Uprising – ESPN goes to Cuba


This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 17 Cuba Issue.


NOT LONG AGO, surfers in Havana had to fashion boards out of plywood desks stolen from classrooms. Today they surf on fiberglass boards left behind by tourists and donated by pros. They buy wet suits on the black market.

Economic changes are crashing into Cuban life like waves onto the rocks at the beach on Calle 70, one of Havana’s top surf spots. Small businesses are opening. A law that took effect in January eases restrictions on the sale of new and used cars — albeit at massive markups. Cuba won’t be mistaken for a free market any time soon, but it sits at the precipice of a new path.

And Cuba’s small community of skaters, surfers and BMXers sits at the precipice of the precipice. They have made an imported culture their own. They ride Frankenbikes, assembled piece by piece over years, and skate with no aspiration for sponsorship or fame. To the international media, they’ve become both a metaphor for Cuba’s gradual opening — “Not even the Castros can keep out kickflips!” — and a symbol of its continued isolation: There are still more skaters than skateboards in Havana.

But after spending five days on Havana’s action-sports scene, it’s tough to attach much political motive to its athletes. Five minutes into my first conversation with a lanky brown-haired skater named Raciel, who wears fake diamond earrings and has red kiss marks tatted up and down his torso, he says, “I don’t think about politics or any of that, much less while I’m skating.” Raciel skates because he likes to skate.

The primary skater hangout in Havana is at 23 & G, a small park on a busy intersection in Vedado, the leafy neighborhood that became Havana’s commercial center in the prerevolution 1950s. Commuters wait for buses. Couples nurse beers on the green benches. Local characters make the rounds, chatting away the afternoon. In the middle of the park, several skaters set up a rail and take turns grinding it. Others smoke cigarettes 
in the shade. A little boy, enthralled, makes it his mission to retrieve the skateboards that go rolling away after missed tricks.

“This is how they start,” says Che Pando. The 41-year-old has been skating for decades and now runs a tattoo parlor — unlicensed, because that’s the only kind of tattoo parlor in Cuba. In the 1980s, he says, friends used to bring junk boards and punk-rock cassettes back from the Soviet bloc. The scene was rougher, more political, drunker then. Now it’s all innocent and fun, Pando says.

Yojany Perez is that innocence personified. He throws himself repeatedly off a 10-stair at the monument to former Cuban president Jose Miguel Gomez, laughing as he tumbles hard on the marble. He’s a tireless skater and surfer, a former economics student who now runs an unregistered cellphone-repair business with his best buddy, whom everybody calls Charlie Brown. Perez doesn’t believe in athletic competition, except with himself.

He pulls me to a corner to talk, nods at a security camera pointed where we were standing. The skaters have been run off this spot before. “People aren’t used to this group of us, who dress different from society, who think differently,” he says. “Everybody’s thinking about partying, about money, about women, and we’re thinking about skating, surfing. We like to party too, but we have something more.”

The action-sports scene in Havana is small enough that the best surfers are often the best skaters or in-liners or BMX riders. When there are waves, Perez surfs with his roommate, Frank Gonzalez, winner of Cuba’s unofficial BMX national championship. Gonzalez got his bike from American rider Sean Sexton, who came to Cuba last August. When the pegs broke, he replaced them with PVC pipe. He handed down his old bike to a friend.

This is the economy of action-sports gear in Cuba. Somebody acquires a board, his old board goes to a friend, whose old board goes to another friend, and onward. At the beach on Calle 70 in Miramar, Gonzalez and Perez often run into tourists, who sometimes 
leave them a board. Eventually, that gear gets passed on to less touristy neighborhoods like Santa Fe, where kids sometimes still surf on pieces of plywood. (In a scene almost entirely devoid of women, Santa Fe was home to Cuba’s first all-female surf team.)

It’s nearly impossible for the athletes to get new equipment — the Cuban government confiscates any action-sports gear shipped in from outside. But the absence of skate shops, and of institutional support, gives the scene a sort of purity. People skate, surf and ride simply because it’s what they want to do. These are only political activities in the sense that they’re handcuffed by larger political forces.

“When the government of Cuba gives something, it also demands something,” Pando says. “And it will try to get involved, try to take control of your thing. And that would be bad; we would lose the liberty we have.”

But the scene is already changing. Skaters wear earbuds dangling out of their T-shirts, tinny Wiz Khalifa songs drifting from them. They have cellphones. Perhaps because there is so little of it, they obsess over gear.

On Friday afternoons, skaters like to gather at a small club called El Diablo Tun Tun for a rock matinee. At a recent show, the bar was packed, with a line out the door and bottles of Havana Club rum on every table. The band, Los Gen, worked its way through a set of covers ranging from Adele to Toto while the skaters sang along to all of it. At one point, Perez looked over at me, dreadlocks banging, beer raised, and asked, “Do you know Audioslave?”

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Adam Wiseman for ESPN
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