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© Scott Furkay
© Scott Furkay
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New York City’s Gnarmads Skateboard Through Cuba, as Anti-Tourists

Picture of Matt Kruz
Updated: 16 August 2017
Who are the Gnarmads? Read their story here, and find below an essay recounting their frequent visits to Cuba, where they use skateboarding to build community.

Havana has felt like a second home to us, ripe with the warm muggy air, the languid pace, and old friends. Bogdan and I have been traveling to Cuba over the past few years, joining forces with the Amigo Skate Cuba organization. Our focus is skateboarding and the goal is to share skate culture with the growing community of skaters, artists, and action-sportsmen and women of the island.

You’ve heard this described before: Among the many hardships Cubans have faced over the years, the tight communist grip denying importation of goods from the U.S., has left the island stuck in time. It’s difficult to imagine as a New Yorker, but the most seemingly common daily goods such as nail clippers, plastic toys, tools, snacks, basic hygiene products, or electronics are scarcely found. It goes without saying, there’s a lack of action sports equipment.

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But that hasn’t stopped people from skating. Skateboarding has been on the island since the ‘80s, when the original pioneers would make and repair their own boards by any means necessary. The OG island skater Che Pando made his first skateboard wheels from boring out old soviet tank urethane. To surf, he built boards out of building insulation and resin.

Unlike the U.S., there are no skate shops on the island nor any direct access to product. Even if there was a store with equipment for sale, a hardworking local would not be able to afford it. Our friend used to work everyday as a camera operator and repairman for the Cubavision news network, making $20 per month. Without money, or any earning power, this harsh reality would leave our friend with a broken skateboard for over three months. No board, no riding. No riding, no freedom.

Cuban skaters rely heavily on private donors, smugglers, and organizations for much needed gear. When President Obama eased the 50-year ban to allow the Cuban-Americans and missionaries to visit, we joined ongoing Amigo Skate and used this sanction to collectively bring over 1,000 skateboards and gear to be redistributed and given out in Havana and neighboring cities. We brought bicycles, sporting tools, tattoo ink, needles, toys, food, and snacks. During our visit, we organized skate events, contests, lesson clinics, skatepark repairs, and helped build even more.

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To say the kids were excited and eager to try new things is an understatement. You must understand: Skateboarding is not a sport, there’s no winning or losing, but there’s a tangible sense of team-building that breeds freedom and independence like no other.

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Contrary to the old communist mindset, the community that skateboarding fosters encourages kids to support each other’s individuality, creativity, and learning process. The skate community teaches kids to be resourceful, promotes support, and urges kids to look out for one another.

During our first trip, we were skating in front of a mall when three little kids ran up to us. With ragged clothes and and no shoes, they were asking other people in the crowd for money. But when they saw us, they just wanted to try a skateboard for the first time. They rolled around excitedly, sitting or lying on the boards while pushing each other around with the widest of smiles. Two years later, a huge group of us were skating the Paseo del Prado when I felt a tugging at my shirt. It was one of the boys from that day at the mall. He was cleaned up, with a fresh cut and could skate really well. He’s been skating and pushing his abilities, and even became a peer onsite. One day we noticed him teaching a younger fellow a trick. That’s exactly what skateboarding is all about.

Amigo Skate Cuba X Gnarmads (2015) from NY Skateboarding on Vimeo.
As a result of the fall of communism, skateboarding has been growing exponentially on the island, which surprisingly has some of the smoothest surfaces, amidst a landscape of crumbling buildings. Spending time with locals and seeing the city through their view was eye opening, and allowed much time for camaraderie and exchanging of tricks, tips, ideas, or general information. Kids were curious and asked questions about life, growing up, culture, music, and a sense of overall possibilities.

During our 2015 visit, nobody had smartphones. Television only played a few channels and there was no public access to internet. Some hotels and fancier places had internet but it was expensive and reminiscent of the dial-up days. Can you imagine not having internet at your fingertips? All the overload of information, images, videos from around the world in your pocket 24/7? There was an air of contentment amongst the curiosity. Still, the reality was so distant from the world we knew.

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After Fidel Castro’s death in 2016, attitudes seemed to loosen up amidst the people. When President Obama allowed tourism through special categories and organized trips, he also granted permission to individuals who had a purpose to travel to Cuba as photographers, journalists, and humanitarians. In came an influx of otherwise hard to get items like iPhones, electronics, movies, and music. Kids began dressing in trendy clothes and accessories. Wifi hotspots opened up, and they are flooded with young adults on their phones checking Instagram and Facebook among other sites for news, stories, trends and information. Internet has also allowed access for Airbnb, letting Cuban natives benefit from the sharing economy.

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Despite this progress, skateboarding in Cuba remains and carries a different pulse than the masses. Skaters, global organizations, private supporters have been coming to Cuba for over a decade without promises of money, success or mass influence. They go simply to share the joy of skateboarding with our brothers. It isn’t just some new fad; skateboarding is a passion and lifestyle that stretches far beyond just a piece of wood.

The freedom, the flight and independence skating gives you is unrivaled. Skating breeds a tight community, one that will outlast any new trends or shifts. Skating in Cuba has taught us the value of building trust with others and most importantly, belief in oneself to accomplish anything against the norm. That fire has been stoked for a long time, it will continue burning. We can’t wait to go back.

Follow the Gnarmads on Instagram.