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Cuba's Hardcore Skateboarders Get Some 'Lift'

Their equipment is threadbare and there's no snazzy skate park, but Cuba's dedicated young skateboarders have attracted U.S. attention, and supplies.

Cuba Skateboarders

July 29, 201401:52

HAVANA, CUBA -- There’s a group of young Cubans who belong to the exclusive Cuba’s “23 y G” generation, the name taken from a Havana street corner that’s a popular skateboarding spot. They are hardcore patinadores (skaters) who coined the slogan "Patinar o Muerte", meaning "Skate or Die"—a parody of Fidel Castro’s famous “Patria o Muerte”, or "Homeland or Death" rallying cry.

These kids live and breathe this action sport with very few resources. Their “tablas” are often as cracked and beaten up as their worn shoes, which slip more than grip. Roads are paved with hazards like potholes and cracked concrete. Almost no one owns protective gear like helmets or wrist guards. And in a city of two million, there is just one makeshift skate park in all of Havana.

Cuba Skateboarders

July 29, 201401:52

A new organization, Cuba Skate, is throwing a lifeline to these skaters. This summer, the U.S. government gave the nonprofit a license to bring in donations of clothing and gear. Vans provided 50 pairs of skate shoes, Spitfire gave replacement wheels and skating legend Karl Watson supplied some decks, boards and tees.

The group was started by Miles Jackson, who works at a skateboard shop in Washington DC and spent his last college semester in Havana. “Skaters were the first friends here I made,” he said. “Two days after I arrived, I saw a bunch of kids doing tricks on the side of a public fountain. I grabbed my board and joined them."

A Cuban skateboarder, part of the "G y 23" generation as the group is known. The skateboarders are passionate about the sport though they have limited resources.Roberto Leon / NBC News

Economic shortages make it hard for skaters, said Jackson. “There’s no gear manufactured in Cuba and the Havana skate park is pretty much just a few handrails and concrete ramps.”

Many kids end up skateboarding on the street, maneuvering without any brakes around cars and trucks. A few years ago, the rage to grab on to the back of city buses as they sped through traffic led to a rash of fatal accidents among skateboarders.

Despite the danger of street skateboarding, Jackson understands the culture behind street racing. “You want to challenge yourself and the world is your playground," he said.

Jackson believes Cuban kids would not be skateboarding as much in the street if they had a “safe vibrant place” for practice and competitions. So he is hoping to raise $50 thousand dollars to build a public skate park where Cuban kids can practice tricks and share styles. He plans to ask U.S. companies, like Levi’s, for help. Last summer, the American clothing company built a model skate park in India with different banks and curved ledges in a public and free space.

For culinary student Reynaldo Vicet, 19, skating is more than a sport. He stood on his first skateboard when he was nine.

“It lets me forget about the problems in my life,” said Vicet. “There is nothing else that gives me a better sense of freedom.”