By Gustavo Solis / KPBS
The Baja coast has always had amazing waves. But as recently as the 1960s — when American surf culture took off — surfboards were a rare commodity in Ensenada.
“It wasn’t like it is today where you see them everywhere,” said Ignacio (Nacho) Felix, one of Mexico’s surf pioneers in an interview in Spanish. “Every once in a while, we sometimes saw Americans drive to Ensenada with a board tied to the roof. But it was rare — two or three every summer.”
Whenever American surfers paddled out in Ensenada, Felix was among a group of curious children who spent hours on the beach just sitting on the sand and watching the surfers catch waves.
Since there weren’t any board manufacturers in Mexico, locals who wanted to learn how to surf either stole boards from American tourists or bought boards that had previously been stolen.
As Felix grew older, his fascination turned into a passion. He and his friends would go on to co-found Mexico’s first competitive surf club, the Baja Surf Club, and host international competitions that brought Southern California longboard legends like Mike Doyle and Miki Dora to Ensenada.
They would compete in world championships and Felix would go on to meet Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic gold medalist credited with popularizing surfing around the world.
A Rich History
Mexico has thousands of miles of coastline and boasts some of the best waves in the world — from 30-foot monsters at Todos Santos for big-wave surfing to Nayarit, where glassy and clean waves are perfect for longboarding. The country’s most famous wave is arguably the pumping barrels of Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca.
Thanks to these natural gifts, Mexico has a rich surfing history — full of adventurers who discovered new waves, secular missionaries who spread the sport down Mexico’s Pacific coast. They also fought a federal government that didn’t want long-haired hippies and surfers on Mexican beaches.
But it’s a history that hasn’t been particularly well documented. Until now.
Jesus Salazar and Pete Torres are two surfers and amateur historians who’ve taken on the responsibility of preserving and spreading the history of Mexican surfing through their Memorabilia del Surfing Mexicano project.
Memorabilia started out as a pandemic hobby in 2020, but it has since taken on a life of its own. It consists of a podcast featuring interviews with Mexico’s surfing pioneers and an Instagram page — with thousands of followers — that showcases historical photos and videos.
It is particularly important that the story of Mexican surfing is told by Mexican surfers like Felix, Salazar said.
“Americans have come a lot and they make all kinds of stories about surfing in Mexico, but they tell very little about Mexicans,” he said. “We feel it’s important to get stories about Mexicans out there.”
In September, their project caught the attention of The Surfer’s Journal — one of the most respected surf magazines in the world. Writers for the magazine reached out to Torres and Salazar, asking for help with an upcoming feature about the history of Acapulco as a surfing destination.
“It’s amazing and it opens a lot of other doors to tell stories about Mexican surfing,” Salazar said. “I think that’s the most joyful thing that could happen to us — to get recognized and be able to work with their amazing writers and photographers.”
Caught in the Culture Wars
Baja Mexico’s surf culture has played a role in some of Mexico’s most politically charged eras, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, Torres said.
One flashpoint came in the late 1960s when Mexico had been awarded a bid to host the 1970 World Surfing Championships in Ensenada.
Felix was part of the group who won the bid, which was seen as a huge coup for Mexican surfing. The port town 100 kilometers south of Tijuana was chosen ahead of surfing heavyweights Australia and South Africa. The event was scheduled for broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Felix remembers sharing the news with the governor of Baja California and mayor of Ensenada.
“They had this look on their faces like they couldn’t believe it,” Felix said. “They thought we were just a bunch of crazy kids who weren’t going to pull it off. Then, all of a sudden, we had the World Championships.”
However, while surfers celebrated in Ensenada, politicians in Mexico City were worried. Surfing in Mexico wasn’t seen as a particularly wholesome sport, Torres said.
“If you told your mom that you were surfing, she’d say ‘No, that’s a sport for bums and pot heads,’” said Torres in Spanish. “It wasn’t seen in the most positive light.”
It also didn’t help that like the United States, Mexico in the late 1960s was experiencing widespread cultural upheaval, with young people increasingly taking to the streets. In 1968, Mexican armed forces opened fire during a student protest in Mexico City. As many as 1,300 people were killed in what became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre.
Mexican authorities were also paying close attention to student protests in the United States over the Vietnam War, and the chaotic images from 1969’s Woodstock were still fresh in their minds.
“They did not want another Woodstock,” Torres said.
So, leaders in Mexico City pulled the plug on what would have been an historic international surfing event in Ensenada.
“The government said they didn’t want Ensenada to become the place California’s hippies used as their personal campground,” Felix said. “They did not want the World Championships here.”
The decision stalled the development of competitive surfing in Mexico for decades, Torres said.
Felix and the other founding members of the Baja Surf Club stopped competing after that. Felix went on to study oceanography and Carlos Hernandez, who was a two-time national surfing champion, got an accounting degree.
“All of that energy, that momentum suddenly came to a halt,” Torres said.
The World Championships ended up going to Australia. Mexico would not compete in the event until 1988. Torres was part of the Mexican team that competed in those championships.
He called it, “a fantastic experience but one that costs us 20 years to get to.”
Torres and Salazar hope that Memorabilia del Surf Mexicano helps make up for the lost time and attracts interest in the sport and its history.
In addition to the podcast and social media pages, they have plans for an exhibit that begins in Ensenada and travels throughout Mexico and California.
“There’s a lot of history right here where we’re standing,” Salazar said. “They call Ensenada the crib of Mexican surfing. This is where surfing was born in Mexico.”