Chico Brenes – Esto Va Suave…
Esto va suave…
By Jonathan Jackson, Photography Anthony Acosta
Granada, Nicaragua – March 2010
The white microbus full of pro skaters pauses as it prepares to pull out of the convenience store parking lot. On the side of the road a group of teenage boys still dressed in their catholic school uniforms – each with a small personal touch like an orange beenie, a Misfits backpack, or a pair of Vans – stand waiting to cross the street. One of the kids happens to glance over his shoulder and sees the bus. His eyes scrunch up and he stares for a few seconds. The bus starts to take off. The boy has a moment of clarity, “Chico Brenes! It’s Chico Brenes!” he exclaims as he slaps his friends’ shoulders. The rest of the crew starts to yell and wave at the bus as it drives off. When they realize that it’s only crossing the street to refill at a gas station, the group rushes over.
Inside the van, the skateboarders watch the kids sprint across the intersection. “Damn, Cheeks, you’re the man,” says Rob G to Chico as the youngsters clamor outside for a photo-op. Chico just smiles as he climbs out.
Since 2007, at least twice a year, Chico Brenes has been bringing pro skaters down to Nicaragua, or as he and his friends warmly refer to it, ‘Nica.’ This most recent trip includes a group of established skaters including Rob Gonzalez, Kenny Anderson, Steve Nesser and the youngest of the bunch, Jose Rojo.
Most days of the tour the crew rolls out in the microbus, traveling to different spots and cities to skate. And while landing tricks for videos and snapping sick photos are the official reasons the trips to Nicaragua pop off, for Chico they are equally about moments like this one with the group of young skaters. Having the opportunity to make an impact on the youth and help the skate culture in Nicaragua grow is something the 34-year-old professional skateboarder from El Almendro has been dreaming about for a long time.
As a kid in the 80′s growing up in El Almendro, a small town in the Rio San Juan department of the country, Chico’s most indelible memories weren’t of skate manuals and grinds, they were of the violence and chaos he saw as civil war erupted around him.
With bloodshed and paranoia sweeping through the country, his mother was wounded after being shot in the face by an acquaintance. She survived, and willing to do anything to get her son away from a similar fate or a life, and possible death, as a young soldier, she arranged for him to head north and eventually sneak across the Mexican border with the help of a “coyote” and meet her in the United States.
Around the corner from his new life and new house in Daly City, California, a suburb of San Francisco, Chico found a skate park. He borrowed boards from other kids and learned to skate for fun; eventually saving enough cash to buy a used board from a kid in the neighborhood. Chico Brenes finally had his own skateboard and it was on.
In the right place, at the right time and with the right combination of determination and natural skill, Chico made a name for himself skating in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center Plaza, known among skateboarders simply as “EMB” – which was regarded as one of the most famous skate spots in the world for a number of years – eventually leading to his career as a professional skater.
18 years as a pro, a collection of signature kicks, countless skate videos, custom decks and trips around the world later, Chico has paid his dues and parlayed an impeccably smooth and consistent style into a place as one of the most respected professional skateboarders in the sport and a role model and icon to a younger generation of skaters. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Nicaragua, where Chico has stepped into a role as a sort of Skate Ambassador between the two countries that have made him, because despite the negative circumstances surrounding his departure from Nicaragua, Chico never lost the love of his home country, of his roots and of who he is. It’s no surprise that as the only Nicaraguan pro skater, one of his greatest dreams is to share skateboarding with the country of his birth and share the Nicaragua he loves with his friends and fellow professional skaters from the States.
“Nica’s not for everybody,” he says knowingly, referring to a mental selection process he goes through when deciding which pros get the invite. “We stay at my aunt’s house in the real Nicaragua, not in a hotel or something. Mosquitoes, bunk beds, (electric) fans, the heat, the food…some guys can’t hack it.”
And while the occasionally rough conditions in Nicaragua might be off-putting for some too accustomed to the comforts of more developed countries, the skaters assembled for this trip seem like a perfect match for Nicaragua’s rugged beauty.
“We all get along so good, because we’re down for whatever,” says Kenny Anderson, a native of Las Vegas and longtime friend who Chico has been trying to get to come down and skate Nicaragua since the very first Nica skate mission. As a pro who travels around the world several months out of the year, for Kenny a trip like this is a refreshing change of pace: “Being able to stay with Chico’s family is just the best. You really get to experience the country in a unique way.”
Rob Gonzalez, originally from Long Beach, CA and on his third Nica tour of duty, compares his Nica experience to that of other countries he has skated, “(Nicaragua) is way more colorful, rugged, interesting, just the way the whole country looks. You go out and skate in a place like this, it feels like an adventure.”
The adventure goes both ways too, because at every spot the crew stops to skate, a crowd, sometimes big sometimes small, comes out to take it all in. At one park in Managua where the group stops, the commotion of skateboards brings a security guard over. But instead of coming over to chase them away, he takes a seat close by to check out the scene. No doubt, with the possible exception of the Eskimo ice cream cart coming by, the manual 360’s on the tabletop are the best action he’ll see all day.
“Ever since I started coming down to visit Nicaragua, in like ’92, and saw some kids skating, it had been my dream to open a skate shop down here,” Chico says.
In May of 2009 he fulfilled his first dream, when he opened the first legit skate store in Nicaragua, Central Skate Shop. The shop carries decks, accessories, and all the latest gear at the best price Chico can get it for. But the idea is to not just be a store but a center for the skate community in Nicaragua, a place to get tips, watch videos and talk skating. For Chico it’s all about having supports in place to help the skate culture grow.
“The next thing we need is a skatepark. I’ve been talking with the city and some other groups to see if we can get some land and try to get some help from my sponsors. There’s a few ideas in the works. But we really need to open up a skatepark for the kids so they can just go and they don’t always have to skate in the streets and don’t have to worry about getting hit by a car, don’t have to worry about getting robbed.”
Even without a park, the Nica skate culture has been making great strides. The skate demo the crew put on in March drew the biggest crowd Chico remembers seeing for a skate event in Nicaragua. Chico was mobbed with little shorties and up-and-coming Nica skaters snapping pics, asking for autographs or just wanting to say ‘what’s up’. He even had one kid around 12 years-old come up and hit him with a hand-off:
“This little kid handed me a note he had written and then took off cause he was shy and didn’t want to watch me read it. It said like ‘Chico, can you take me back to the United States so that I can become a pro skater like you?’ I was blown away. That touched me, man,” he recalls.
A few days later, as the crew is filming around San Judas in Managua with a crowd already gathered, the same kid shows up with an ancient looking board, a grind rail and an infectious smile. While a few of the other pros try to land some tricks on film, Chico takes a mob of kids over by a set of stairs to skate. Some youngsters not too familiar with working the ol’ shred stick try out Chico and Kenny’s boards, but end up either doing a whole lot of nothing or wiping out when they get to the stairs.
‘The Kid’ steps up and gets a hold of Chico’s board and attempts to ollie the staircase, but even he can’t land it. After a couple failed attempts, he shouts to a friend who comes through the crowd and hands him his ancient looking deck with the Chocolate sticker and tiny, grinded-down wheels. With a piece of familiarity under his feet, ‘the Kid’ takes off and ollies the first staircase, skates down to the second and ollies that one too. Smooth and nonchalant, just like his idol. The other kids and the pro’s go wild. As he ascends the stairs, his peers greet him with high fives and slaps on the back. And before he takes off, Chico hits him back with a hand-off: giving him his board. The Kid clutches his new deck like it is made out of gold and goes to sit on the steps and show it to his friends.
“The scene is growing. I see the potential,” Chico says with a smile. “It’s like back in the day, back to the roots. [In Nicaragua] they are skating for the love of it and that’s what matters.”