On Halloween night I boarded a plane bound for Cuba, a country I was told my whole life that I shouldn’t visit. Teachers told me that this island nation was an example of the failure of socialism and the rise of dictatorship. Friends who had visited painted an image of this nation that left much to be desired. But despite less than positive reviews there was something intriguing about a place that seemed so drastically different from my daily life. So when my friend Norma Ibarra approached me about going to support the local skate scene in partnership with the non-profit organization Cuba Skate, I didn’t hesitate. I was eager to help, and was also curious to learn what life is like in Cuba—and more specifically, what it means to be a skateboarder there.
After traveling for over 12 hours from various departure cities, Seattle, Vancouver, and Los Angeles, our crew, The Skate Witches, assembled at our rental house in Havana. Despite the jet lag, I felt inspired by the warmth in the air and the energy of six incredible women along with me on this journey. Norma, a frequent traveler to Cuba, led the group, which was rounded out by two Cuban Americans, Sam Narvaez and Clara Solar, along with filmer Shari White, skate instructor Angie Crum, and Michelle Pezel of Vancouver’s Antisocial Skate Shop. Everyone knows each other through the relatively small women’s skateboarding scene, our group name being a reference to the zine I co-founded with Shari, The Skate Witches, a periodical documenting our community’s events and experiences.
Our first to-do was to give out hundreds of donations we’d collected prior to our departure. Due to strained trade relations, much of what we would consider skateboarding necessities aren’t accessible to average Cuban citizens. Most of the locals make less than the equivalent of $20USD per month, making it difficult to get by, and tremendously difficult to explore hobbies like skateboarding where proper footwear and hardgoods are essentials. I witnessed many kids riding broken skate equipment, and one teenager told me it was impossible to find shoes for his size 12 feet anywhere.
The majority of our trip was spent at Ciudad Libertad, an abandoned gymnasium turned DIY skate park and ground zero for Havana skateboarding. At first glance, it’s like a scene out of Jurassic Park, with nature reclaiming the forgotten space as trees blast up from the center of the building’s battered foundation. Skaters whizzed around the hips, rails, and wallrides, unbothered by the sketchy setup and less-than-ideal obstacles. This skater’s paradise was founded by Miles Jackson of Cuba Skate and his local partner, Orly Rosales. After discovering the building in the winter of 2016, it’s become a large focus of trips facilitated by Jackson’s organization and the skate park has grown steadily over time.
When the cement, sand, and rock arrived, the entire park jumped into action. It looked more like a choreographed dance than a job site as everyone worked together gracefully; some poured bags or water while others got the mixing going, shovelling the thick contents rhythmically in a circle. Most notably, this process was done completely by hand and without enough key tools, such as buckets, shovels, levels, and trowels.
Seeing the action we started to join in, but a group of foreign women doing manual labor wasn’t received with open arms, at least not at first. Culture shock hit quickly as guys came over and grabbed our tools away or started mansplaining to us in Spanish. It was an overt display of paternalism that we weren't used to; perhaps a reflection of macho culture or lack of experience working with women. “Back home I can’t get a guy to do a thing for me, but here they won’t let me walk with a bucket!” Michelle quipped. Eventually, they recognized our commitment to helping out and their collective hesitations subsided, allowing us to all join forces to complete the project.
We knew going in that Cuban female skaters most likely have experiences similar to ours, due to the unfortunate reality of sexism in skateboarding. Despite being from opposite sides of the world, we share the identity of being women in a male-dominated scene, resulting often in isolation, getting talked down to, constantly having to prove yourself, and so on. Our goal was to not only meet and inspire the local women skateboarders, but also to affirm and normalize their presence in the local scene.
On our agenda was skate instruction, board building, and silk screening, all of which was well received by the local ladies. Non-Spanish speakers like myself did what we could to demonstrate physically what we couldn’t say, while Norma, Clara, and Sam translated. We taught one girl to rock fakie, and watched as she used the same technique to support one of her friends moments later. Another girl set-up a board and afterward gave her old one away to a gal who was eager to start. It was inspiring to see people who have so little be so generous to one another.
But as much as we gave away—donations, money for concrete, instruction, inspiration—we left Cuba feeling incredibly enriched. As our plane took off from Havana, the gift of a new perspective sunk in; A new mindset that more thoroughly acknowledges the abundance we live in, understands the real meaning of resilience, and honors the importance of community. We are thankful to our skateboards for allowing us to connect authentically with our new Cuban friends, their ideas and culture, and forever in gratitude to this country for this life changing experience.