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 today where you see them everywhere,” said Ignacio Felix, one of the pioneers of Mexican surfing in an interview in Spanish. “From time to time we have seen Americans going to Ensenada with a plank tied to the roof. But that was rare – two or three every summer.
Whenever American surfers paddled to Ensenada, Felix was among a group of curious kids who spent hours on the beach, sitting on the sand and watching the surfers catch the waves.
Since there were no board makers in Mexico, locals who wanted to learn to surf would steal boards from American tourists or buy boards that had been stolen before.
As Félix grew, his fascination turned into passion. He and his friends would go on to co-found Mexico’s first competitive surf club, the Baja Surf Club, and organize international competitions that brought Southern California longboarding legends like Mike Doyle and Miki Dora to Ensenada.
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Mexico’s National Surfing Team at the 1968 World Championships in Puerto Rico. Members include Ignacio Felix, Rocky Changala, David Zarate and Carlos Hernandez.
Courtesy of Memorabilia del Surfing Mexicano
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Ignacio Felix receives a trophy from surfing icon Duke Kahanamoku at the 1966 World Championships in San Diego.
Courtesy of Memorabilia del Surfing Mexicano
They would compete in the world championships and Felix would 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 30ft monsters in Todos Santos for big wave surfing in Nayarit, where the glassy, clean waves are perfect for longboarding. Perhaps the most famous wave in the country is 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, lay missionaries who spread the sport to 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 story that hasn’t been particularly well documented. So far.
Jesus Salazar and Pete Torres are two amateur surfers and historians who have taken on the responsibility of preserving and spreading Mexican surfing history through their Memorabilia del Surfing Mexicano project.
Souvenirs started as a pandemic hobby in 2020, but have since taken on a life of their own. It consists of a podcast containing interviews with the pioneers of surfing in Mexico and an Instagram page – with thousands of subscribers – which features historic photos and videos.
It’s especially important that the story of Mexican surfing be told by Mexican surfers like Felix, Salazar said.
“Americans have come a lot and they make all kinds of fuss about surfing in Mexico, but they say very little about Mexicans,” he said. “We think it’s important to spread stories about Mexicans.”
In September, their project caught the attention of Surfer’s Journal, one of the most respected surfing magazines in the world. The magazine’s editors reached out to Torres and Salazar, asking for help with an upcoming feature on Acapulco’s history as a surfing destination.
“It’s amazing and it opens a lot of other doors for telling stories about Mexican surfing,” Salazar said. “I think that’s the happiest thing that can happen to us – to be recognized and to be able to work with their amazing writers and photographers.”
Caught up in the culture wars
Mexican surf culture played a role in some of Mexico’s most politically charged eras, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, Torres said.
A flashpoint came in the late 1960s when Mexico was awarded a bid to host the 1970 World Surfing Championships in Ensenada.
Felix was part of the group that won the auction, which was seen as a huge coup for Mexican surfing. The port city 100 kilometers south of Tijuana was chosen ahead of surfing heavyweights Australia and South Africa. The event was to be broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Felix remembers sharing the news with the governor of Baja California and the 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 make it. Then all of a sudden we had the World Championships.
However, as surfers partied in Ensenada, politicians in Mexico City were concerned. Surfing in Mexico was not considered a particularly healthy sport, Torres said.
“If you told your mom you were surfing, she’d be like, ‘No, it’s a sport for bums and potheads,'” Torres said in Spanish. “It hasn’t been seen in the most positive light.”
Nor did it 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, the Mexican armed forces opened fire during a student demonstration 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 of Woodstock in 1969 were still fresh in their minds.
“They didn’t want another Woodstock,” Torres said.
Thus, Mexico City leaders shut down what would have been a historic international surfing event in Ensenada.
“The government said they didn’t want Ensenada to become where California hippies used their personal campground,” Felix said. “They didn’t 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 then stopped competing. Felix went on to study oceanography and Carlos Hernandez, two-time national surfing champion, earned a degree in accounting.
“All that energy, that momentum suddenly stopped,” Torres said.
The world championships finally took place in Australia. Mexico would not participate in the event until 1988. Torres was part of the Mexican team that participated in these championships.
He called it “a fantastic experience but cost us 20 years to get there”.
Torres and Salazar hope Memorabilia del Surf Mexicano will help make up for lost time and spark 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 through Mexico and California.
“There’s a lot of history here where we stand,” Salzar said. “They call Ensenada the birthplace of Mexican surfing. This is where surfing was born in Mexico.