Belkis López Correa is poised on her skateboard, ready to give herself over to one of the most epic hills in all of Havana. The 16-year-old stands under a fierce midday sun with a forward gaze, steady and cool. Her knees are slightly bent, pink Vans sneakers stacked atop a classic Santa Cruz longboard. Her stance is relaxed, shoulders soft, left foot forward at about a 45-degree angle, right foot perpendicular to the back of the board. Black socks dotted with blue and pink hearts peek out from beneath her rolled-up jeans.
"Belkis!" a boy yells as he runs over and hands her a silver helmet. She takes it graciously and pulls it over her short blond hair, securing it tight under her chin. Then she inserts her blue earbuds.
She stands in the shadow of Havana's giant Christ statue, the Cristo, on a hill overlooking Havana Bay, the Malecón, and beyond to the city of 2 million people. Up here, the busy, polluted haze of Havana feels far away. It's a perfect place to go up and down, and up and down again.
With her right foot, she pushes against the pavement twice for a bit of speed, then jumps and cross-switches her feet, then jumps and switches back, as if she's dancing on the board. By the time her feet touch down the second time, she's begun to roll. She won't stop until the bottom, or wherever she falls along the way.
Fueled by a surge in charities doling out trucks, boards, and decks, skateboarding has exploded in Cuba over the past decade. Where once there was just a handful of tight-knit skaters in the Cuban capital, now there are hundreds flipping over crumbling curbs or grinding in the city's only skate park every weekend. But until recently, skateboarding was a purely male lifestyle.
Now, a handful of women who shred alongside their male counterparts are testing their changing culture's limits, often against the wishes of their families, to pursue a sport not only deemed inappropriate for females but still largely misunderstood in Cuba as a whole. Because skating isn't technically legal, skaters are often harassed by cops and sometimes even arrested.
"People look at us like we're weird elements," says Ariadna Pérez Ballester, a 26-year-old civil engineer and the only female skater in Camagüey, a city of 300,000 in central Cuba. "But when I'm on my board, I feel free. I feel myself."
As Cubans anticipate huge shifts in the wake of President Obama's move to restore ties, it's not just the economy and politics that stand to change. Though the revolution ushered in a slew of progressive policies for women, such as equal access to education and work, many remain bound to a fiercely male-dominated system. Most Cuban women still work low-paying jobs or occupy traditional family roles.
"Do not be mistaken — it's a very machista culture," says Ann Louise Bardach, an American journalist who has written four books on Cuba. "That's deeply embedded into the culture and always has been."
Although Belkis is an outlier today, she may also signal the rise of a generation of girls with greater freedom and choice in Cuba. She knows skateboarding is not a conventional activity for a teenage girl, and she doesn't much care. It's her transport and her passion; her board has become a part of her. From atop it, a wan and faded Havana becomes an invitation for exploration. The guys she rolls with are her crew, her protectors, her confidants. She is powerful.
"Other girls do talk about me; they talk bad about me," she says. "So I say to them, 'OK then, you try it.' "
It's January 10, and today, as usual, she's the only girl skating the downhills. She and her friends had risen early, around 6 a.m. on this Sunday, and hopped the ferry to Cristo. Now it's nearing noon, just two hours before the start of a downhill competition they've been anticipating for weeks. The competitors are warming up for the main event, in which they'll hurtle down in heats, vying to make it first to the bottom. It's a defiant, perilous act — one their parents would surely prefer not to know about.
Belkis is practicing, but she's still not sure if she'll compete. Her shoes are on their last thread, she says, with worn-down soles that don't bode well for gripping the deck or slowing down from high speeds. Plus, she's sharing gear — gloves, elbow and knee pads, helmets — with her friends, and she's never sure what will be available when it's her turn. Her boyfriend, Leo, is one of the best downhill racing skaters, and he may well win a top prize today. Maybe she'd just prefer to cheer him on.
But for now, as she speeds down the hill, dodging gaping potholes and old cars spewing smoke, she's doing what she loves best.
"She always shows up," says Rene Lecour, founder of Amigo Skate, a Miami-based skateboard charity, who's been traveling to Cuba for the past six years. "She's always the only girl, and she's just such a badass."
A day earlier, dozens of skaters gathered on the other side of town, at the Patinodromo, or skate park, south of Havana's Vedado neighborhood. The converted drainage ditch has become a symbol of liberated revelry as one of the few places in Havana to go nuts on a skateboard without police interference. Despite less-than-stellar conditions — ramps are rusting, and concrete is crumbling to bits — the park is a mainstay of Cuba's modern skate culture.
By midday, hundreds crowded the park, and the sound of wheels on concrete and metal thundered. From all corners, cheers erupted sporadically as someone landed a kickflip or an ollie. A DJ spun beats. Despite days of rain, the sun shone down, sapping up the last few remaining puddles.
Belkis and Leo made their way around the perimeter to hang out with friends and watch the skaters. Belkis wore a white T-shirt with "23 y G" printed on the front, a wink to a storied Havana street corner popular among skateboarders, long the epicenter of punk rock and alternative culture in the city.
Some of the oldest guard of hard-core Havana skaters gathered at the park too to help inaugurate a freestyle contest organized by Lecour, a tattooed, bearded 48-year-old Cuban-American from Miami who has been smuggling skateboards onto the island since his first trip to Havana in 2009. A longtime skater, he founded One Cool World skate park in Coconut Grove and managed five skate parks for Miami-Dade County before diving headlong into a passion to help kids without access to equipment. He started Amigo Skate in 2010 and travels to the island two to five times a year. In early January, New Times spent a week tagging along with the Amigo Skate crew in Havana.
Just a few minutes before the contest's start time, though, a park manager in an orange T-shirt emerged from a nearby covered restaurant. He seemed to follow an invisible line as he walked straight toward Lecour. His expression was rigid as he ignored the street party raging around him.
"Uh-oh," Lecour muttered under his breath, staring at the man as he approached. They'd met before, on one of Lecour's many attempts to advocate for upgrades to — or at least upkeep of — the park.
"What do you think you're doing?" the man asked sternly.
"We're having a skate competition," Lecour answered with a straight face.
Like many activities in Cuba, skateboarding falls into a gray area of legality. It's considered "recreational" and so is not listed on the government's official list of sports, like basketball or boxing. Because of that and its close ties to American culture, skateboarding is often considered a rogue activity. Skateboarders regularly get stopped by police and report being treated like delinquents. Add to that the near impossibility of finding boards and accessories and you'd think skating might be a futile pastime in the Communist stronghold. And yet skate culture is alive and well. In fact, Lecour says the island's isolation has actually made the scene stronger.
"Skaters in Cuba haven't been touched by materialism," he says. "There are no thoughts of being sponsored or going pro; they just shred for the pure love and adrenaline rush of it. It's like a tribe, a community... Whether there are ten skateboards or one, they're all gonna skate and share and have fun."
As he stared down the angry official, though, Lecour was again reminded that authorities could stamp out this passion in an instant if they wished; he knew the whole competition could be canceled before it even began.
The roots of Cuba's skateboard scene go back to the late '70s and early '80s, when Soviet soldiers, students, and doctors brought skateboards to the island. Kids across Havana took notice and were eager to ride. In 1982, Alexander Gonzalez Borrego was just 8 years old when he saw a handful of kids skating down the block in front of his house. He was captivated.
"The next day, I asked my grandmother to buy me a pair of roller skates," the 41-year-old now remembers, "and I began to make my own skateboards. I made each board unique with the help of my uncle, who was a carpenter. And I skated that way for years."
Years later, in high school, he connected with Che Alejandro Pando Napoles, a self-taught carpenter who was busy building skateboards with the help of some old-fashioned ingenuity. A friend who worked in a bus factory was making him molds for trucks (used to attach the wheels to the skateboard deck), which Pando filled with liquefied aluminum. For the wheels, he collected urethane, a sort of rubber, from military tanks. Then he melted it and enlisted a machinist for help to achieve the circular wheel shape. Throughout the '90s, skaters started sneaking boards into Cuba with the help of anyone who worked abroad or traveled on ships.
Their passion was always a struggle, Gonzalez remembers. When a board broke, they would bolt another board under the deck. They were creative in finding ways to reuse or create new items, but always, months or years would go by when a skate devotee didn't have a board. Those were called the "dark months."
The culture grew in the early 2000s, when Red Bull began frequenting the island, including to host an extreme sports event in 2004 with surfing, BMX, skateboarding, and other events. That's when the Patinodromo was born, thanks to Red Bull's donated ramps.
In the past decade, foreign influence has helped stoke the skate scene's growth through donated equipment, much of it from top skate shops across North America. In addition to Amigo Skate, other charities like the Washington, D.C.-based Cuba Skate and Montreal-based Skateboards for Hope keep riders geared up. Longtime skaters like Pando have helped direct the donated equipment to the most deserving.
Call it skateboard diplomacy — long before Obama and Raul Castro shook hands, these skaters have been building relationships with fellow devotees from across the Florida Straits. On a June afternoon last year, 80 American and Cuban skaters even rode around Havana carrying the Cuban and U.S. flags.
"We did something that has yet to be accomplished by the Cuban or American government," Lecour says. "We really have created these amazing friendships, full of respect and love."
To Gonzalez, who distinctly remembers his decades struggling to skate, seeing hundreds of kids gathered at the Patinodromo last month was cause both for awe and celebration. Against the odds, he says, the scene has grown to epic heights.
"I truly never thought we could have this many skaters in Cuba, and with such skill," he says with tears in his eyes. "It's absolutely amazing."
On this trip, Lecour arrived on January 6 with 25 people, including artists, musicians, skaters, and activists from New York, California, and Miami. In addition to the skate contests, they held other meetups, both organized and impromptu. Amigo Skate has become so well-known that the mere mention of a visit brought out skaters across town, both looking to score gear and to skate their hearts out. This time, kids arrived from cities outside Havana too — from Matanza, Camagüey, and Holguín, some traveling up to 15 hours by bus.
And that, Lecour says, made it that much gnarlier when officials showed up at the skate park, glaring disapprovingly at the crowd. After the initial confrontation with Lecour, the park manager called Cuba's sports ministry, INDER, which swiftly sent an official to the park. Lecour also spotted a few undercover authorities on the lookout from afar.
Twenty-five feet from the skaters, under the shade, Lecour discussed the issue with the authorities, insisting that what he was doing was no crime. He said, instead, that the government should do more to support the kids and improve the park. Sternly, officials said that didn't give him the right to use the park however he wants. An hour of arguing and an official warning later, the authorities left. The contest could finally begin.
"There are two government bodies saying no, but neither one does anything to help," Lecour says. "We've taken something abandoned and overrun with weeds and helped turn it into something these kids love. They should be thanking us."
The rain pours down in sheets as Belkis sits in front of the television with her mom and sister. The teenager is bored, her small frame slumped into the couch after another day forced to stay inside the family's apartment in Miramar, a seaside suburb of Havana. She just aced an exam for her nursing studies, which would normally be the perfect occasion to cruise the streets on her longboard. But today, the skies have opened up with tropical fury.
"When I don't touch my board for a few days, I feel weird," she says, "like a part of me is missing or something."
There are pictures of her on the wall, with long brown hair, in dresses, and smothered in makeup. Those, her mom Ismaires explains, are from the days before her daughter started skating. Now, Belkis sports a short, messy hairstyle. Her skin is tanned from afternoons outdoors. She has ten small tattoos scattered around her body, a nose ring in her left nostril, and a one-inch scab on her left knee from a recent fall.
Being 16 and female is daunting no matter where you are. It's a time to start looking ahead toward adulthood, having barely figured out how to be a teenager. For Belkis, though, the fight is simply to skate. And, she says, it truly is a struggle.
"I do totally have this sensation of being different," she says, "just for having a passion. Like I'm fighting so hard to do something I love."
In many ways, Cuba outpaces much of the world in markers of gender equality. After his military triumph in 1959, Fidel Castro called the fight for women's rights in Cuba a "revolution within a revolution" and vowed to make equal rights a birthright. He created the Federation of Cuban Women and ensured women equal constitutional rights across the spectrum, as well as equal pay and universal child care. Cuba's Family Code Bill states that participation in housework should be shared equally by women and men. As a result, many women hold high-level government positions, and in recent years, President Raul Castro's daughter Mariela Castro has become a powerful voice and a role model for women and girls.
And yet, the issue is plagued by complexity, due to a very deep-seated Cuban machismo, says historian Alexander McGregor. Long before the revolution, the notion existed in Cuba that a man had a duty to protect his family and his home.
"In this sense, women were actually admired, in fact beloved, as mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives," McGregor says. "But while femininity was in a sense sacred, it was nonetheless objectified."
Thus, many women have a certain level of equal rights across Cuba, but most don't truly feel liberated or empowered or that they have the freedom to do or be something different. Obama's rapprochement last year hasn't changed much: In fact, there have been more overall arrests and oppression for those who do push boundaries, American journalist Bardach points out — not fewer. "On the whole, women have not yet been emboldened to get out there," she says.
That hasn't stopped Belkis. Born in July 1999 on La Isla de la Juventud, a large island 60 miles off the southern coast of Cuba, Belkis was an easygoing kid, Ismaires says. But she was always active, whether in tennis, volleyball, or flamenco dancing. A Cancer, she had a natural love of the water and took up swimming and surfing.
Four years ago, her parents moved the family to Havana after they got jobs as supervisors at an inmobiliaria, a government-run housing option for foreigners. The Monte Carlo building is located on one of the most beautiful, historic streets in Havana, the Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue. Built in the '90s, the structure is a modern version of many of the historic homes and buildings in the area — old and enormous façades with vast gardens, which once housed the wealthiest members of Cuban society. Though most are now shabby, with chipped paint and neglected walls, the neighborhood maintains its prerevolution air of exclusivity.
In Belkis' building, tenants come from across Europe. But her family lives humbly on the first floor; Belkis shares a bunk bed with her younger sister behind a curtain off the TV room.
When they first moved to the neighborhood, Belkis and her sister loved most to cruise Quinta Avenida, a leafy promenade perfect for biking or walking. Always, they noticed the skater boys, who seemed to be having a blast. They were a community, Belkis says. So finally one day, on a whim, she asked one of the guys to lend her his board. She hopped on fearlessly.
"From that day on, I'm always skating all the time," she says. "It's my transport, it's my exercise, it's my way to have fun. Every day, I go to school, then come home and do chores and work, and then before it gets dark, I go out and skate."
Her parents weren't immediately accepting, especially because her new hobby meant she was constantly surrounded by hordes of guys. They began to call and stop by the apartment, looking for her and asking if she could hang out and skate.
"When I was her age, I couldn't hang out with boys or have a boyfriend," her mom says. "We weren't even allowed to go out. It was totally different."
But Belkis says the dozen or so skater guys in the neighborhood have become her closest friends and confidants. Whenever she falls or gets discouraged, they encourage her to get up and try again. Pero dale, arriba de nuevo, they tell her.
And yet, that hasn't stopped her from feeling the occasional tension — and the stares. A few summers ago, when the family took a vacation to Las Tunas, a small town in Eastern Cuba, everyone was looking at her like she was crazy, her sister says. Plus, the guys sometimes talk about things she's not interested in. Recently, she tried to get a girlfriend to try skating, but the girl took a fall, and then her dad forbade her from continuing.
A few months into skating, though, Belkis met Mar Rodriguez, a girl a grade below who'd also just taken up the sport. Mar found her way into the group, and they became like sisters. But last year, Mar moved away to Miami.
"Most of the girls at the skate park are the girlfriends of the skaters," she says, "but am I just supposed to sit around and watch?"
For Belkis, turning 15 was a crucial moment. Ismaires wanted her daughter to have professional pictures taken for her quinceañera — the traditional Latin American celebration of a girl's 15th birthday, marking the end of childhood and the beginning of womanhood.
But when Belkis learned how much the photos were going to cost, she rejected the idea. So instead, they used a cell-phone camera to take the portraits, which feature her in a poofy off-white dress and high strappy heels. Soon after the photos were taken, Belkis chopped all her hair off herself and dyed it blond.
"She said, 'Dad you can punish me, but whatever you do, please don't take away my skateboard,' " her mom remembers.
From then on, her parents respected her devotion to skating. Her dad, a jovial man, mostly pokes fun at her hobby, calling her skateboard a carretilla, or wheelbarrow. The most important thing, her mom says, is that she keeps studying and goes to school every day. "She's not gonna make money from her skateboard," she says.
"People call us modern parents," Ismaires adds. "But I feel like the more you prohibit your kids, the more problems you're going to have. So instead, we just try to have great communication with her."
On a brutally hot day last summer, Belkis showed up at the skate park to help Lecour and Amigo Skate fix some crumbling ramps that had taken a beating between the intense heat and heavy rainfall. They were full of cracks, so Lecour brought rocks to fill them in.
"It was the middle of summer, and most of the guys were exhausted," Lecour remembers, "and she was busting her ass to help, quiet as can be."
He introduced himself and asked who she was. She told him her story and about her desire to longboard more seriously. Soon after, Lecour wrote to Madrid Skateboards and pleaded for them to donate a top-of-the-line longboard to Belkis. The skateboard was in the mail to Miami the same day, and Lecour arranged to get it to her.
Since then, Belkis hasn't stopped longboarding. There's a video she's been watching a lot lately, of seven girls traveling through Spain in a van with the Longboard Girls Crew, an international female longboard community.
The video is a celebration of freedom, friendship, and skating, with scenes showing the girls confronting new challenges on roads and hills across the Spanish countryside. Sharing 21 longboards among them, in every style and color, they do tricks, catch high speed, and suffer brutal falls, helping one another when things are tough and celebrating the adrenaline and successes.
"I do wish my girlfriends were with me," Belkis says as she watches the video. "But I guess I also have the sensation of being the only one."
At the bottom of the hill below the Cristo, Ariadna, the skater from Camagüey, is trying out a new skateboard: a Z-Flex cruiser, a classic California board designed for a smooth, fast ride. It was a gift from Anna Robbins, who's here from Miami with Amigo Skate. Ariadna has been skating for eight years, but only on a trick board. It's the first time she has ever tried this type of cruiser — in fact, she says, she's going to be the first person ever in Camagüey to have one — and she's rattled by the speed.
"Bend your knees a little more," Belkis tells her. It's the first time they've ever met, and they bond over Ariadna's new board. "And when you want to stop, drag your foot lightly on the pavement to brake instead of pressing it down hard."
Ariadna bends her knees and makes another attempt, better this time. Belkis smiles. "See?" she says.
The exchange is the quintessence of what makes female skateboarders so important to each other, says Andrea Sevigny, a skater from Montreal who's part of an all-girls skate crew there called Les Vagabonnes. She's in Havana with Skateboards for Hope.
"We don't see a lot of girls present in the skate scene anywhere in the world," she says. "And if they're in skate magazines, it's usually to be in an advertisement. So it's hard to start up the sport if you feel intimidated by the fact that it's all guys."
Though girl skaters in North America and Europe have been fighting the patriarchy for years, this is new territory in Cuba. And so Sevigny and Robbins and a handful of other women are traveling to the island to usher it along, making sure that more gear gets to Cuba's girl shredders and that they feel supported. This will help increase the visibility and inclusion of girls not just in the skate scene but in all sorts of activities, they say.
"It's going to empower them and allow them to build self-confidence," Sevigny says, "and to push the boundaries of what it means to be a woman in Cuba."
But both Robbins and Sevigny were surprised by how few women are skating in Havana today. Other than Belkis, a 15-year-old named Daria Martinez is one of the few other regulars. They're hoping that many of the girls currently sitting on the sidelines, watching or cheering on their friends or boyfriends, will want to pick up a board with a little encouragement. But sparking a scene among women will be a challenge, they admit.
Robbins, cofounder and managing partner of Wynwood taco shop Coyo, has been skating for 20 years, since she discovered a skateboard was the perfect way to get to class in college in Santa Barbara, California. She moved to Miami in 2003 and skates all over South Beach and Wynwood with her 9-year-old daughter, Ruby. Last year, she helped organize the music for Bay Skate, an event that transformed Bayfront Park into a pop-up skate rink. She's trying to get a girl skate crew going in Miami. So when she learned about Lecour's mission, she quickly signed on.
"When I found out they were open to doing more for the girls in Cuba, I was there," she says. "Not even a second thought."
She was joined on the trip by female graffiti artist and skater Meme, who cofounded the female street art collective Few and Far Women, and Miami muralist Nicole Salgar, among other female skaters and artists.
A few days into the trip, Ariadna arrived in Havana with her friends Rademar and Armando. After learning about Amigo Skate on Facebook two weeks earlier, they had scrounged up their money and come ten hours by bus to meet the crew. Ariadna told Robbins about the challenges of skating in Camagüey: Not only was she the only girl but boards were even harder to come by than in Havana. This weekend, they had only two boards among the three of them, so she was probably going to sit on the sidelines most of the trip, she said.
When Robbins heard that, she grabbed the artists and her Z-Flex board. They stenciled "Amiga" onto the top of it, plus a painted dragonfly. Together the women presented it to Ariadna, who exploded in tears.
"She needs this way more than me," Robbins says. "It's very obvious to me that skating is her life." (By the end of the trip, Anna, Andrea, and this New Times reporter had all given their shoes to the girls.)
Ariadna says the only way she thinks the scene will change in Cuba is if people get used to seeing women skate, just as they see men.
"Society wants you to do what everyone else does, so people always look at me like I'm different," she says. "They have to see that we enjoy it, that it's not weird. That it's fun."
As 2 p.m. nears under the Cristo, a giant cloud appears and rain begins to pour on the downhill racers and the dozens who've shown up to watch. The hillside begins to resemble a river. But instead of calling off the race, many of the skaters say the rain improves conditions — converting the pavement into a faster, more slippery slope.
But there's a danger to that speed. On one practice run, a skater takes a terrible fall, hurtling off the road into a curb. When he peels himself off the ground, a two-inch gash has formed on the lower left part of his stomach, above his hip. As he limps over to the crowd of onlookers, who've huddled under the porch cover of a nearby home, Belkis approaches and offers to clean his cut.
"See, my parents wonder how nursing and skating go together," she says. "I can do first aid."
The competition will start soon, and no one seems to be backing out, in spite of the pouring rain. They don't want to miss an opportunity to win gear and prizes.
But Belkis decides not to compete. She's the only girl, she doesn't have the right pads, and the conditions are just too treacherous. After she makes the tough decision, a close friend, Julito, approaches her to try to change her mind. "Belkis, come on, compete!" he urges. "Please?"
But she stands firm. "No, I don't think so," she says.
While the scene expands for girls in Havana, other changes may be coming too. For skaters, the end of the embargo would mean the potential for more gear and more opportunities after so long — the "pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Lecour says. Some think Cuba could become one of the world's next hot skate destinations because of its deep roots and huge talent.
But as with every major change hanging over the island, others worry about what the global skate culture could mean for a scene that's grown organically through the years out of pure love and connection.
"It's gonna change," Lecour says. "It's gonna splinter and break up more, which is inevitable when something grows. The only unfortunate thing is that as more products flow in, eventually the thing we discovered will be lost."
Now, Robbins is launching Amiga Skate Yoga. She plans to travel to Havana again in March with donated boards and gear, find more girls to skate, and hold skate and yoga events.
"People think skating is only for men or misfits, but I want to show them that you don't have to be extreme or slide down railings or whatever to be a skater," she says. "We're not trying to outdo each other. It just feels good."
Already, Belkis is looking ahead to the possibility of going pro one day — a thought that would have been outlandish for most up-and-coming skaters in Cuba just a decade ago. She has two more years of university, then has the option to work or continue for five additional years to get licensed. She may also decide to study medicine. Most of all, her plans involve skating.
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"By now, my board is a part of my life," she says. "I can't think of anything that would make me want to stop."
She may have sworn off the downhill race today, but the downpour isn't going to keep her off her board altogether. Before the competition starts, she takes another practice run. But as she goes down, she loses control on a curve and flies off the board, leaving her limping down the hill.
As soon as Sevigny spots Belkis, she knows what happened. "That's badass," she says, as Belkis shows her a small bloody cut through a hole in the left knee of her jeans. "It sucks to fall down, but you've got to get back up and keep trying. You got to give a little pain to get something back in return."
It's just the push Belkis needs. As raindrops drip off her helmet, she grabs her board and walks back up the hill.