Eli Perez is Cuban-American. Born in Miami, she had never been to Cuba, up until November 2018. For a long time, she wanted to visit the island nation and connect with her roots. But instead of making the trip an ordinary vacation she and Lenny Gilmore decided to ring up Jose Bordas. Every Year in November the former inline speed skating champion organizes a week-long (non-profit) tour called Skate Cuba. With a group of inline-skaters Jose skates through the country distributing free skating equipment as this is barely available in the country. Almost impossible to get are roller skates. So, while doing good for most of us is reduced to posting prayers on Instagram, Eli and Lenny decided to take action. She rang up Powerslide, who runs Chaya that she rides for, and told them about her idea bringing roller skates to Cuba. Sometime later Eli and Lenny jumped on an airplane to Havana with over a hundred pounds of skates in numerous bags. In the end, Eli found more than just grateful faces. She was able to connect with her heritage and even erase all doubts and fears her parents had. She also discovered the craziest DIY park you might have ever heard of in Havana.
Eli, how was it to skate such a long distance through Cuba on roller skates?
In Chicago there is this group called Windy City Skaters. It is a group of inline-skaters and every other weekend they skate twelve miles outdoors. I have done that a few times so I was confident in skating long distance. The longest distance I ever skated was 30 miles in a day. That’s what Skate Cuba is: skating long distance around different parts of the country. It really wasn’t that bad. We took a lot of breaks, we stopped a lot. It is totally doable for roller skaters and really fun.
Where did all the skates come from?
I contacted Powerslide/Chaya and told them that this project means a lot to me and that I really want them get involved. They sent me a bunch of skates for kids and adults among other stuff. I added old skates I still owned. In total we had over a hundred pounds of skates, wheels and gear. I never traveled with so many bags. I was worried to lose a bag or that customs would be upset at me.
How did you manage to bring them all the way to Cuba?
I have a lot of family still in Cuba. And I know that a common way to send parcels over is to actually travel there with luggage and suitcases filled with stuff. When I was a child growing up in Miami a lot of my old children’s clothes would end up with my relatives. I was so preoccupied with bringing all these skates that I accidentally left my passport at home. So, we were at the airport and I had to go back to get it. It was so nerve-wrecking.
Such a classic!
It all worked out well.
What did your route look like?
Lenny and I arrived a few days prior so we could explore the country on our own. We ended up meeting up with a group of skateboarders. We learned about the park scene in Havana. There are obviously no skateparks in the whole country. So, what they created is their own skatepark called Ciudad Libertad from what used to be an old military base. It was first turned into a school and then abandoned. The ceilings of the gymnasium and of the school are caved in. There are two floors. There is this gaping hole and graffiti everywhere. The skateboarders built ramps and obstacles out of cement and any material that they could find or was donated. It was just a beautiful crazy chaotic skatepark. It was the first time in my life that I ran into somebody because there were so many skateboarders there. We also saw a few inliners. Hopefully when we go next year we see some roller skaters from the skates that we donated.
How did you experience the infrastructure in general for skating in Cuba. How are the streets?
When I signed up for the trip my parents were like: ‘Oh my god, you don’t wanna skate in Cuba. The streets are all terrible, there are dogs everywhere.’ But it was so much fun, it was beautiful to skate. Jose, the guy behind Skate Cuba chose very smooth streets. And even when Lenny and I arrived prior and were exploring Havanna on our own the streets weren’t that bad. They were probably as bad as Chicago streets which have a lot of potholes. Many people were very surprised to see roller skates. You can’t find them in Cuba. Even the skateboarders at the Libertad park were so accepting and welcoming. Skateparks in the US are different. Skateboarders are like ‘Rollerskaters I don’t care, Inline skaters I don’t care’. There everyone just supported all wheels and the freedom of skating.
That is something very different about Central and South America. Everywhere we traveled so far, people were super welcoming. No matter what wheels you have, everyone will give you props when you do something rad. It’s more like family thing.
It’s like a bond, it’s about the freedom of rolling, which is great. The people we skated with were so sweet. Their grandma made us juice and we hung out at the grandma’s house. It felt like I was hanging out with family. And honestly, I was very nervous about going to Cuba. I am first generation Miamian, first of my family to be raised in the US other than my mom who came from Cuba in the 1970s. I felt a connection to Cuba but at the same time my mom raised us to be as American as possible. She didn’t want me to struggle with learning English. So, I was very nervous going to Cuba because my Spanish is fluent but it is not perfect. I’m about as fluent as an elementary schooler. I can’t use big words. Because here when you speak to a fluent Spanish speaker from any Latin American country they give you this look: ‘Oh, your parents didn’t raise you right, they didn’t teach you Spanish.’ But when in Cuba I never spoke so much Spanish in my life. Everyone was friendly and patient with me. Something you don’t see in the US. I truly felt like I belonged.
How come had you never went to Cuba before?
As a child growing up I wanted to feel more connected to my family’s culture. I would always tell my mom that I wanted to go to Cuba. But neither my mom nor my grandma wanted me to visit. They always said: ‘It’s it not be a great place to visit, it’s not like in the photos where people smoke cigars in classic cars.’ When I decided to go, she was very nervous and apprehensive. My parents told me to be careful around Cubans even though they are Cuban. Being from a country that was dealing with Communism and shitty government issues they had no desire to go back. But we encountered nothing but positive experiences there.
Their memories are probably different than your expectations. But did these narratives had an influence on your expectations?
Oh my god, yes! I was so nervous. As soon as we got to the airport I said to Lenny: ‘we have six bags of a hundred pounds of roller skates. We need to guard them so no one steals them. But everyone was very friendly and nice. Our taxi driver gave us his business card to call him any time we need a cab. It’s very hard to travel round Cuba if you do not have a car. And a lot of people do not own one, so hitchhiking is very common. Which is why bringing roller skates was so important as a way of freedom and transportation to get around locally. As a matter of fact, on our way back to the airport our car broke down. That cab driver called us another driver so we wouldn’t miss our flight.
Were people very curious about roller skates as there a mainly skateboarders and inline skaters?
On the third day of the trip we met up with this rollerblading club in Varadero. There was a bunch of kids there. We laid out all our stuff. There was this massive pile of donations on the ground. All the kids were nervously standing there, very polite though, and staring at the roller skates. I told them they were for them to try on. As soon as one of them tried them they all went for it. They were so in love with them and very excited to have something different than inline-skates. As soon as they put on the roller skates there was a mood shift.
Do you think it is kind of empowering for the kids to have skates and be able to express themselves?
Definitely. What I love about it is that any time I skate I feel like I am escaping reality. But not in a bad way where I feel like I am unhappy with my surrounding. For them it is a kind of way to escape, relax and feel freedom and perceive their world in a different way. All of a sudden they see a street as a fun area to jump around or try and roller dancing. Actually a few months after we came home from the trip I had a distant relative from Cuba message me. The roller skates we donated were distributed by the club across the country. So, one of my relatives got one of the skates we donated. It was really crazy, it made cry.
Did you have time to meet any of your relatives?
Unfortunately, not. They live outside of the big cities. No one was close to the route we skated. I didn’t have the chance to leave the group but next year I want to show up a week early so I can meet relatives.
Did your relationship to Cuba change through this trip?
I always felt connected to my heritage. When I first started roller derby in 2013 I chose my skate name Cuban Miss Elle cause I wanted to represent my heritage, especially in such a predominantly white sport. At the same time, I always felt the imposter syndrome. Like I am not Hispanic enough, I am not Latina enough. Going to Cuba made me more confident. I feel more connected to my culture, I feel even more connected to my family and I feel I am representing in a good way.
Is your mom okay now with it all?
Oh yes, she wants to go with us next time!
She made the positive experience through you!
They saw all the photos and how much fun we were having. So yes, she wants to join us and maybe my grandma too. My mom had not been to Cuba since they fled in the 1960s.
What are your plans until then?
Between now and the next time I visit Cuba in November 2020 I want to acquire donations and bring more stuff. I donated my custom roller derby skates with the Cuban flag. I paid so much on them and then I had so many pairs of roller skates that were just sitting in my closet. It felt amazing that they were no longer collecting dust and someone was using them.
Do you know who has them?
No, but I remember a boy trying them. He looked really sharp in them.
So throughout the year anyone can donate roller skates and gear to you?
Absolutely. All brands are welcome. I think it is a great cause. It’s a way for freedom in such a restricting country. It felt amazing to hand these off to children. This is like a simple means for a path of freedom, a little slice of happiness.