Surfers and ocean lovers in general are gathering in Santa Monica on Saturday, June 1st to honor the life of a surfer who died young, but inspired a generation of surfers from diverse backgrounds. While a student at Santa Monica College, Nick Gabaldón perished in a surfing accident at the Malibu Pier in 1951, at the tragically young age of 24.
Gabaldón is Los Angeles’ first documented surfer of African-American and Mexican descent. Alison Rose Jefferson, a doctoral candidate in history at University of California, Santa Barbara helped coordinate the June 1st event. She says while Nick Gabaldón experienced a common bond in the water among the surfing community, prejudice was not far away on land or in the ocean.
“He symbolizes for many people the quintessential California surfer because of his passion, his athleticism,” Jefferson said, “and he was also at that time challenging racial hierarchies when he surfed and when he hung out at the beach public spaces, because these were spaces that were at the core of California’s formative mid-century identity.”
One of those spaces that he loved was a Santa Monica beach spot at Bay Street – known as the “Inkwell” during the Jim Crow era, from the 1900s to 1960s. The spot, south of Santa Monica Pier, at the intersection of Bay Street and Ocean Front Walk, was where a lot of black surfers used to hang out. In 2008, the City of Santa Monica officially recognized the “Inkwell” and Gabaldón for their cultural significance in local, California and U.S. history.
It was Gabaldón’s drive to find the best waves, despite those racial barriers, that impressed Jeff Williams from the Black Surfers Collective. “Nick, entering the beach where it was socially acceptable for him to enter the beach, which was in Santa Monica, paddling the 12 miles north to Malibu Surfrider beach, which we all know is one of the most reknowned surf breaks in the world.”
Among the events tomorrow are an ocean blessing ceremony, a memorial paddle-out in Gabaldón’s honor at the Bay Street/Inkwell site, and surf lessons from the Black Surfers Collective and Surf Bus Foundation.
Meredith McCarthy is director of programs with the environmental group “Heal the Bay,” and said Gabaldón’s story ties in perfectly with her group’s efforts to promote ocean stewardship. “Using Nick as a vehicle to introduce people back to the beach, or to the beach that have never been there or don’t have much experience, it’s just a really great way for us to celebrate.”
The event will also feature free screenings at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium of two documentaries that explore the life of Gabaldón and black surfing history. Organizers expect dozens of kids to attend, from youth organizations in Watts and Willowbrook – many of whom may be visiting the beach for the first time.
Watch the trailer for the documentary “12 Miles North, The Nick Gabaldon Story”