As night fell on the streets of Mexico City, eight-year-old Carlos (Coco) Nogales would search for shelter from the lurking shadows and passing strangers.
Underneath the rusty frame of an old car left on a cobblestone street, in the back of a truck he’d cleaned earlier on in the day, or in the corner of a dark alleyway. Often, he was cold to the core of his shivering frame, starving and fearing for his life. But whatever horrors the streets held, they could be no worse than those he faced at home. This sort of existence, he knew, was not about comfort. It simply came down to survival.
“It was very tough,” Coco says, as he takes a moment to reflect. His eyes are downcast, and he pauses before he speaks again. “So many nights you didn’t have a place to sleep, so many nights you didn’t have a thing to eat. It was kind of scary, you know.”
Almost three decades on, the renowned Mexican big-wave surfer says the harsh realities of his so-called childhood seem like a distant nightmare. But one which he simply refused to allow dictate his future.
“When I was on the streets — when I was that kid — I knew I want to be someone,” he says. “I mean not just be in jail, or on drugs. I knew I wanted to be someone in life.”
In the coming years, Coco’s pure determination would prove beyond any doubt, that no one is a slave to their circumstance. And today, it’s the power of this personal experience that he is hoping to impart to the next generation of mexican surfers.
“I know for certain that all of your dreams are possible,” Coco says as he sits among a circle of kids hailing from Puerto Escondido, Acapulco and the small fishing village of San Agustin.
In the background, a series of rolling left-handers hit the sculpted sandbank of La Punta, forming the perfect backdrop to — what for many of these children — will be an unforgettable moment in their lives. As part of his charity foundation AHAVA, Coco had handpicked a number of them to take part in a special workshop in August. He figures if there’s anyone in the surfing community suited to speak into their lives, it’s him.
“I think everyone needs someone to look up to,” he explains later. “I mean I’m not perfect, no one is, but I’ve been there and I know what they might be going through.”
There’s complete silence as the young ones take in his words.
And the wonder in their eyes speak volumes about the profound impact a few simple sentences strung together is set to have on their lives. Coco tells them about how he had to learn to hold his own on the streets of Mexico City — from selling chicles and paletes to cleaning cars and making a meal from leftovers as restaurants closed their doors.
After about six months he managed to save enough money to buy a bus ticket to Acapulco — a seaside tourism mecca, that just maybe, would offer a better existence.
“That was a little bit better, the weather was not so cold and I was not in the city and living on the beach.”
There he quickly learned to scrape an existence from the forgotten loose change of wealthy foreigners. He was a busker, experienced entertainer, expert salesman, and street savvy. And, among other things, it was here that he would have his first encounter with the English language.
“My friends taught me my first word,” he says, laughing. “It was ‘cheapskate,’ when the guys don’t give me money they told me to say, ‘cheapskate, cheapskate’ and I did.”
But Coco doesn’t try to downplay the reality of the situation. In his circle of friends, the problem with drugs and crime which mar the existence of millions of impoverished street children in Mexico, began to rear its ugly head. “But I knew I didn’t want to go down that road,” he explains. “I realised I had to leave.”
At the time, Coco started hearing some older guys talking about Puerto Escondio “el paraiso,” a place of surfing and big waves. A week later, he was sitting on a bus as it weaved its way along the road to Puerto Escondido.
“As soon as I came here, I knew this was going to be my house, forever.” Then surfing came into his life and, Coco says, it changed everything.
“But actually at first, when I was younger I was scared of waves,” Coco tells the kids. “I didn’t know how to swim, and I was afraid of the ocean.“But finally I said, I’m going to break this fear.”
Today, Coco rides giants for a living.
At 17, he scored an interview with Surfing Magazine and pins the launch of his career on a photograph of a single monster wave at Puerto Escondido, that he says “changed his life forever.”
“All it takes is one wave,” he says later, pointing to the very same picture (below) hanging on the wall of his dream home. But nothing comes easy, and for years Coco had to be relentless in his pursuit of carving a career from his passion. Pure determination, grasping every opportunity and what some would consider fate, led him to where he is today. But in life, Coco tells the AHAVA kids, it all comes down to respect and being the best person you can.
“This is what I tell them, I say ‘hey you know, believe in yourself, if I did it you can do it.’ It doesn’t matter if you live in a little shack, I lived in a little shack. It doesn’t matter how poor you are believe in yourself, just work hard, have a dream, fight. Have something you want. Don’t sit there and wait, go, get out there, make it happen.”
Coco finishes his chat with the kids on a positive. Their smiles widen as he jokes with them like old friends, and their eyes near burst out of their sockets, when he tells them about his close-calls, heavy wipeouts and surfing Mavericks, a wave he likens to a real life “horror movie.”
What do you like about surfing big waves, one of them asks shyly?
Coco’s eyes light up as he takes a moment to respond. “When you come out of one of those barrels, it’s a satisfaction you can’t explain,” he says. “Surfing big waves is like entering another world, another dimension.”
He tells the kids waking up and doing something your passionate about is the ultimate. But to get there, you need to focus first and foremost on making a positive impact on those around you everyday. “Good deeds bear good fruit,” he tells them. “Bad deeds, bear bad fruit.”
“I don’t want the kids to make mistakes like other people did, you know and because I know if they’re good to people, and to their own friends, good things are going to come to them.”
The stoke is almost tangible as the kids gather ‘round following a surf, and a training session with someone who has no doubt become an inspiration. Claps echo and parents watch in awe as Coco hands out 25 boards generously donated by Share The Stoke Foundation and some of his other friends in higher places.
But Coco explains AHAVA encompasses far more than simply giving these kids a board to ride. Beyond the euphoria, he hopes its the more important messages of respect, good morals and hard work that hits home.
“I want them to have opportunities and by having opportunity is being a good person, because you never know who you’re going to meet and who’s going to open the door for you. This is what AHAVA is about, its about passing the good vibes, these messages to the kids. I know for a fact, that one of them, you’re going to make the change for one of them, from the ten from the 20 from the 30 you’re going to make the change for one, and I’m happy with that.”
This post originally appeared on Free to Sea and is republished here with permission. All photos by the author.