How Puerto Rican Surf Culture Led Me Back to My Roots

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Miguel Machado
Miguel Machado

Even among the many beaches of Puerto Rico, Playa Jobos in Isabela is special. The first time I experienced it, I was 25. The road to the beach snaked its way down through thickets of tropical vegetation and past massive limestone walls before opening up to a pristine Atlantic. In the distance, two-foot waves seemed to tumble endlessly over one another. Farther still, a massive rock formation jutted out of the water. And all along that stretch of coast, the heads of novice surfers bobbed up and down among the waves.

City kids don't surf, though. At least, that's what I had thought growing up in New York City. The beach was for hanging out with friends, kicking back, and having a few brews. Besides, the Rockaways, with their towering apartment buildings and the A Train screeching over graffitied tracks, seemed far removed from the tropical paradises I'd seen in the movies. Even in Puerto Rico — an actual tropical paradise — it hadn't clicked. Most of my time during family vacations on the island was spent at the bars, casinos, and clubs of San Juan. Since I was 13, that's what I'd done. Visits were spent relaxing and observing nature but never really being part of it.

But something changed in my mid-20s. A couple of years earlier, I started snowboarding. Tumbling head over board down an icy mountain might seem like a strange place to have an epiphany, but that's exactly what happened. In the cold and quiet moments among just the pine trees and the sound of the wind, I began to realize just how deep and fulfilling a connection with nature could be. And it set me off looking for that feeling wherever I could find it.

But it wasn't until I was watching the sun set over Jobos that surfing finally clicked. As the orange rays sank behind the tide and the tourists exited the water, a lone surfer suddenly appeared at my side, a well-worn shortboard slung under her arm. It was as if she'd sprung up from the beach itself, her skin tanned, her brown hair streaked with bits of gold. And as she watched the last of the gringo crowd make their way up the beach, a smile spread across her face. Seconds later, she paddled out into an empty sea beneath a setting sun, each power carve and layback turn silhouetted by the fading light.

At that moment, I realized that the lone surfer was part of something bigger, a community of Boricuas who headed to the water each day in search of the nature our ancestors so readily communed with. I wanted to be part of it, too. The next day, I rented a foam board, paid for some lessons, and took to the water.

While it's hard to pinpoint exactly when surfing was first introduced to Puerto Rico, the pastime really took off in the 1960s. In 1968, the World Surfing Championships were hosted in Rincon. Puerto Rico's close proximity to the US meant that East Coast surfers could hop on a plane and be in the water ripping world-class surf breaks in a matter of hours. This, combined with the year-round tropical temperatures and laid-back island vibe, ultimately turned Puerto Rico into the "Hawaii of the Caribbean." And Rincon became the center of its booming surf scene.

Since those days, however, the scene on the island has evolved and spread out — there's now a bevy of beach breaks, reef breaks, and point breaks from Rincon all the way to Patillas in the southeast. And each spot is an experience unto itself. For instance, Domes in Rincon provides big-wave surf with views of a decommissioned nuclear power plant from shore, while Wilderness in Aguadilla is a secluded, rugged stretch of beach that can wreck novice surfers on its jagged reef.

But for me, Isabela is home. I literally moved there in 2019 — I wanted to surf more. But I also wanted to connect with my roots and the town my grandmother had left behind. At 13 years old, she'd arrived in New York with my bisabuela as part of the Puerto Rican migration of the 1940s and '50s. During WWII, the United States abandoned the agriculture industry on the island and switched to manufacturing to supply its war efforts. The move forced many Puerto Ricans to leave the mountains and pastures of their youth and pack into crowded city centers to compete for jobs. Those who couldn't find any had to leave the island in search of work. Overnight, my grandmother went from a little casita amid the towering dunes and palms of Puerto Rico's northwest coast to the crowded, concrete streets of Brooklyn, where she soon found work at a factory.

These streets would come to shape both my mother's and my identity as Nuyoricans, proud of our heritage but removed from our island paradise. And when my grandmother would tell me stories about Puerto Rico, it didn't seem like a paradise. To her, the beach wasn't a place of recreation but something to be feared, its heavy surf and rip currents snatching away kids who weren't careful. So even though she grew up so close to it, my grandmother never swam at Jobos. Now, every time I paddle out into the waters that my grandmother once eyed cautiously from the shore, it's an act of reclamation.

The community in Isabela is also amazing. The scene is smaller than what you might find in Rincon, but for that reason, it also feels more genuine. Everyone surfs here. The gas-station clerks surf. The servers surf. Even my vet surfs. Nothing beats the feeling of riding your last wave into shore, then heading over to the beach bar and sharing a beer with a bunch of familiar faces. But at the heart of it all, surfing, for me, is about moving past the fear of the unknown that can stunt families for generations, the fear so present in the stories my grandmother told us.

When I first started surfing, my buddy, who'd also taken up the sport around the same time as I, would always hear the same negativity. "You're crazy. What if you drown? What about sharks?" It's this kind of mentality that makes it so easy to dismiss new experiences as "for the white boys" and rid ourselves of nature. The truth is, I don't have to be a great surfer to experience moments of incredible fulfillment. The feeling of being in the water — pelicans and sea turtles occasionally bobbing within arm's reach — never fails to amaze me, regardless of how many waves I catch or don't catch. And when I do catch one, well, it's hard to explain what that feels like. There's a weightlessness to it; literal tons of water are effortlessly pushing your board along the glassy surface. I've never felt so small before — so insignificant, and yet so connected to everything around me.

Surfing helped me experience my island and my heritage in a deeper way. Now, whenever I'm in PR, rather than looking for a club or a bar to check out, I'm looking for the next adventure to bring me closer to my ancestors and the spirits they worshipped. Whether that's paddling into heavy surf, snorkeling with barracudas and cuttlefish, or bouldering on the beach, I'll face it with excitement, not fear.