From the streets of Nicaragua to the bricks of Embarcadero and back again, the path for Rolando Brenes has been far from conventional. Growing up in his family’s crowded one-bedroom apartment after migrating to the U.S. illegally, an introverted young Chico was finally able to find his voice through a neighbor’s skateboard and never turned back. Quickly making a name for himself in one of the most cutthroat scenes of all-time, the Animal Thug utilized his smooth method of operation to shrug off any language barriers and earn professional status on the most elite teams in skateboarding.
Fast-forward twenty-years and not only is the formerly-shy Brenes one of skateboarding’s most notoriously-outspoken tour van MCs, he’s also utilizing his now-legendary career as an opportunity to sow the seeds of shred in his former homeland with Central, Nicaragua’s first skate shop. But don’t start thinking dude’s settling into that elder statesman’s role just yet. Cheeks is doing his thing with a steady level of progression that continues to hustle bills off of those few still willing to go against the man. Honing that style with a Chocolate-y passion equal parts gratitude and urgency, it seems that Chico is only now entering into the prime of his career.
So while others with not even half his legend or longevity start to go soft by believing their own bullshit, our man is out there in the streets proving, once again, that you still ain’t got nothing on the Cheeksta.
Chico, it seems the hype is already starting to build around this new Chocolate video. Any details you can give us yet?
The deadline is supposed to be at the end of the year. That’s the plan anyway. There are already people that have finished parts though. Like, I’m pretty sure MJ’s already done. Vincent has a good amount of footage, too. Even some of the new guys have a ton of stuff already. I know Elijah has a lot.
It’ll be nice to have something new. We really want to get it out. That’s all Ty wants—to get it out by the end of the year. We’re trying to come through with the parts.
Chocolate videos have traditionally been all over the map … from tour videos to westerns to virtual reality heist jobs. Is this one going to be a more straight-forward skate video or will there be a story this time also?
As of right now, it’s supposed to be just straightforward skating. But I’m sure a few months down the line, they’ll think of something. You never know with Spike. There’s no telling what that guy will think of next. He can come up with some pretty crazy ideas.
Is that how it was with the previous ones? Film all the skating first and then the skits and stuff would be thrown in later?
Yeah, that stuff always came later on. Like with Paco, they just told us one day, “Oh, we’re gonna film this skit,” and we’re like “okay, cool.”
But when we got down there, it was the real deal. Totally legit. Hair people and people doing make-up and everything. “Take two! Take three!”
It was scary. We were out there in the desert filming from seven in the morning until midnight! All over the course of one weekend. We weren’t used to that. It was so hard, man. I remember we started drinking a bit on set just to get into our parts more. Just to get loose.
Are you expecting the same type of hysteria on this one that Fully Flared had? That got pretty nuts.
We’re just trying to have fun. To tell the truth, it was supposed to be just a Chocolate video in the beginning. Something we were trying to put out real quick. But it’s to point now where all the Girl guys are getting so much footage. Plus we just added some new guys as well. It’s already turning out to be way bigger than we thought it would.
Are all those new kids gonna have full parts? Can’t say I’m that familiar with the other two but what I’ve seen of Raven so far is ridiculous!
Yeah, Raven’s unbelievable. And I think Elijah already has a full part done. All three of the new kids shouldn’t have any problem coming through. They’re all on tour right now filming stuff with Ty. We just felt that we needed some new blood on the team and they’re all fitting in really good.
How’s Gino doing?
Gino’s doing great. He’s been filming and getting into the groove. He was out here in LA for a couple of months and just being around the dude was great. One day everybody went to Lockwood and it was such an amazing feeling.
Yeah, I saw those photos on the ‘Tap. So good.
He was out there filming, trying to get a line. But just watching him push is great. I’d rather watch him do a kickflip on flat than watch anybody else do the craziest thing down El Toro.
I just wish he’d move out here—out to LA and finish this off. We’re all here for him.
So switching up speeds a bit, how were you first introduced to skateboarding and what was your first board?
Well, I’m not sure if you know my story but I was born in Nicaragua. In 1985, I took the bus through Mexico with my Aunt and Uncle and crossed the border into the United States illegally.
It was around ’88-89 when I first got introduced to skateboarding. We were all living up in the Bay in a one-bedroom apartment. My entire family: my Grandma, my brother and sister, my mom—everybody. These kids down the street from us had a quarterpipe and I’d always go over there and borrow their boards so I could try it out. Finally, my grandma ended up getting me a generic board to share with my brother. It was a Ninja from Toys “R” Us.
My first real board was a Bryce Kanights from Madrid. I bought it used off a kid for $15. The nose was almost gone and there was hardly any tail but it was so great. It had the big B.K. graffiti.
I remember that one.
I remember some of the Concrete Jungle guys used to come and skate that quarterpipe and I just thought they were incredible, man. There was this time … as one of those guys was leaving, he went into the trunk of his car and threw me a brand new truck. He just threw it and I went running after that thing like crazy! It was only one truck, not even the set! But here I am riding this Bryce Kanights board with generic Ninja parts on it and one brand new Thunder truck. I was hyped.
All the kids on my block wanted that truck too. “Hey man! Gimme that Thunder truck! Lemme borrow that Thunder truck off of you!” But I wouldn’t let them. It was a big deal to me.
What was it like for you growing up skating in the City? I’ve heard from several heads that you kept quiet for the most part, mainly because perhaps your English wasn’t so good?
Yeah, I was the quietest guy. I never used to talk. I remember going to the spot and being in the back of my friend’s pick-up truck. Everybody would be talking and having a good time and I’d just be sitting there. It was just the language barrier. People would ask me all the time, “Why don’t you say anything, Chico?” And I’d just be like, “I don’t know what to say.”
There was one incident when I first started going to Embarcdero. I was still so shy that I kinda skated away from people. I was skating this ledge when my board slipped out and hit Scottie Thompson in the ankle. I was so embarrassed. I tried to go over and pick it up real fast and walk away when he yells at me, “Excuse you, punk!”
I was so bummed! I felt so bad. I’d bring that up to Scot later on after I’d gotten to know him and he’d deny it but I can see it like it was yesterday. I’ll never forget it. Yeah, I was quiet back then but I took in everything.
Once I started coming into more of my own and getting over that language barrier, I opened up more.
Obviously, Animal Thug. But the first time I remember you getting some shine was as a member of EMB. What all did that scene mean to you and your skating back then?
It was everything to me back then. It was where we would all meet up as well as being the best spot to skate. It had everything: the best ledges, little stairs, the 7, the Gonz gap, manuals … everything. It had a great vibe and was a great place to hang out. There were times where we’d all meet there to go skate somewhere else and not end up leaving because we got caught up in something. There was always stuff going down.
Did you realize at the time that it was gonna be such a historical place?
Actually no, not really. It really wasn’t until later when everything was gone that I actually started to realize the impact that it had on skateboarding. I remember people coming from all over the world to Embarcadero but I just thought that was because the spot was so good. It never dawned on me at the time that it was something more than that.
That was probably my favorite time in skateboarding.
Where did the nickname “Chico” come from? I don’t think many people know that’s not your real name. Was Chico an EMB nickname or something?
Actually at Embarcadero, they didn’t know where I came from so they called me “Mental Mex” because they thought I was Mexican. I used to get kinda wild and crazy. I wouldn’t talk that much but I’d always be doing these weird little things that didn’t make any sense, just being young. So they called me “Mental Mex.”
I actually got the name “Chico” in middle school. There was this black guy named “Chicko” and I could never say his name right. I’d always call him “Chico.” He’d try to correct me but I’d just be like “Alright, man … Whatever, Chico!”
I kept doing it and somehow over the years, it bounced back on me. It’s so crazy because after going pro and becoming what I am today, I can’t imagine seeing “Rolando Brenes” on a skateboard. It has to be “Chico”.
So was World your first sponsor? How exactly did that happen? Didn’t you get on through a sponsor-me tape?
Yeah, I made a sponsor-me tape but that was for this small company back then named Small Room.
They were sick.
Yeah, but I didn’t get on. I got a letter back from them saying, “Your video was great but we can’t put you on right now.” That was around ’91.
I can’t believe they rejected you! I’ve seen that tape and it was definitely solid for the time.
Yeah, you can check it out online. I did a back three down the seven at the end.
And I did the whole thing by myself, too. Edited it myself and put the music on there. I had a little boombox and two VHS players. My stepfather knew a little bit about how to do it and he’d give me tips. I was on some Ty Evans ish.
After that, I started getting boards flowed from companies like 8Ball and Real. But all it ended up taking was for Jovontae to make one phone call. I remember him going across the street from Embarcadero to that phone booth right there. He made the call and just like that, I was on World.
Just like that. You had to be stoked. What was it like dealing with Rocco back in the day? I know you were pretty vocal about feeling mistreated by him when Chocolate first started. Do you still feel as strongly about that today?
Nah, looking back on it now, I think Rocco is actually a great person. Of course, he favored some dudes but he treated everybody well. He’s actually where I got the idea for Give Me My Money, Chico. He always used to be like, “Hey Daewon, do that trick and I’ll give you a hundred dollars.”
“Chico, if you land that, I’ll take everybody shopping.”
I remember going to the Gap with him and he’d buy everybody clothes. We’d be hyped because he’d end up spending like a thousand dollars on us. We thought that was just crazy. He’d take us out on his boat out to Catalina. He treated us good.
I remember Carroll saying that the idea for Chocolate came on that initial pre-Girl tour when there wasn’t enough room for you in the van. He said he wanted you to come along but there just wasn’t space and that’s what started it all. As amazing as that is in retrospect, you had to be bumming at the time.
The first time I heard about Girl, I was at the L.A. Courthouse with Tim Gavin. He mentioned it to me and then went into this long list of who all was going to be on it. Just going down the line with all these names: Eric Koston, Rick Howard, Guy Mariano … everybody. And I remember sitting there; waiting for my name … but it was never said. I was just like, “Awww!”
I made it seem okay on the outside but inside, I was bummed.
It was a year later that Chocolate started and at first, it was going to have another name. It was supposed to be called “Sister” but Rocco or somebody over there got a hold of the name first and patented it before we could. But because of that, the name “Chocolate” came up and it was perfect. It just made sense. Especially after they told me who was going to be on the team. I knew it was gonna be great.
So World knew that Chocolate was in the works? You were one of their big pros at the time; they must’ve known you were still down with those dudes. Did World treat you any differently after the Girl defection?
I remember Rodney being a little bit nicer. But the thing was, there was nothing they could do. I was always with the Girl guys. I lived with Tim and Eric. I was even riding Girl boards in my World footage.
Once word came out that Chocolate was definitely happening, I was on-board 100 percent and was just waiting for it to all go down.
I also remember Felix calling me before Chocolate started. He was worried about me because he knew about everyone leaving for Girl and that I wasn’t part of it. I really appreciated that but I couldn’t tell him at the time why I couldn’t go to Rhythm. It was weird.
It’s hard to think of you on a different team than Chocolate. Now you’ve had so many classic parts over the years … Love Child, New World Order, Paco … do you have a personal favorite? What’s the one you always show your family or the people that might not know your skating?
I’d say probably the Finally video, the first FTC one. Just because of that song and how everything came together so perfect.
Totally. Was it your idea to skate to “Smooth Operator”? A classic song selection.
No, that was Aaron Meza. At first, I wasn’t sure about it but when I saw it put together, I was just like “Damn, this is so tight.”
There’s also that 411 issue I did, “The Chico Issue.” I really liked how everything turned out on that one too. They let me choose everybody that I wanted to be involved and we got to make all these trips. We went to China. We went to Nicaragua. It was a lot of fun working on that.
At the time, I’d just done the DVS Skate More video and I wasn’t able to put 100 percent into my part because I was just coming off an injury. I tore my ACL right when I started filming. So I was happy to get the opportunity to really go all out for the issue.
But you didn’t edit that one with two VCRs and your step-dad’s hints though, did you?
No, but I should’ve! That would’ve been tight!
I really dug your latest LRG part. I actually think it’s among the best ones you’ve had. You had to be happy with that one?
You know, I wasn’t completely happy with that one. We started filming for that about two years ago and we knew that I was also gonna be doing the Chocolate video around the same time. I didn’t know how much effort we were gonna put into the LRG video so I kinda had to tell them, “Of course I’ll go on tour and do whatever I can with you guys but my main focus right now is the Chocolate video.”
So that’s how I was going into it. But as it got closer to being finished and I found out about the name of the video, I realized that I had to go 100 percent on it. It wasn’t until things started getting down to the wire that I started putting more effort into it. I actually had to take away some footage from Chocolate for LRG just so I’d be comfortable with it.
You mentioned earlier the phrase “Chico, Give Me My Money” came from old Rocco tactics. What made you bring that stuff back with your current teammates?
I do it to motivate those guys, for sure, but there are also times that I honestly do it for myself too. Like if everyone’s skating this gap that I’m not really into it, I’ll throw something out there just because I want to leave and go to the next spot. Like, “Kelly, I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you make that trick on this try.”
So what are the logistics of starting one’s own skate shop in Nicaragua? That has to be pretty difficult to set-up. Is that something you’ve always wanted to do?
Yeah, that’s something I’d been wanting to do since the first time I went back to Nicaragua. I remember going back there when I was 18-years-old for the first time since coming up here when I was nine. My whole family went and at the time, I didn’t really want to go. I was like; “I like it out here in SF, Mom. This is great! Why would I want to go back to Nicaragua?”
But we all had to get some papers taken care of, so we went. And it’s funny—once I got there, I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t believe it. Just seeing all the people out there in the streets and all the freedom. Everybody hanging out on their porches with their families, you don’t see that in the U.S. It was great.
Ever since then, I wanted to do a skate shop down there. The problem was that I didn’t see one soul down there skateboarding. Nobody. I decided I wanted to change that. I wanted to introduce skateboarding to Nicaragua and set-up my own skate shop.
What was it like watching the skateboarding grow there after your first visit?
Well, after that first visit, I came back the next year and actually saw someone skateboarding. One dude. But I was hyped. I remember giving him a board but I honestly didn’t think he’d still be skating the next time I came back. Just because over there you have to work. You have to make money to live like everywhere else, but over there it’s just so much harder. You don’t have as much time for fun stuff.
But I came back a year later and he was skating with two other dudes! I couldn’t believe it! Next year, there were three or four more dudes and it just kept on growing. Now there’s a whole community. They finally got their first skatepark at the beginning of the year and I’ve been taking some friends there to do some tours. It’s really taken off.
I remember on every trip, always telling my cousin over there that we should try to do a skate shop. But back then, he was going to law school and wasn’t really paying attention to what I was saying. As time went on, things just ended up working out and we were finally able to do it. That was two years ago.
It’s hard though. Import duties will kill you. You have to pay something like 50 percent in order to get things into the country. But we find ways to get stuff in there. We manage, believe me.
Is it all imported U.S. stuff or are there local brands down there now too?
It’s all brands from the United States. I do all the picking-up myself. I go to Black Box. I’ll head up to San Francisco and go by Deluxe. And of course, my family at Girl/Chocolate always hook me up with insane prices. Everybody gives me such a great deal and that’s important because it helps keep the prices down for the kids. I always want to keep the prices in Nicaragua the same or lower than they are in the U.S.—that’s my thing.
I just want skateboarding to really take off over there.
Very inspiring, Chico. Congrats, man. With so many years in the game, there’s no doubt you’ve seen it all. I know you’re the “captain” of sorts for the LRG and Chocolate squads. What are some important lessons from the Cheeksta that you try to pass on to the young bucks? What are some common rookie mistakes you’ve seen?
Just don’t take things for granted. I feel like, when I was younger, I took being a professional skateboarder for granted. Things can get taken away. I’ve had it happen to me and it’s no fun. So I just tell the kids to stay focused. Get on a brand that’s gonna be there for them in the long run, not just somebody that’s gonna pay them a lot of money right now but might drop you next year.
Now I saw you do a nollie heel down nine stairs on a “First Try Friday” a few months ago. You’re not supposed to be putting it down like that at this point in the game but here it is, two decades deep and you only seem to be getting better. How are you maintaining? We all know that passion can only get you so far.
I’m just taking better care of myself. I stopped drinking almost a year ago and I’m exercising a lot. Riding my bike.
Honestly, I just feel like I’ve fallen in love with it again over these last few years. I love it so much now and I want to do all that I can while I can because I know it’s not forever.
Choose one: varial heel or a nollie backside heel?
Oh man. It has to be one? That’s tough. I love both of those tricks … I think nollie backside heel.
I figured you’d pick that one.
Yeah. You know in Argentina they call that a “Chico flip,” right? So I gotta go with that.
Always gotta go with the namesake. Thanks Chico.