I Gave 200 Skateboards to Cuban Kids
|Chris hands out skate gear to a delighted crowd of adorable Cuban teenagers. (Photo by Zered Bassett)|
I am a giving person. I don’t know what it is; it’s just in my nature to put other people before myself. Take yesterday, for instance. I was at the White Castle drive-thru when the little lady inside the glass box told me my total was $5.55. I gave her $21.05. She said I’d given her too much money and tried to give me my extra dollar and nickel back. I explained to her if she used the full $21.05 it would make giving me change easier as she’d only need to grab a ten, a five, and two quarters. She was confused. I assured her that if she typed it into the register just as I’d given it to her, the magic of simple math would take over and planets would align and things would be just as I prophesied. She was doubtful but willing to try it. And oh! How her face lit up when the machine told her to give me a ten, a five, and two quarters. I changed her world that day. Why? Because I care. Sure, she doesn’t grasp mathematics enough to compute any other denominations, but if ever she comes across another $5.55 charge, she’ll be equipped with the knowledge of making change from $21.05. Making a difference in people’s lives can be so rewarding.
Earlier this year I was at a crossroads in my life, unsure if my next good deed should be starting global hunger or ending world peace, when from the clear blue my friend Augie from Acapulco Gold Clothing sent me a link to an internet video called The Cuban Skate Crisis. The short documentary showed how Cuban skaters were affected by the ongoing embargo that started nearly half a century before they were born. They rode awful setups, warped and dilapidated decks, rusty bearings, square wheels, and skate shoes that were so worn and torn they looked more like sandals or flip-flops than anything. One scene showed a kid breaking his board and crying. He was forced to glue, staple, and nail it back together with a two-by-four for reinforcement across the wheelbase. It was heartbreaking knowing that I have three skateshops full of decks I take for granted. The only means for that kid or any of the Cubans to get a new deck is if someone brings it to them.
Having Obama take office and suddenly feeling like we have a reasonable man in the White House, I decided to issue a call to arms to take as much product down to the Cubans as we could carry. But we as Americans have not been able to fly directly into Cuba for nearly 50 years, and any American caught traveling there runs the risk of being fined by our own country anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. And that doesn’t even begin to address the issue of what the Cuban government might do to us if we were arrested.
|Before: Little makeshift skateboards that make you cry. (Photo by Chris Nieratko)|
Needless to say, I was shit-scared. I was planning a mission to a place I’d never been, where I knew no one, didn’t speak the language, didn’t truly understand the boiling political climate, and aside from being responsible for the safety and well-being of the 18 skaters who signed up for the mission… I was also taking my five-months-pregnant wife. In my heart I wanted to believe everything would be kosher, that some higher power would guide us blindly through all the pitfalls because in the end we were embarking on a mission of goodwill. Much like the Blues Brothers, we were on a mission from God. How could we lose?
Well, that’s just foolish thinking. I can tell you now that we would have all ended up in jail if we would have gone down there through Panama and just barged in like I had planned. Like a genius American, I was like, “Dude, we’ll just cruise in and give out a bunch of product. No sweat.” It is by sheer divine luck that I am a free man able to tell you about our adventure.
In January, I went to my friend at Red Bull to see if he’d help pay for some of their skaters to go to Cuba. He said he’d just been approached by documentary filmmaker Tomas Crowder about doing a film on the Cuban skate scene and we should talk. Two weeks later I flew to LA to meet Tomas. He explained that if we would have shown up with that much product at the skatepark, we would have been stopped by soldiers with machine guns, had all our stuff confiscated, and been arrested and interrogated. It just so happened, though, that Tomas had been working with the government to help the skateboarders in Cuba for years, and he could get all the permits and OKs we’d need to pull it off. Three months later, 18 of us boarded flights from our homes to Havana (via Panama) with 50 complete skateboards, 150 decks, 100 sets of wheels, 200 pairs of shoes from éS and Vans, and more skate stuff than your average skateshop.
|After: The future of Cuba is rockin’ to the max with mega-slammin’ gear, yeah! (Photo by Chris Nieratko)|
We arrived in Havana under the cloak of darkness at 2 AM. One by one we slid through customs, unsure of what would happen to us once we reached security. But we all made it. The first of us to make it through had already gone and gotten beers for everyone to celebrate. We made it! All 18 of us. Except the last guy. Of course. Our man Tomas was stopped and pulled in for questioning for an hour. All I could think was we’d lost our guide; we knew no one and we were up shit creek.
Eventually they released him unharmed. Now we had to figure out how many cabs we’d need for 18 people, each with two check-in bags weighing 60 to 90 pounds a bag…
The city of Havana is everything you ever imagined it to be: a once-majestic place frozen in time. The majority of the cars on the roads are pre-60s and American-made. For car guys it’s like being in a car porno. I can see the poor people of that country getting raped and robbed by US car collectors as soon as Obama lifts the embargo.
People were generally friendly to us, happy to see Americans, all with questions about what the outside world is like. Yet there is an underlying stench of fear that permeates the streets. Cuban citizens are always looking over their shoulders, watching to see who might be watching them. I was mid-conversation with a guy at a skate spot and he was telling me how, because of the embargo, the most basic things are not available to him, such as parts to repair a computer or an automobile. He was saying how he has a metal shop in which he fabricates and produces homemade brake pads, and just as the words “brake pads” left his lips he noticed a man in a soldier’s uniform looking in our general direction. Without another word the guy took off running.
More than anything, this trip made me appreciate the freedoms I have in America. There were so many absurd laws and penalties that I was unaware of prior to my visit. The police will basically send you to jail for three years for nearly anything. If you don’t have a job, the police will give you 15 days to get one. No job in 15 days? Three years in jail. There is an OG Cuban skater named Che Alejandro Pando Nápoles who makes his living as a tattoo artist. He told me that he once got an autoclave off the black market but quickly got rid of it because he didn’t have the proper documentation for owning such a machine, and he feared he’d be accused of theft and put in jail for ten years. He now sterilizes his needles with liquids and then puts them in a pressure cooker. As with skateboarders, the only way he can attain inks or needles is if someone miraculously flies into Havana and gives them to him.
The morning of the day we were going to give the boards away at the skatepark, we all sat down by the pool, drinking mojitos, assembly-lining the decks. People from the government, using the hotel’s surveillance cameras, saw what we were doing and insisted on knowing what our motives were. They called the hotel and sent people down to question us. It’s a very disconcerting feeling knowing you are constantly being watched. The surveillance in Cuba makes our Patriot Act look like a drunken doodle on a bar napkin.
When we finally got to give out the decks, all the fear and cloak-and-dagger dancing evaporated. The kids were literally in tears, kissing our hands and kissing the new decks. They even let down their guard enough to ignore the two soldiers at the skateshop who were taking notes on our every move. Skaters sent their grandmothers over to each of us to hug and thank us. In all my travels it was the most uplifting and pure moment I’ve ever experienced. Surprisingly, even more so than with the lady at the White Castle drive-thru.
Special thanks to all the companies and skaters that donated their time and their products to this mission.
See this story in moving pictures sometime before Chris’s newborn goes to college on VBS.TV.