Comment

How skateboarding is changing Cubas youth

WALTER LOHR

4.30.2015

 

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.

Comment

Comment

Skateboard Rodeo rolls into town

The annual Skateboard Rodeo returns with three days of contests and fun to raise funds for local and international charities.

Skateboard Rodeo
Sept. 15, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

  • Westwind Lakes Skate Park
    6805 SW 152 Ave., Miami

By Amy Reyes9/11/2012

More than 100 skaters will converge at Westwind Lakes Skate Park this Saturday for the third annual Skateboard Rodeo with $3,000 in prizes and sponsorships up for grabs. Watch as the intrepid skaters compete in events like the highest ollie contest, barrel jumping (let's see if this classic rodeo event works out for skateboards, too), stair contests and many more.

The event will be hosted by Chris Casey of FuelTV's Captain & Casey Show. The event wlll help to raise funds for Amigo Skate Charity, a local non-profit based in Miami that works locally to help provide at-risk youth with skateboard equipment, positive role models and summer skate field trips, as well as hosted food collections for the homeless, free skate instruction clinics and Christmas toy drives. Amigo Skate Charity also travels to Havana, Cuba twice a year to provide underprivileged children on the island with free skateboards, art supplies and music equipment. They have hosted skate contests, action sports tours and underground music events in Havana. They return to Cuba in mid-October with a group of skaters from across the globe with the purpose of bringing more skateboarding equipment.

Skaters and non-skaters alike will find plenty of entertainment: interactive street art, bounce house, live music, face painting, art exhibits and a massive game of dodge ball. Pick up a few baubles at 305 Green's “Punk Rock Flea Market" featuring a funky mix of original and eclectic finds, locally made products.

Organizer Rene Lecour is excited: "This year's Skateboard Rodeo will be the most epic action sports event to ever hit South Florida with 12 hours of bone-crushing mayhem fun. I think we are giving the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus a pretty good run for the 'Greatest Show on Earth.' "

Comment

Comment

American brings skateboard diplomacy to Cuba

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Rene Lecour's plan started out simple: Take his son on a skateboarding trip to someplace "epic."

While he and his son, Kaya, were searching the internet, they saw videos of Cuba's skateboarders making do with beaten-up and jerry-rigged boards.Economic shortages and the U.S. embargo make it difficult to get most sporting equipment there. For skateboarders, it was nearly impossible.We both said right away, 'We are going there,' " Lecour recalled.

Lecour owns a chain of skateboard shops in South Florida and thought his contacts in the skating community would make it easy for him to bring boards to Cuba.He was wrong."I e-mailed every single skateboard company I know," Lecour said. "The only two responses I got were unfortunately one person who said we shouldn't be allowed to go because of the embargo. Another 'genius' said we shouldn't come because all the skaters are all communist."

As a first-generation Cuban-American, Lecour had already been dreaming of visiting the island where his parents where born. The recent relaxing of travel restrictions under the Obama administration makes visiting easier for Cuban-Americans and for people on cultural exchange trips.But he didn't want to go empty-handed.A former DJ whose arms are crisscrossed with tattoos, Lecour put out the word that any board, no matter how worn or weathered, would be welcomed by the Cubans.Slowly, as he and his family got ready for the trip, skateboards began to trickle in.

"The response from the kids has been amazing," Lecour said. "It's easier for a 9-year-old kid who skates to understand the need than for a 30-year-old head of a skateboard company, who just doesn't get it."

A week before the flight to Cuba, he held a skateboard party for people wishing to donate. Heavy metal rock played at a skate park in Miami's Kendall neighborhood in the background as dozens of teenagers practiced their moves.

The boards continued to pile up in front of Lecour."This is really awesome," he said as the reality of the trip sank in. Cuban skaters like Che Alejandro Pando Napoles rely on generous foreigners like Lecour.Pando said there are skate parks around the island but no skate shops. There is nowhere for skaters to buy their first boards or replace ones that break, he said."Sometimes, it holds back your progression," Pando said. "You see a set of stairs and you say, 'I am not going to do anything down there because I will break my board. I'd rather keep my board healthy than do that trick I really want do.' "Pando lives for skating, a point he drives home by showing visitors his wedding video where, after the ceremony, he, his bride and wedding party roar away on skateboards.

It's easier for a 9-year-old kid who skates to understand the need [in Cuba] than for a 30-year-old head of a skateboard company, who just doesn't get it.
--Rene Lecour

Before coming to Cuba, Lecour had been trying to get in touch with Pando, the closest thing to a leader in Havana's skate scene. Within an hour after landing, Lecour randomly bumped into Pando on the street in a kind of only-in-Havana coincidence.The two skaters quickly made plans to skate together and distribute the duffel bags full of boards and gear that Lecour brought with him.Walking into the skateboard area at Havana's Parque Metropolitano, Lecour immediately saw several dozen skaters and realized that he hadn't brought enough equipment to go around. Pando told him not to worry and said they would hold a skate competition.

As the local skaters flew off ramps and attempted tricks, the Americans' eyes went wide. Lecour; his wife, Yirka; son, Kaya; and family friend Shane were stunned that the Cubans skated the way they did with the sorry gear they had."I don't how that guy uses such small wheels on that board," Lecour whispered.Soon, the contest was over. While most of the skaters didn't win boards, they seemed happy with the hats, T-shirts or sunglasses they received.The skaters who won boards wore ear-to-ear grins.Lecour says he doesn't want to be portrayed as "the gringo coming to the rescue.""The Cuban skaters have been incredibly generous. They keep inviting us to meals and to get together," he said. "I am already thinking of my next trip and all the gear I am going to bring."

Comment