Nick Gabaldón | The First African American Surfer And The Life, Legacy and Tragedy

 Nick Gabaldón is somewhat of a mythological figure. Few photographs exist of him. When founder Rick Blocker commissioned a portrait of the pioneering surfer in 2013, Los Angeles artist Richard Wyatt produced an interpretation of Gabaldon’s visage rather than a replication. 

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✨✨✨(swipe for more photos) #SantaMonica, CA was home to many #BlackPeople during the late 1800s/early 1900s. One prominent area was known as #InkwellBeach, a popular beach for black people where they were able to avoid “overly hostile discrimination as the area evolved from the edge of public activity to a center of it. Racial discrimination and in particular restrictive covenants prevented African Americans from buying property throughout the urban region, but their community’s presences and agency sustained their oceanfront usage in Santa Monica.” That didn’t stop white homeowners from trying their damnest to limit blacks access to the beach. They even blocked an attempt by the #OceanFrontageSyndicate, a #BlackInvestmentGroup, from developing a resort with beach access. Can you imagine a #BlackOwned and #BlackOperated resort in Santa Monica? In the 1940s, Inkwell Beach became home to the first #BlackSurfer, #NickGabaldon, who tragically died from a surfing accident at the age of 24. Despite all of the racial restrictions and legislation aimed at preventing blacks from visiting public beaches, let alone owning Oceanside property, #TheInkwell was a go to spot for black people to soak up the sun until the 1960s. In 2008, the City of Santa Monica officially recognized the Inkwell with a landmark monument at Bay Street and Oceanfront Walk. Imagine had black people been given the equal opportunity to swim at public beaches and in public pools and purchase beach front properties. All those stereotypes would cease to exist or may be flipped. Instead of the stereotype of black people not knowing how to swim, swimming would just be another category we would most likely dominate in (#SimoneManuel). Inkwell Beach’s history was close to being erased. I am sure many others like it have been. It is up to us to do the due diligence required to preserve our history. #Salute #ThisHistory #OurHistory #BlackHistory #AmericanHistory #HiddenHistory #BlackBeaches #BlackStoriesMatter #BlackLegacies #BlackLikeVanilla

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Speculative jargon — allegedly, rumored — are often used in recounting his personal history. A popular anecdote that tells of Gabaldón paddling the 12 miles from the Inkwell to Malibu’s famed point break and which served as the foundation of a Nike documentary, may not be accurate. The legend of Nick Gabaldón is shrouded in mystery. 

What remains undisputed is that Gabaldón was a trailblazer. The Santa Monica, California native of Mexican and African American heritage was the first documented surfer of color in Santa Monica Bay. His life was tragically cut short on June 6, 1951 when he drowned in a surfing accident at Malibu at the age of 24.

“A Place of Celebration and Pain”

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Today is Nick Gabaldon Day, but I'm not doing the usual post. On this day, we usually take the time to recognize the first documented surfer of color, an African and Mexican-American, in southern California. We recognize how he overcame overt and subtle racism to surf and pioneer the path to surfing in a time where beaches were segregated. Even the rosy story of paddling 12 miles to Malibu (which, if you think about it, is horrible and a clear example of systemic racism) is celebrated. 🏄🏾‍♂️ . . But how do you think Nick would react to the present if he were here today? How would he react to the reality that beaches and surrounding communities are still heavily segregated? How would he react to swimming and pools continuing to be inaccessible to black children? How would he react to the lynching of George Floyd, despite it being almost 70 years since he last saw this world? 🚮 . . Nick dealt with systemic racism then, and systemic racism is still alive and well in America. HONOR HIS MEMORY by helping to eliminate it. Watch and share @surfearnegra and @actdottv 's easy explanation of systemic racism (in her bio). White people - talk to your white friends and family about systemic racism...especially the ones you know have problematic views. Donate to organizations addressing inequitable aspects of our country. Check @joihearts blog (in her bio) on anti-racism resources. Vote to create a more equitable and just society. ✅ . . The time for action is NOW. We will not take an apology and let this conversation wither away. Systemic change NOW. ✊🏾 . . #nickgabaldon #nickgabaldonday #surf #surfing #surfer #surfers #black #blacksurfer #blacksurfers #santamonica #california #socal #racism #systemicracism #segregation

Uma publicação partilhada por The home for black surfers (@black.surfers) a

In 2008, the City of Santa Monica officially recognized the “Inkwell” and Nick Gabaldón with a plaque installation at Bay Street and the Oceanfront Walk. 

The inscription reads, “A place of celebration and pain;” a reference to the ignominious history behind the derogatory name “Inkwell” which was meant to describe the skin color of the patrons who frequented the small strip in Santa Monica that was only open to black swimmers. 

Black Girls Surf founder and activist Rhonda Harper has been researching Gabaldon’s life and tracing his ancestry since 2006. 

“His father was Latino and his mother was African American. They were originally from Texas and they came to Santa Monica in 1918. They were one of the first interracial marriages in California. That was unheard of back then. As a matter of fact, they’re not even buried in the same cemetery. Nick’s mother is in one and I don’t know where his dad is.” 

Their son Nicolás Rolando Gabaldón was born on February 23, 1927 in Los Angeles, California but grew up in Santa Monica. He was one of a few students of color at Santa Monica High School in the 1940s. 

The details are murky, but after graduation in 1945, he is believed to have enlisted in the United States Navy Reserves during World War II. According to Harper, “He didn’t go to war. He actually joined the service and six months later the war ended, so he never went to fight when he was in the Navy.” Gabaldón returned to his hometown and enrolled in Santa Monica College where he reportedly pursued writing. 

During the Jim Crow era, when Southern California beaches were still segregated, the Inkwell served as a sanctuary for African American beachgoers. It’s there that Gabaldón would strike up a friendship with Pete Peterson, a lifeguard who dominated Southern California surfing in the 1930s. Peterson let him use the lifeguard surfboards to learn and hone his skills. Gabaldón, who was said to be tall and athletic, grew into a formidable recreational surfer.
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Nick Gabaldón was born Feb 23, 1927 in Los Angeles. His mother was Black and his father was Latino. He pent most of his life in Santa Monic and was one of 50 black students at Santa Monica High School during the 1940s. He taught himself how to surf at Santa Monica State Beach. This area of beachfront was referred to as Ink Well Beach, Negro Beach, and other derogatory names. In 1924, after the forced closure of Black owned Bruce's Beach, that portion of beachfront became the only place in Southern California that minorities were freely allowed to use without harassment or violence. After serving in the Navy Reserve during WWII, Gabaldón enrolled in Santa Monica College, where he studied, surfed and worked as a lifeguard. Around 1949 he began surfing in Malibu at Surfrider Beach where he was accepted by several mainland surf pioneers. Since he did not own a vehicle Nick would hitchhike on the Pacific Coast Highway or surf/paddle 12 miles to Malibu. He did this water commute each day for several weeks. In June of 1951 he died when he crashed into the Malibu Pier while attempting a surfing move known as a pier ride. His surfboard was found immediately, but it would be 3 to 4 days before his body was found. Most of his surfing peers attended Gabaldón's rosary. Six days prior to his death submitted a poem to a literary magazine. It was entitled "Lost Lives" and described the sea as capricious, vindictive, and where men do battle but still die. The poem was published in its entirety in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. On Sept 7, 2007 the City of Santa Monica announced plans to commemorate the stretch of Santa Monica State Beach called the Ink Well, and to post a plaque to honor Gabaldon's contribution to the sport of surf. The plaque was officially dedicated Feb 7, 2008. He is credited by surfing experts with being California's first documented surfer of Black/Latino descent. Nick Gabaldón Day was organized in 2013 as a way to give free surf lessons to Black kids in the community. The annual event now draws in hundreds of people. #nickgabaldon #surfer #notsolongago #nsla

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On June 6th, 1951 Gabaldón was reportedly attempting a dangerous surfing move known informally as “shooting the pier” when he got caught in a huge swell at Surfrider Beach which sent him crashing headfirst into the pilings. His body washed up onto the shore days later leaving a void in the Afro-Latino surfing scene.

“His mother died two months after he passed away,” shared Harper. “She was so heartbroken that she passed away right after him.”

Surfing in the United States is still considered a predominantly white sport, which is ironic considering that its roots are Polynesian. The earliest known surfers in North America were three Hawaiian princes: Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole, David Kawananakoa and Edward Keliiahonui. They fashioned boards out of local redwoods and rode the waves of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz as far back as 1885. However, the subculture has notoriously lacked diversity. Harper is convinced that had Gabaldón lived, the surfing community would have looked much different.

“Had Nick not perished in 1951, surfing would not look the way that it looks today. Because that group of guys that he hung out with, those dudes left a year later for Hawaii and they’re the ones that started what we know today as modern-day surfing. Those were his friends so had he lived he would have landed in Hawaii just like the rest of them, just like Duke Kahanamoku. The way that we see surfing would have been different because there would have been an African American and a Latino included in the original group of men who paved the way for modern-day surfing. So, the impact after the fact post-mortem has been monumental.”

Gabaldón remains an enigma but one of his poems purportedly written shortly before his death gives perhaps the most intimate glimpse into his relationship with the ocean that would eventually claim his life.

ALL lives matter

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