Editor's Note: June 5th is Nick Gabaldón Day, a day to celebrate a man whose life was cut short by the sea, a day to reflect on where we've been, where we're going and a day to imagine what barriers are still left to be broken.
Born in 1927 to a black mother and a Latin American father, Nick Gabaldón's life was a confluence of cultures and ideas representing Los Angeles at that time.
"Nick Gabaldón's story is endless in its power," Selema Masekela, an LA-based surfer and action sports personality, told the WSL.
Gabaldón, a Santa Monica resident, was known to paddle his way to Malibu, a full 12 miles from Bay Street Beach, to avoid the harassment he would have otherwise faced as a surfer of color. Bay Street was better known as Inkwell Beach, a reappropriation of the spot's derogatory designation of being "the inkwell" or "colored" beach.
The Inkwell was Gabaldón's homebreak where he learned the basics on a board he would borrow from a lifeguard Buzzy Trent while on duty. But the talented Gabaldón sought the challenge of spots elsewhere, including Surfrider Beach in Malibu. Galabdron knew he was risking his safety to surf, but had no choice. It was the mid 1940s and early 50s; segregation was condoned and racism was rampant, even on the beach.
"He was the only African American, it was like he was breaking all kinds of barriers," said early Malibu pioneer Ricky Grigg in the documentary '12 Miles North.' The ocean doesn't care about color, creed or race. In the ocean we're equals."
Gabaldón stood out amongst the blond, light-skinned beach bums dominating the Malibu lineups. Accounts from historical documents note that the inequality generally stopped where the sand met the sea, disarmed by a mutual respect for the sport. Contemporaries of Gabaldón from Ricky Grigg to Peter Cole to Mickey Munoz were shaken by Gabaldón's untimely death.
"It was terrible. It effects me to this day," said Malibu veteran Dave Heiser, "I think he had a brilliant future ahead of him."
And while they remember their friend fondly and have spoken of the unifying sense of respect, surfer-to-surfer, they are quick to note the sentiment defied the blatantly racist attitude of the era. In Nike's 2012 documentary by Richard Yelland, they recall days spent catching waves with the unstoppable Gabaldón, expressing their awe for the man's commitment to surf, acknowledging the hardships he experienced simply due to his race.
It is due to these hardships, and Gabaldón's rise above adversity, that the legendary Latin-African-American surfer is celebrated June 5. Yet here we are, decades later, and Gabaldón remains one of the few African American surfers in media and in lineups across the globe.
"It is frustrating, to do the thing you love the most and rarely, if ever, get to experience it with people that look like you," said Masekela. "It sucks even further that the majority of people in the water who do not look like you assume that surfing is something that people who look like you simply don't do; that it's not a part of your culture," Masekela continues.
"Today, the surf community's general refusal to acknowledge that the reason people of color are underrepresented in the water has everything to do with systematic racism and America's problematic history of white supremacy compounds the problem. Add to that, people of color taking to the water, experiencing both outright and microaggressions on a regular basis, and a landscape that is already intimidating becomes further such. I still encounter racist aggressive behavior at spots."
"At this point, I don't know how things [will] change. I don't think the industry is really willing to truly address it. The surf community is so addicted to the cop-out response of ‘we don't see color' whenever this subject comes up, that I am not holding my breath. Black and Brown people are doing their part to create safe spaces for people to learn to enjoy the ocean and there are a handful of allies out there doing the work to assist. But I am not optimistic when the greater surf population [in] general dismisses that what we are even discussing, actually exists."
The celebration of Gabaldón's legacy is critical in present-day as the United States and other part of the world confront the ongoing inequality minorities in our society face every single day.
"[Gabaldón] chose to do whatever was necessary to own the joy and power of surfing despite racism and segregation being the American way of the time. Imagine paddling 12 miles to go surf Malibu on the regular. It inspires me to keep playing my part in helping others to access the joy and raw power of building a relationship with the ocean," Masekela says.
In 1951, 24-year-old Gabaldón was splitting his time between the Point at Malibu and the classroom at Santa Monica College. On May 31, he submitted a poem entitled "Lost Lives," which told of "the sea vindictive, with waves so high / For men to battle and still they die."
Foreshadowing his own passing, a week later, on June 6th, Gabaldón tragically died when he attempted to shoot the pier at Malibu during a booming south swell.
In 2018, Mikey February became the first black African surfer to surf on the Championship Tour. Today, he has stepped away from full-time competition to inspire a new generation.
February, whose father was not allowed to surf his local break because of South Africa's Apartheid rules, has quickly blossomed into an icon, giving surfers of color someone they can identify with. And February is doing it all on his terms thanks to his timeless style, pure passion for surfing and ability to simply be himself.
And right in Gabaldón's own backyard a new generation is finding their place in the Malibu lineup. Organizations like Black Surfers Collective, Black Girls Surf, Textured Waves and 1 Planet One People are all making inroads into making the sport and lifestyle more inclusive and culturally diverse.
Without a doubt, there's more work to be done, but thanks to Gabaldón and those that are following in his wake, slowly but surely progress is marching ever forward.