artist and passionate skater
Che, and those like him, are not readily accepted
in a city where their appearance sets them apart.
“Having tattoos and skateboarding are things that
in my father’s eyes are not good,” he says. Che’s
father fought for the revolution, naming his son
Che Alejandro Pando Napoles in honour of its
leaders, Che Guevara and Fidel Alejandro Castro.
Over the years, he has learned to live with Che’s
lifestyle, his acceptance signified by the tattoo
of Castro he allowed his son to draw on his right
arm with nails and ink: Che’s first creation.
Che has been promising disbelieving kids for
months that Ryan Sheckler would arrive. “Many
skaters feel an isolation in Cuba,” he says. “Like
people can’t come in, they can’t get out. Having
Ryan come here, it seemed impossible back in
the day that someone like him could do that.”
Skateboarding arrived in Cuba when its global
popularity in the ’80s leaked American magazines
into the country, inspiring the first would-be
boarders to attach Russian-made roller skate wheels
to wood. A small, underground community has
grown on Havana’s streets, gathering a pace that’s
now pushing a new generation of skaters into the
light. Donations of equipment come from foreign
visitors, and when in short supply, skateboards are
painstakingly crafted from plywood in homemade
presses, wheels and trucks being bargained for
and reclaimed from old boards or skates.
‘You don’t need money.
Government needs to
understand this is good
for kids. It keeps them
out of trouble’
Tonight the excitable crowd presses into the
square and spills out onto the road. Young EMOs
look down from stone statues, 20-somethings in
faded Michael Jackson T-shirts and jeans hang back,
intrigued, and the skater kids grin, battered boards
held still with mended trainers, grip tape standing
in for cloth and rubber. Ryan Sheckler surveys the
crowd surrounding him with a bemused smile.
With international sponsors, a clothing range and
an MTV series under his belt, skateboarding has given
Sheckler star status at just 19. He’s flown around the
world, hobnobbing with music and sport royalty, and
has built his own indoor skatepark in California. But
as he begins to skate the makeshift Havana skatepark,
Sheckler’s branded clothes are all that sets him apart
from the wheeling throng. Skateboarding is common
language enough as Sheckler laughs and high-fives
with the Cuban kids as if they were old friends.
There are both crashes and triumphs as they skate,
and grazed legs are freshly scraped in the quest to
land the next trick. Skaters of all levels line up for
their turn, surrounded by the densely packed forest
of enthusiastic spectators. A core of contenders soon
emerges, executing kickflips and bigspins on the
concrete, grinding backside tailslides and 50-50s on
the ledge. They are the members of the 23 y G crew,
named after the skatepark set between two roads,
23 and G where skateboarding first began in Havana.
The lack of decent skate parks has made these
Cubans street-skate experts, and the competition
is tough, but friendly. “It’s different here,” says
Sheckler. “If I try and skate a spot at home and fall,
kids laugh. Here, I’ll be skating and when I land
a trick they’re psyched and when I fall they’re like
‘c’mon, you got it’. That’s the brotherhood of
skateboarders here. These kids are wild.”
The crew is spending the week taking Sheckler
around their favourite skate spots, a trip organised
by former Argentinian surf champion and filmmaker
Tomas Crowder. A tireless advocate for Cuban
skateboarders, Crowder has been working on a film
about the skate scene for nearly four years, as well
as organising the only official skate competitions
and encouraging government ministries to promote
the sport. Though he has been sanctioned by the
government to help develop action sports in the
country, his efforts are still jeopardised by red
tape, a lack of funds and, as ministers come and go,
a constantly shifting official attitude towards his
endeavours. He hopes the film, The Other Che, will
publicise globally the struggle of skaters in a country
where monthly earnings average around $13, and
show Cubans the real potential of skateboarding.
“Action sports, which involve a huge amount of
trial and error, really build confidence,” he says. “If
you are able to lose your fear, and pull off a really
hard manoeuvre, why can’t you achieve something
that someone tells you is impossible? In troubled
communities where self-esteem is low, these sports
can really help. It gives another perspective on life.”
As the final rounds of the contest are played out,
Sheckler presents new pairs of Etnies trainers to the
ecstatic final few. They hold the boxes protectively,
as if someone may take them away, grinning with
disbelief. The trainers will last infinitely longer
than the cheap pairs they mend almost daily. And
they have come from Ryan Sheckler, giving them
a rare sense of legitimacy too. Skaters are officially
seen as little more than vagabonds in Cuba,
something they are trying to change.
“In the past, people in Cuba were starving,”
says Che. “It was like war without the bombs. But
even then I still got so much fun. If you’re skating
with your friends you don’t need much. Water and
maybe bread. You don’t need money. The people
in government need to understand that this is good
for kids. It keeps them out of trouble. Give a kid
a skateboard and he will be the happiest kid.”
The end of the contest brings pandemonium as
fans surround Sheckler. One moment he’s sharing
a trick, the next he appears posing for pictures with
a legion of giggling girls. Then, his arm around the
shoulder of 23 y G skater Roberto Pons, he beatboxes
for an impromptu freestyle rap in a language he
doesn’t understand. “This is wild!” he grins
afterwards. “I love this place.
“It’s a 100 per cent turnaround from living in
America and having piles of skateboards,” he says.
“Here it takes a week to make one board. They do
what they have to do to be involved in this world. It
shows their passion. I’m definitely going to try not
to snap anymore boards. I take it for granted how
many skateboards I have because I’d never seen the
other side of it. But I’ve never seen a place so happy.
Sheckler cheers on 17-year-old Roberto, who discovered
skateboarding by playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater on a games
console a foreign friend brought into Cuba. “Our 23 y G
brand is important as it lets people know what we’re doing,”
he says. “It means a lot, because it’s the only thing
we have that is truly ours.” Below: (from left) Ryan meets
his Cuban fans; Che tries to maintain some order at the
unofficial street contest; Roberto raps for the crowd
Reinaldo Jorge Vicet
Reyes is 14 and a
23 y G member who
has been skating for
five years. The sport
opened up new
friendships to him
after he had problems
at school, and he says
Che was instrumental.
“Skating changed
everything for me and
Che is a big part of
that,” he says. “He
is the first to share,
the first who will get
shoes for us. If grip
tape is missing he
will give it to us. He
takes care of us and
if a new kid doesn’t
have a skate [board]
he will get one. He
really helps us”
Above: Ryan drops
into a disused pool,
one of Havana’s
local skate spots.
Left: Fernando
Verdecia Maseda is
dedicated to a life
of skating, despite
the objections of his
father, a local police
officer. “My dad isn’t
interested in any of
this,” he says. “My
mum also told me
not to do it, but
since I was so
determined, she
gave up trying to
convince me in the
end. I will skate
forever or die trying.
If we can get more
resources and
people keep coming
from abroad to help
us, then we can be
as good as anywhere
else in the world.
There is talent here”
They have almost nothing here, but everyone works
together. You can lose that in America.”
The 13 members of the skate crew have clubbed
together to create a 23 y G T-shirt for Sheckler, which
they give him at the end of the night, apologising for
the stains on the only shirt they had. With his endless
supply of branded clothes, it has been a while since
Sheckler put on a stained T-shirt, but he thanks
them, looking genuinely touched. Despite his jet-set
lifestyle, it seems that Sheckler may remember this
evening for as long as the kids who surround him.
Che and the 23 y G skaters are largely unsure of
what to expect in the future. They hope for easier
access to equipment, skateparks and the opportunity
to see other countries. The younger skaters dream
of sponsorship, while Che fears the effects of too
much change. “Having people coming here and
giving away stuff is a temporary solution,” he says.
“But I don’t want Cuba to become commercial, or
that will be the end of how we do things here.”
One certainty in the future of Cuban skating is
that it will continue to be fought for. “If I didn’t have
to work I would just spend all my time skating,
skating and skating some more,” says 17-year-old
23 y G skater Fernando Verdecia Maseda. “It belongs
to us. It’s our goal. It’s our purpose in life.”
The Other Che, co-produced by FUEL TV and Red Bull
will be released in early 2010. Visit and for more info