There is a certain mystique surrounding a tropical island off the coast of Florida. As a consequence of the travel ban following the Cold War, most Americans know very little, if anything, about this country. To them, Cuba means old cars, communism, cigars, and a destination reserved for ambitious travelers and the likes of Beyoncé.
Despite being less than an hour flight from Miami, Cuba feels worlds away, both spatially and temporally, from The United States. After 50 years of independence from the U.S., Cuba nationalized roughly one billion dollars worth of American-owned agricultural land on the island in an attempt to counteract the exploitative effects of neo-colonialism on the Cuban economy. This triggered a strong reaction from the U.S., resulting in strict trade and travel embargos. One consequence is that nearly all the automobiles predate the 1960s. The architecture, though ornate, shows its antiquity: a peek through the defunct windows of a colorful colonial-style home reveals a crumbling interior overgrown with vines and plants. The meals, which are mostly locally sourced, lack many of the sophisticated flavors and ingredients common in Western food due to food rationing and scant disposable income. Imports, including food, are limited to the bare necessities; a traveler in pursuit of wet wipes, batteries or a journal won’t find what they need. These features combine to create a country that, though abuzz with people, seems forgotten by time.
In spite of Cuba’s outdated reality, the country feels nothing like the dismal communist existence often described in Eastern European literature. There is a tendency to associate communism with uniformity and unhappiness, surveillance and authoritarianism. Cuba, to me, offers a different image of communism: in the midst of political strife, unreliable infrastructure, and corrupt police, the cities are alight with smiling faces, people dancing in the streets, and elaborate graffiti. There is beauty in the chaos, and happiness in spite of limited life choices. Cubans unconsciously counter the image of an oppressed country in despair that is often portrayed in popular media.
I was fortunate enough to visit Cuba this past December on a workshop with The Giving Lens, a philanthropic travel organization that leads trips to unique destinations with the goal of supporting local communities through photography. Our group travelled “in support of the Cuban people,” which is one of the 16 travel categories approved by the U.S. government. We stayed at local casas, similar to bed and breakfasts, and ate exclusively at non-government restaurants. Instead of only taking images of the country, we worked with a local NGO, Amigo Skate, providing free professional photography for the organization as well as donating cameras, which we spent several days teaching young skaters how to use.
In the absence of after school activities or government-sponsored youth organizations, various subcultural groups have sprung up to address the issue of youth empowerment. Miami-based Amigo Skate is one such organization that solicits foreign aid to provide Cuban youth with free skateboards, sports gear, music equipment, and art supplies. Skating arrived in Cuba in the 1980s, when Russian soldiers left their skateboards behind with Cuban youth when the Cold War occupation ended. The freedom and joy experienced on a skateboard inspired these children to embrace the sport and spread its wonder.
The repressive Cuban government actively suppresses skate culture, rendering the sport rare and unrecognized. However, a passionate community of dedicated skaters have kept the sport alive with aid from international NGOs, including Amigo Skate. Due to a lack of support from local government and businesses, the youth empowerment group calls themselves the “Robin Hoods of Havana.” The Cuban youth describe skateboarding as “making a change,” and regard their community as a “family trying to live in peace and harmony.” It is an exercise of freedom in a land of limited liberties.
Several miles from the bustling city center sits an upcycled abandoned building, overgrown with trees and outfitted with ramps and poles for skating. Skaters of all ages gather to hone their skill and test out new tricks, from kickflips to astonishing jumps through the hole in the ground floor into the basement. Only a few years ago, the location was littered with broken bottles, drug paraphernalia, and discarded condoms. Though it was a good location for skating, especially during the rainy summers, it was dangerous, disgusting, and ultimately not a safe community space. With the help of various NGOs and other impassioned skaters, the building was cleaned up and outfitted for skating. Debris from the buildings basement were used to construct ramps on the main floor, fitted with wire rebar and covered with concrete.
Not only does Amigo Skate provide Cuban youth with outlets for self expression, but it also establishes meaningful relationships between its members. The older members, in their 20s and 30s, serve as leaders and role models for the younger children, establishing a network of beneficial friendships. This close nature can be attributed to the effects of communism and Cuba’s restricted supply of skateboards. Skaters are inclined to share their skateboards, and even their shoes, as these supplies are hard to access. No one is excluded from the sport on the basis of lacking the necessary resources. The absence of consumerism and individualism creates a skating culture with more emphasis on sharing and goodwill than in the U.S., where skateboard ownership is typically a precursor to skating. Many of the skaters I spoke with described the sport as their life, their identity; a tarnished legal record seems well worth participating in the liberating, albeit illegal, act of skating.
Competitions held in the unusual, yet innovative skatepark exemplify the spirit of Amigo Skate. They are not a place for invidious comparison, but rather havens of encouragement and camaraderie. When the winners of the competition are announced, everyone cheers—there are no sore losers. Our visit to Cuba coincided with one such competition which, despite being incredibly informal, was overwhelmingly supportive and positive, unlike the crowd antagonism common to many sports in the U.S.
There is a remarkable difference between skating culture in the U.S. and Cuba. In the U.S., one isn’t required to be connected to any existing network to acquire a skateboard. Few skateboard owners on campus see their board as having potential for creative expression; for most, it is a mere method of transportation and not an outlet for self-expression. In Cuba, the deviance and excitement surrounding skateboarding is reflected in the skaters’ dedication to their sport. Fellow traveler Susan Roderick observed, “If you can skate in Havana, you can skate anywhere.” It requires a tremendous amount of perseverance to learn how to skate on the crumbling, pothole-filled and often crowded streets.
An image I captured of a gasoline-tainted puddle can be seen as a metaphor for life in Cuba. The puddle is the island, and the gasoline, the imperial foreign powers that have meddled in and constructed Cuba’s history. In spite of this insidious infiltration, the puddle appears a stunning mosaic of joyful and spontaneous colors and patterns. Such is the unexpectedly spectacular Cuba, and especially the members of Amigo Skate: distinguished, passionate individuals who repeatedly surprise in the realm of innovation.
This trip posed a photography experience unlike any other. Having grown up abroad, travel photography was always an easy target, but I’ve only ever “taken” photos from European and Southeast Asian destinations. Working with Amigo Skate taught me the importance of giving back, rather than exploiting the subjects of my photography. Given my newfound appreciation for and knowledge of life in Cuba, I find that my photographs from Cuba have more meaning to me than images from other travels. I truly experienced the country through a new lens, escaping from America’s capitalist hegemony to understand how happiness and freedom function under communism.
Lights Out Issue | May 2019
The organization is always in need of donations, whether it be old technology, camera stuff, clothing, shoes, skate stuff, art supplies, musical equipment—anything helps.
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