Feature

Leaving Las Vegas

A United States surf citizen charts his path.

I felt I was really leaving town when I’d see the Primm casinos and its Ferris wheel up ahead on the I-15. Then I’d climb into the mountain pass that poses as a literal gate between Nevada and California. The road would meander past Joshua trees stoically holding on to the rocky terrain or a mountain goat perched on a boulder.

As surfers, we think of ocean and land as separate worlds. But the awe the Mojave inspires—both through its jagged beauty and the lethal power of its anvil and hammer of sun and stone—is very similar to the awe we feel in the ocean. Both are vast, both are full of an energy our minds can barely conceive. In fact, wave riding feeds from the interaction between land and sea in a way our daily lives feed our surfing, and vice versa.

Ironically we see land as the space where our bills, our phone conferences, our mortgages, reside. In the ocean, the only things that matter are our fins biting during a technical drop, or our arms scratching to get over an outside set.

Gunning it to Orange County, I was trying to get away from my own psychological concept of land: the grind of a campaign I was working for, to re-elect then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who most pundits had declared politically dead.

After getting through the mountain pass came Baker. I’d zip by a place called Zyzx, pass rest stops with signs that tell you to watch for rattlesnakes, and advertisements for UFO sight seeing. Around Victorville the temperature would start dropping, at first from 105 to 104. Then around Cajon Pass to 100, 96, and by the time I reached the 110 Freeway, it would be a cool 83 degrees. The Pacific was close.

Those dashes over the mountains were emblematic of my life and that of many surfers whose careers are not directly connected to the ocean. In my case, as an immigrant and the first in my family to graduate college, I did not have the youthful luxury of long periods of wanderlust in Central America, the South Pacific, or another wave cornucopia. I had to provide. My parents are blue-collar workers without a 401K. My brothers and I are their retirements. Throughout my entire surfing life I’ve been clutching onto my wave riding like those Joshua trees to their existence.

On Friday evenings I would escape the aggressive vibe in the Vegas campaign office. I’d leave behind the stress of parsing every event where the boss participated, or the second-guessing of a sound byte I gave on TV. Any overlooked detail could send the campaign into damage control. I was Reid’s Hispanic spokesperson in a purple state where he needed to run up the score among Latinos—then 15 percent of the electorate—to hold onto his seat. As Senate Majority Leader, Reid was the Republicans’ number one target that campaign cycle.

Weeks on edge transformed a few waves off the north side of the Huntington Pier, or at Oceanside Harbor, into a need more than a pastime.

I have come all the way from being a DREAMer in Miami to helping implement policy to protect the DREAMers of today—in part because surfing is about dreaming of perfect days while squeezing the best out of windblown sessions.

Before and after the election, I made similar runs, just in the East Coast’s fickle conditions. After a week of late night votes in the Senate, I’d be praying that the nor’easter moving up the coast would swing out to sea in sync with the weekend. With the outside temp in the 30s, I would pack my gear in my truck and point toward Belmar, New Jersey.

As I crossed Memorial Bridge in Arlington, the prayer would turn to, “God, please let the wind switch offshore by the time I get there. Let me get there with enough time before sunset.”

The Mid-Atlantic winter has these moods, where all morning can be victory at sea. Then the winds turn after lunch. With stiff offshores, the sky clears out to reveal epic, overhead conditions with vertical drops and muscular walls in 36-degree water. Then the sun just shuts off at 4:30. Next morning it’s flat. “One and done,” they call them.

But when you need it, a three and half hour drive to surf in 6-millimeter armor is completely worth it. You forget about your face hurting from the frigid water. You stop complaining about not knowing when the Senate would recess for Christmas. Feeling the rocker of your board fitting perfectly down the steep drop and just racing down the line, sans-bottom turn, just once, rebooted the hard drive.

*

No, I did not hate my job with Reid. He was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had, and the most consequential in my career. In the six years I worked for him he placed an immense amount of trust in me, and gave this immigrant kid an opportunity to work on very meaningful policies.

In the spring of 2012, the Latino community was disillusioned with President Obama’s immigration policies. He gave Republicans more border security and deportations, betting they would work with him to pass a bill that would address the fate of 11 million immigrants—people who work from the strawberry fields of California to the homes of the affluent in Palm Beach. Republicans only moved the goalposts.

Around January of that year, Reid’s chief of staff said the Administration wanted Senate Democrats to vote on an immigration bill to energize this growing block of voters. We knew it would fail. I asked if there was polling that supported the it-will-enthuse-Latinos theory. If not, all the anecdotal evidence showed Hispanics would see through the cynicism. A symbolic vote after four years of waiting would not lift the threat of family separation from the parents of American kids. The only thing that would energize Latinos, I told the chief of staff, would be the President enacting some type of tangible relief for millions of these families. Who cared about a Senate vote if your mom was getting deported?

Soon, Reid and the chief were asking more questions. Two brilliant policy staffers, my allies through thick and thin in the Senate, and I were the unofficial Reid immigration team. We worked on memos and policy recommendations and huddled with other offices. Soon the boss was taking ideas to the White House, annoying in the process a few risk-averse White House aides. During one tense meeting with top Administration staff, Reid’s patience with excuses ran out.

“If you want to save your White House, it’s in your hands,” he said, taking one of the memos we wrote for him, and highlighting several lines.

“This is what you need to do,” he added, pushing the memo on the table and leaving the room.

After a week of late night votes in the Senate, I’d be praying that the nor’easter moving up the coast would swing out to sea in sync with the weekend.

In June, Obama unveiled the executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. This policy allowed children who had been brought to the United States before age 16, who had lived here for at least five years, and who had a clean record, the ability to remain in the only country most of them knew. These young people are known as DREAMers, because they would qualify for legalization under a bill called the DREAM Act, which always gets majorities, but not the 60 votes required to pass the Senate.

Hearing the DACA announcement during a conference call with lawyers from the Department of Homeland Security, I felt like I just had found Uppers with only six guys out. I had never heard legalese that sounded so beautiful.

*

My parents brought me to the United States from Colombia in 1986, when I was 12. The country was entering one of the bloodiest periods of the drug war. The M-19, then one of the left-wing guerrilla groups, had just stormed the Supreme Court. Presidential candidates were killed in the years that followed and airliners were blown out of the sky. All were collateral damage of the war on drugs.

We came through Tijuana on a cold February night. In a moment of foreshadowing, I remember us driving over the estuary bridges around Carlsbad and over the San Mateo creek in San Clemente. Those bridges are seared in my memory because they are near the mobile immigration checkpoint on the I-5. When you’re undocumented, that detail matters. Years later, now an American citizen, I would be making the trek down the canyon, a 6’2″ Linden quad under my arm, destination Uppers or Cottons.

I started surfing at a spot called Harbour House in Miami, a place most would not call a wave. You ride wind chop at Harbour House. It needs northeast winds in excess of 20 knots to start throwing a chest high peak off the jetty.

Miami taught me that not all days would have an overhead north swell with light northwest winds during an incoming tide. If I really wanted to get something out of this sport, I would have to find it in chop. I would have to head up to Sebastian Inlet or Reef Road often. Costa Rica, then the Mecca, was off limits, though. My family and I worked just to barely pay the rent (the day my grandfather died in Colombia, the phone was disconnected and we got the news from a cop). Even if I had made enough money, I could not take international surf-trips without papers.

But surfing is what you make of it. You can be a jaded pro, dropping into Cloudbreak freight trains. You can be a stoked 70-year-old longboarder, happily trimming on a 2-foot wave.

In my last year of college, with a work permit already in hand, I got sort of creative. My first trip was to Puerto Rico. My second trip was to California. I packed a tent and bought Campbell’s soup and canned tuna at a 7-11 off the PCH. I camped out at San Onofre and pitched my tent after the ranger was gone to bed and picked up camp way before sunup.

The road would meander past Joshua trees stoically holding on to the rocky terrain or a mountain goat perched on a boulder. Throughout my entire surfing life I’ve been clutching onto my wave riding like those Joshua trees to their existence.

Life has improved since. I’ve had early mornings on the north side of the Huntington Pier when everything is on: light winds and a combo swell. And again, it just takes one wave. The ones where you don’t think about it. You just get to your feet and it’s the wave that surfs. Your body responds automatically from bottom turn, to top turn, through pumps down the line. It feels like riding a cloud.

*

On Election Day, November 2, 2010, pundits still expected Reid to lose to Sharron Angle in that year’s Tea Party wave. But we were on a good run. When a group of Hispanic students asked Angle why she kept running commercials of tattooed gang members sneaking over a border fence, she replied the commercials were not about Latinos.

“Some of you look Asian to me,” she told the clearly baffled students.

I received the video in a flash drive and from there it went viral.

Reid won his reelection by more than five points, stunning everyone. Results from the heavily Hispanic precincts in East Las Vegas and North Las Vegas showed Reid ran up the score. Later, we would find out that Reid turned out Hispanics as if it had been a presidential year instead of a mid-term election. Close to 90 percent of those voters, according to the firm Latino Decisions, voted for Reid.

After his victory speech, Reid asked his staff to come on stage. I made my way to congratulate him. Just as I thought he was going to point to a specific moment in the campaign, his face lit up and he said, “José, that surfing documentary you let me borrow is excellent!”

He was referring to Riding Giants, which culminates with Laird Hamilton in tears after riding a barrel the size of high school gymnasium at Teahupoo.

*

I continued making the sojourn over the mountains after that election anytime I was in Vegas.

Once, I was looking for a new board and got in my head that I wanted something durable and wooden. On a whim, I drove to Gary Linden’s shop in Oceanside. Fat chance that a member of the holy trinity (with Rusty and Merrick) would make me a board, but Linden remains one the few shapers who can still sculpt balsa into elegant and efficient curves. Thus I was hopeful. I asked if it was viable to make a balsa fish, expecting a chuckle.

“Why not?” he replied with a wide grin and went on to show me his balsa quiver.

Here, a total stranger was asking him about his boards, but he was clearly jazzed at the prospect of sharing the fruit of decades of experience. Today almost my entire quiver is made of Lindens, including two balsa beauties. I have learned more from Gary and his boards than in all my previous years of surfing combined. I am a mediocre grom who is going bald, but I can say Gary Linden shapes my boards.

One of those is a 6’10” balsa roundtail I call Tizona. I get to pull it only a few times a year. In February of 2016, I took it on a business trip to L.A. that happened to lineup with a northwest swell. As expected, all the beachbreaks were closed out and the points and reefs that could handle it had the population of three counties on them. The south side of Huntington Pier, however, was throwing a good right in the double overhead range with only 20 or so people out.

We came through Tijuana on a cold February night. In a moment of foreshadowing, I remember us driving over the estuary bridges around Carlsbad and over the San Mateo creek in San Clemente. Those bridges are seared in my memory because they are near the mobile immigration checkpoint on the I-5. When you’re undocumented, that detail matters.

Soon I found out why. Standing under the pier, and staring straight out into the pilings, I saw what seemed like a portal to another world when a set would thunder through—angry, boiling whitewater looking to demolish the concrete structure. The rip was fast on the way out, but so was the side-shore current. It promptly deposited me right in the impact zone of the steep left that forms by the pier, then put my ass right back on the sand after a good thrashing. I made it out after three merry-go-rounds.

I sat at the edge of the lineup waiting for an empty wave. One finally swung a little wider. I put as much weight as I could on my chest to gain acceleration. I felt the weightlessness as I initiated my backhand drop into the right. Halfway down the face I saw a water housing pop at the bottom. I made it down, my temples thumping with adrenaline, but got axed as I came out of the bottom turn.

Despite the rag-dolling, that split second, as I slid down the face—camera popping out of the pit, wall rearing up—is forever etched in my mind. And what is surfing without the confluence of reality and mind?

Sadly, when I found the photographer through Facebook a week later, he said he remembered the wave because he took it on the head, but the shots were not useable.

All of this might sound like a 0 for 2 session, but to me it was the opposite. I made it out on a day when there were plenty of better surfers sitting on the sand, and I captured in my mind’s eye the majesty of a 10-foot wall standing up ahead of me, as I dropped down the face on a crisp, California winter day.

*

Yes, it is a struggle to keep surfing in my life, but my job, my career, made winter sessions such as that one south of the pier possible. If it were not for what I did for a living, I would not have met Linden or Reid. Without my career, I would not have been able to eventually make it to Peru, Nicaragua, or the Basque Country. Growing up, I parked cars for weeks to save for a used board, never mind a quiver.

Conversely, my surfing is one of the major reasons I can do what I do. Thanks to big days of chop at Harbour House, I pulled through college despite all the stress tied to an undocumented youth. All those treks across the Mojave allowed me to grind through that 2010 campaign. I had come all the way from being a DREAMer in Miami to helping implement policy to protect the DREAMers of today—in part because surfing is about dreaming of perfect days while squeezing the best out of windblown sessions.

My life allows me to hold on to surfing. Surfing allows me to squeeze the best out of life. Ultimately it takes the meeting of land and ocean for waves to break.