The name of Havana’s iconic “Ciudad Libertad” (Liberty City) never made better sense. Four years ago, a group of young people created a space, using their own resources and initiative, where they could express themselves freely: their own skatepark.
They chose an abandoned building, located on the corner of 29F and 29E streets. Before they arrived there, it was used for dumping garbage and was also a shelter and favorite place among the shadiest figures.
Skateboarding officially became a sport, as an established physical and competitive activity, in the mid-1970s; it would come to Cuba a decade later. Children with parents who used to regularly travel abroad, and children of diplomats were the first ones to get a skateboard. Others weren’t so lucky and had to make their own skateboards out of whatever they had available, including Che Alejandro Pando, who is a famous tattoo artist and icon on Cuba’s skate scene.
“I used the wheels off of some old iron skates which were then screwed into a board. I had to get a hold of some Winchester ones because they were the only ones which folded, Russian skates back then didn’t fold and they weren’t any good for making a skateboard. Back then, the vast majority of people made their own boards, their own wheels, they did everything. We had millions of problems with the police, you practically had to go out on the street with enough money to pay the fine you were going to get from them. Today, nobody makes their own skateboards anymore, but nothing has really changed with regard to anything else,” Che Alejandro says.
Skateboarding isn’t recognized as a sport here in Cuba. Even though the National Olympic Committee is planning to include it in its next Games, Cuban authorities continue to ignore it and don’t encourage its development. It’s hard to find skateboarding items and skateparks, skateboarders are continuously thrown out of public spaces and they have to deal with police hostility: fines, arrests and seizures, many skateboarders say.
Nevertheless, they confess that they haven’t gone looking for recognition from the National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) as they don’t want to have anything to do with so much bureaucracy and they have already been handicapped by this institution. “I don’t trust these people, there’s a lot of corruption there. Everything is a lie, they send you on a wild goose chase, that’s why we went to Ciudad Libertad to make our own skatepark,” Orlando Hernandez tells us, who collaborates with Cuba Skate and Amigo Skate (like many other skateboarders on the island do), two US NGOs which encourage Cuban skateboarding via donations.
In 2015, the California Skatepark company revealed their intention to build a skatepark in Havana as a donation, but officials who had to authorize it just ignored them. A short time after, the State would build one, or tried to at least. “The person who made it knows nothing about skateboarding, everything is too close together and the materials haven’t been used properly. I went there and asked the builders what they were doing and even they didn’t know,” Orlando explained.
One time, INDER managed to interfere and act as an intermediary between skateboarders and a donation from Canada; this body tried to be the owner and boss of skateboards, they kept hold of them and lent them out to young people when they went to use them but they first had to hand their ID cards over, some young people say.
They tell us that when they arrived at the abandoned building at Ciudad Libertad it was “all falling apart”. Windows, a roof, the layout and isolated space made it the perfect place for them to build their own skatepark. Some of them had never lifted a shovel in their lives, but they found a way to make ramps and walls where they can do their tricks today. Over time, some brands like Element and New Balance have given money in exchange for publicity and the skatepark is constantly being improved. According to them, “this is the best there is to skate right now.”
They have been kicked out on more than one occasion so that a commercial or two can be shot there, but they don’t complain too much because the building continues to be state property at the end of the day. Government authorities tolerate their occupation of this space in a kind of unspoken agreement, making use of something which wasn’t any good for anything before, as long as they don’t resist being thrown out for a short time, every once in a while.
You can find 20-30 kids practicing their “way of life” here well into the late evening. They have created a family-like environment, which according to foreign visitors isn’t common in the rest of the world. They organize themselves spontaneously, encourage each other and celebrate each other’s stunts. They compete, but in a “healthy” way with “positive rivalry”.
A large part of society still see skaters as lazy people and outcasts. But, this couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Che Alejandro, skaters (nearly all of whom are teenagers) are an urban tribe through and through: “they dress a certain way, they have their own music, many people learn photography, design, video editing etc. through the world of skate and develop their artistic streak. You see the city differently when you are a skater. You walk down the street and you can see all the stunts you could do everywhere. Tattoos and piercings are part of the package and this is where INDER’s problem also lies, because this isn’t the kind of athlete they want to see.”
According to veteran skaters like Che, “skateboarding sorts out any kid’s life. With the boredom we have in this country, if you give a kid a skateboard and he goes for it, you are giving him something healthy to do, instead of hanging on to the outside of buses or drinking out and about.”
For these kids, skating is almost everything.