They are more than surfer dudes. They are creating a group of well balanced young adults that promote health, both in people and the environment.
I live on an island where pristine beaches surround all sides of the Caribbean coastline. An island known for its colorful people, delicious food, tropical music, and the longest celebrated holiday season in the world. Seriously, our holidays begin in November and end in mid-January.
But with all the wonderful things that we’re known for, climate change is threatening our way of life, worse yet, our existence.
The climate issue
As warmer waters affect the corals that surround the island, as well as the sea level rising, there might be more to what the turquoise waters reach. In other words, our small island might become smaller – and our smaller surrounding islands might be gone altogether.
Some are skeptical, but I see the changes every time I drive down the shoreline, which is basically every day. Where I live it’s hard to avoid not seeing a beach a few hundred feet away from the highway. Sometimes, you don’t have to look so far. From my car I can see the erosion. The sand seeps from the shoreline toward the blackened road while the blanket of people over populating the shrinking beaches continue to do their best to ignore the problem–just imagine the sea reaching for the road, as if it could get in your car and drive along with you. This has been the scene for the past couple of years. As the people population increases so does the litter.
The beaches suffer, we suffer
One day when I was about six years old, my parents and I went to the beach. I swam my little heart out. I realized that day I was a much better underwater swimmer than an above water one, so most of the day I was in the water completely submerged. After a full day of beach, it was time to go home. But I already felt like I was at home. As I sat in the back seat, I looked at the blue sky and felt the wind say good bye as it caressed my long brown curls.
“How can I stay at the beach forever?” I wondered. “Mom, Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a mermaid,”
I saw my Dad look at my mom and smile–since mermaid in Spanish is “sirena” which accurately translates to “siren” as in ambulance or police sirens–my Dad, the always clever jokester, replied, “well, that means that you’ll be saying beee-booo-beee-booo forever” to which I replied “don’t be silly.”
As an adult there is no way I can live in the sea. As reports about the dwindling health of the beaches highlight the plight of the land against the imprint of man become more popular, the chances of any person wanting to be a mer-folk are slim. More importantly, I wondered how much time I have to run to the furthest place to be saved from a Tsunami. I wondered what, if anything at all, was being done to conserve the beaches loved by so many.
Then I met a group of surfers who are doing something very few expect them to do. They’re helping conserve the place they call home.
The Meeting of greatness
It was April 2014 when I a piece I wrote about the importance of coral reef health and how surfers can help was published. Earlier during the year, as I researched and began interviewing, I met Joey Carrión, the organizer for the growing surfing, body boarding, and drop knee competition—the Puerto Rico Triple Crown. I also met environmentalist Ricardo Laureano, who learned how to farm coral reefs while working in the field, and world class pro-surfer and Patagonia Ambassador Otto Flores–all people who are making a difference through this ‘extreme sport’.
I was also blessed to witness the glory of god-like drop knee mastery embodied in local legends Octavio “Tavo” Gomez and his younger brother Edgar “Galdo” Gomez. I saw them both competing in the drop knee category. Then I saw how Galdo assisted his daughter as she wobbled her way into competing on a board for the first time. A couple of days later, I became friends with Tavo after I reached out to him via Facebook to share a photo I took of him ripping a wave at the competition. Soon after, I learned what he and his friends were doing to help conserve the environment, promote sports, as well as promote an overall healthy lifestyle. I was in awe.
Movers and Shakers in surf
Throughout my adult life, I’ve met two different types of people: Those that do something, and those who talk about doing something. These guys, they do. They quickly organize and execute. These guys inspired me to shine a light on the work they do. Because it’s completely selfless, they put forth countless effort toward the community, the environment, the betterment of fellow athletes. They are a family, a band of brothers that is filled with love, support, and determination.
That lasting impression stood with me as I traveled to New York during the summer to work on my other documentary Forced into Silence. As soon as I returned, my decision to make a docu-short that highlighted the amazing work these guys are doing was easy. After a few weeks of planning, I reached out to Tavo about the idea and he provided me with ten names in less than three minutes. He was so excited about the project and what it would mean to the “boys” never did he think about what it would mean to him.
Every time I reached out to someone and got a yes, I thought about him. This tight-knit group of guys, this family of male leaders was opening their doors to me without hesitation. I became excited, and made sure that everything in my indie-filmmaker equipment bag worked. I checked my camera, my audio recorder, lenses. I was ready! Then I got sick. Some mosquito born virus paralyzed me in my tracks for about a week and two days. I was incredibly upset.
Since I had previously scheduled an interview with Tavo, but being overcome by physical pain because of Chikungunya, I could barely move in my own bed, I painfully reached for my phone and messaged Tavo to see if we could reschedule. “No worries, focus on getting better and we’ll reschedule when do you,” he said reassuringly and sent me a shaka emoji.
A few days later I was feeling better, albeit with painful swelling in my hands and feet, but I was eager to start production, so I reached out to him and we were ready to resume and execute this interview that would kick off the docu-short.
The interview was scheduled for Thursday. I got in my van and drove out. I looked at the coast line and thought “things are going to change after I’m done with this.” Pulling up to the place where we agreed to meet, I waited for about an hour. I sent him a few messages, and I found it strange that he wasn’t answering, nor was there any sign of him. So I checked Facebook and there it was. As the sea crashed against the shore and the warmth of the sun caressed my skin, Tavo was in a hospital in critical condition. He’d suffer a stroke. I didn’t know what to do. I was shocked. Faced with mortality, the reality that we’re not promised tomorrow, and even more shocking, we’re not promised the rest of the day, I drove back home holding back tears and hoped, prayed, wished for him to recuperate.
I spoke to a few of the guys that I had already scheduled interviews with, just to make sure they were up for it. We met that Saturday at a local beach. There were two interviews in the morning followed by two more in the afternoon. The production was in full swing as messages on my Facebook kept coming in, as well as in email and text messages. I was getting phone calls, reviewing footage. There were smiles, excitement, updates on Tavo’s condition.
Then, two days after his stroke, the Saturday that production began, he was gone.
“We’ll meet at the Healthy Love Bus” was his last message to me.
Honoring the legend
His death came one year and four months after the death of his older brother, who was also a surfer. Tavo joined his older brother to rip the waves in Heaven. I watched how the community came together like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Thousands of people he helped from around the island came to pay their respects to the man who impacted so many without asking for anything. As I witnessed the first of several prayer circles held around the island in his honor, it became clear to me that this docu-short had to be dedicated to him.
As those who shaped the prayer circle on their boogie boards, their stand up paddle boards, their kayaks, their surf boards, cheered out in the water–I could feel the love, the motivation this man cultivated in every relationship in his life. I could feel the pain of everyone who knew him well. Then I looked up at the sky and saw the storm clouds coming in and one little window of light shining down on the circle. One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life.
The following weeks were filled with emotional memorials and a side of filming. I became the horrible and obnoxiously persistent journalist trying to get the story. Still, I received thanks. I didn’t know why, I felt bad I kept working after what happened. Felt bad I refused to cry and even told someone to not cry in front of me. I felt bad that I zeroed in on the goal of finishing this film.
Then, I was able to sit down with Galdo, who proved his strength by agreeing to be interviewed just days after his brother’s death. His body seemed to float through the sidewalks, as if the pain was carrying him through. The unbearable heaviness of emotional and physical pain he was in was palpable. We met at the kick off of the second season of the Puerto Rico Triple Crown event. As we walked to the quietest spot, people stopped him, hugged, him, gave him their condolences. Some even joked that he was crazy to wear black on such a hot sunny day.
He managed to give a weak smile and then keep walking. When I asked him if he was sure he wanted to do this, he said
“This is the way I honor my brother. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be the man I am today, the athlete I am today, and this is what he’d want me to do, to keep going.”
I held back tears as I saw the swell in the waves grow behind Galdo, who was now sitting at a bench on The Marginal Beach Pier in Arecibo. I imagined his brother controlling the waves with Poseidon’s trident as a thank you for all the love those he left behind were continuously expressing for his sudden departure. I imagined Tavo managing the waves for his brother to find peace during those early morning rips in Las Palmas. I smiled.
These men, so strong, so fragile, so inspiring kept me going, there was no need for me to feel bad for zeroing in on the completion of the film.