“I owe it to the sea”
Meet soul surfer and environmental warrior Yaya Guerrero whose surf project Ola Cuba is empowering the island’s youth to feel the stoke and save the seas.
The idea behind Ola Cuba isn’t a new one. It wasn’t created behind the screens of social media or with the knowledge we have now about how we’ve abused our planet over the past 50 years.
Ola Cuba’s story began in 2008 on the small island in the Caribbean when founder Yaya Guerrero simply wanted female company on the waves. “Most of the times I surfed at Playa de 70, I was the only girl, and sometimes I wished there were other girls in the water. I taught some of my friends, and their children and, after these classes, I realised that I had a vocation to transmit knowledge.”
It wasn’t until five years later that the seeds of Yaya’s thoughts began to germinate. Back then Cubans didn’t enjoy the liberties the rest of the world took for granted. There was no personal internet or social media access to quickly propagate and spread ideas. “In 2013, it occurred to me to develop a program in which I taught girls alone to surf, to increase the women’s movement,” Yaya recalls. But it wasn’t going to be easy; she had only had two foam longboards to work with, given to her by Eduardo Nuñez Valdés and Blair Cording, founders of the Australian-Cuban non-profit organisation, Royal 70, which worked to engage Cuban youth in surfing.
Cuba was an island to which the global surfing community had not yet been introduced, despite having 5,746 kilometres of coastline and more than 300 beaches. The world didn’t know it then, but surfing was in the Cubans’ blood, and organisations such as Royal 70, and before it, ex-pat Aussie Bob Samins, who helped to create the first boardriders association, shone a light on the issue beyond the island’s sanctioned borders.
Boards donated by travelling surfers was all Yaya could hope for, and there was little chance of any girls getting one. A major turning point came in 2015, when Yaya received an email from Natalie Small, founder of the San Diego Groundswell Community Project, a non-profit organisation that offers empowerment, healing and therapy to troubled women through surfing and ocean conservation action.
“Natalie had seen an interview of mine on the internet, which talked about my project and the problems I faced to develop it,” says Yaya. “She wanted to collaborate with me because she had implemented a project similar to mine.
“We spent a whole year planning her trip to Cuba and everything that she could bring. On January 22, 2016, Natalie arrived on the island accompanied by other girls, each of them with a lot of luggage, including short and long fibreglass and foam surfboards, leashes, wax, wetsuits, and repair materials.
“The first official class of Ola Cuba was held on January 25, attended by eight girls of different ages. In the class we shared knowledge about the objectives of both projects, why and how to protect the environment, the history of surfing. We did yoga exercises, gave advice about repairing our boards in case of breakage; all the theoretical and practical things about surfing.”
Yaya has since travelled the world representing Cuban surfing and working to generate support both for the surfers and for Ola Cuba. It was during one of these trips that she became frighteningly aware of the magnitude of the environmental destruction we face in the near future if we do not make a change – and so the other facet to Ola Cuba was born.
“I was in Peru and it was the worst experience of my life. I was in the sea paddling to take a wave and at times it was difficult for me because my arms were tangled in plastic bags, ropes and other garbage. Also, out of the water on the sand, people who enjoyed the beach threw their waste in it and there were no trash bins.
“After that, I realised that this is not what I want for the beaches of my Cuba. I started to investigate about plastic and how damaging it is, and the damage that man causes to the planet. I realised that I owe to the sea. That’s why it occurred to me to clean the beaches and encourage others to do the same.”
Yaya, a seal and dolphin trainer at the National Aquarium of Cuba in Havana where she has worked since the age of 17, funds the education and action of Ola Cuba from her own pocket. “It’s very difficult to maintain,” she says. “Obtaining equipment is difficult in Cuba; there are no stores to buy from, or factories that produce accessories to this sport. There have been gifts made by Royal 70 at the beginning, and then Groundswell Community Project and the travel agency Hasta Cuba. Some surfers who visit the island and know about my project, give away boards and accessories before leaving. Surfing in Cuba has no support from the government.”
To know the history and reputation of surfing in Cuba is to understand why Yaya’s mission is an uphill battle. For reasons of national security, surfing is illegal in Cuba. It’s a long and interesting story worth looking up when you have the time, but the government doesn’t recognise surfing as a sport (perhaps because of the latter security issue). And the perennial problem of the politics that stunt Cuba’s progress make it difficult to fund and donate to small but important Cuban projects such as Ola Cuba.
Yaya is the one person within the island’s surfing community that has the potential to overcome these seemingly insurmountable hurdles. She has the knowledge, education and passion to make a positive change to the lives of Cuba’s youth and the health of the ocean.
When girls and boys join the Ola Cuba movement they can expect to learn much more than how to ride waves. “Besides learning to surf, they will learn and put into practice during the program some moral and social values lost in the present day, formal education, companionship, respect, solidarity, humanity, love and responsibility,” says Yaya.
“They can also experience a connection with the very specific nature of the ocean. They will experience power, strength, freedom, peace, being wild and beautiful. And at the end of the program, each one will have won many new friends.”
Kalai is a proud supporter of Ola Cuba. Our Isla Collection of luxury plant-based towels is inspired by Yaya’s tireless efforts to uplift young people and save our seas. To learn more about Ola Cuba, please feel free to contact us.
Ola Cuba is also supported by US content creator Makewild, which recently released a short film and book telling the stories of Yaya and the Cuban surfers, and their journey for freedom on the waves. Watch it here.