Inequality is alive and well, unfortunately, in the sport we love the most.
There is a buzz in the air this week here in Puerto Escondido as the annual international surf competition is coming up this weekend.
Yesterday, I saw my friend and her 14-year-old daughter out surfing together. I asked my friend if her daughter was going to compete this weekend. She said maybe. Her daughter is an excellent surfer and would have a very good shot at winning the competition except…
…Except there is no division for females.
Her mom told me that they would likely enter her anyway. Just for publicity and exposure since she is working towards a career as a professional surfer. The entry cost of $100 USD was nothing to her parents, one of whom is American and makes a very good income. We chatted a bit in English until she caught a wave.
A few minutes later I saw another Mexican teenage girl in the lineup. She had very dark skin and an excellent surf style. She was also surfing very, very well, at least as good as my friend’s daughter. I asked her if she was going to compete against the boys this weekend. We spoke in Spanish since she didn’t speak much English. She said no, she couldn’t afford the $100 entry fee and since there was very little chance she would be able to win, she simply could not enter.
And the inequality doesn’t stop with the women.
Earlier this week, I took a little surf trip to an island about two hours away from Puerto Escondido. There is a perfect right-hand point break at this island and the locals there absolutely shred. The island is inhabited by about 400 people, most of whom are Afro-Mexicanos. Their bodies absolutely designed for slashing up waves with power and agility.
This island boasts one professionally sponsored local surfer who is on the World Surf League tour. He is light-skinned with one parent from South Africa. But arguably, there are several other local surfers on the island who surf just as good or better, whose names you’ve never heard and likely never will. Why? Inequality.
So why aren’t the locals entering the competition?
While visiting the island, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the very best surfers I’ve seen surf in person. A local, no older than 18. I asked him why he wasn’t going to enter the competition in Puerto. First, he explained, he doesn’t have a board of his own and he can only surf when he borrows his older cousin’s surfboards. Then he said that in addition to the entry fee, there was the cost of transportation and accommodation for the weekend. It just wasn’t financially possible for him.
And what about the locals who are lucky enough to enter?
I also spoke with his older cousin, the one who loaned the younger boy his board. The cousin, who was 33, told me he was planning to enter the competition. In the past, he had competed and won several international events. He had invitations to compete in other countries but never could afford it. From the age of 12 years old his parents depended on the income he brought home from the tournaments he won. Now his family owns a restaurant on the beach and do relatively well, financially.
He had been lucky that someone high up in the Mexican government had seen the inequality and discovered him as a young surfer. The government official invested in him, paying his entry fees and supplying boards. But he only owned one board which was previously broken, and his fins were plastic rather than high-performance fiberglass. He said he was only entering to inspire the younger boys to try. He already knew that with the state of his equipment, his performance would be dramatically limited.
Can I just say, What the F***?!
No female division?! The girls who rip don’t even have the option of showing it?! No support for the local community?! The kids who are up and coming don’t even have boards?! How can this type of inequality still exist!? The WSL just announced equal prize money from men and women, I thought we were beyond this!? This was a real wake up call for me.
As a side note, I encountered only one female surfer on the island, an American woman about my age who had married a local man. An absolutely perfect point break in the front yard and yet not a single local female surfer exists. Why?!
It’s not fair.
This inequality isn’t fair. It’s not fair that every young local professional surfer I know of here in Puerto Escondido has at least one foreign parent. I’ll say it again: It’s not fair for the women, it’s not fair for the kids. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for these kids who do have the resources, but the lack of opportunity for the others is heartbreaking.
I’m not the only one who’s fired up. This is exactly why women like Bianca Valenti started the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing and Sachi Cunningham is directing a film about the same issues of inequality called She Change.
This morning I finished my surf session frustrated. Most of the pros were out warming up for this weekend’s competition. It was extremely competitive in the water. I had only two opportunities in an hour to catch a wave that wasn’t already being ridden.
How am I supposed to improve my surfing if no one gives me an opportunity?
And yet here I am, living in Mexico specifically so I can have more opportunities to surf.
It is not uncommon to see teenagers drinking in the streets at 3 PM on a Tuesday around here. It is not uncommon for young men to still be up at 10 AM, having not slept from the party, the night before. I saw a twelve year old rolling a joint in public yesterday. It is easy to pass judgment. But when I look at it from the lens of inequality it explains a lot.
If I’m frustrated at the lack of opportunity I have to get better at surfing, imagine how these kids feel? Knowing how talented they are, and having no opportunity to show it.
I am American. So I’m here as guest in their country, enjoying their natural resources. And yet my Mexican boyfriend is not permitted to travel with me to the U.S. to visit my family for Christmas. It isn’t fair. This inequality makes me angry.
While I was on the island I watched as one of the best surfers I’ve ever seen put sand on his board in order to rough up the surface because he had no wax. I handed him a bar from my unlimited supply from the brand for which I am an ambassador (simply because I am a frequent Instagram user, not because I’m a good surfer). I told him to keep it, wishing there was more I could do.
Is it an issue of American foreign policy, American immigration policy, Mexican government corruption, culture and tradition, the education system? Yes, probably a mix of all of that. What can be done? Well, that is the part that makes me sad. Because I really don’t know. All I know is that I choose to live among the problem and fight alongside my Mexican brothers and sisters for the equality of all humans, male and female, rich and poor, brown, black and white.
The World Vision of Surfing?
When I was a kid there was a photo of a little African boy hanging on the fridge. About every six months, the photo would get updated and we would receive a letter from this child. And every month my Mom faithfully sent a small amount of money for his school supplies and basic needs. My siblings and I referred to him as our brother.
I dream of one day seeing a program that connects surf shops and shapers with up and coming talent from around the world. Imagine the World Vision of surfing. It’s not hard. Inequality doesn’t have to exist.
What can be done?
In the meantime, this is a reminder to do your part next time you take a surf trip. Bring the bikinis and boardshorts you no longer need. Pack extra bars of wax and leashes to give away. Everyone has a mismatched set of fins they are no longer using which would be put to way better use with the locals. It costs so much to bring boards back home, consider leaving your old board behind. Also, other items like camera gear and cell phones can also be life-changing for these locals.
For people like me who live on a tight budget, there is still a lot we can do. For example, I set up my favorite local ding repair shop with a Facebook page for their business and showed them how to post photos. When I take photos of the locals I make sure they have access to them. I helped a friend understand Instagram best practices so he could build a bigger following.
I am a guest in this country. But the bottom line is that I’d like to give at least as much as I receive. We live in a world where politicians want to build walls to separate human beings. While helping one friend with his social media has no effect on American immigration policy, I’m doing my best to knock down some walls however I can.