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Essential California: Cowabunga, dude! Surfing in El Salvador

a man sits with surfboards behind him
Edwin Omar Zepeda Morales waits for customers at a surf instructing school at Surf City in El Salvador.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, June 3. I’m Brittny Mejia, coming to you from Los Angeles.

Times staff writer Kevin Baxter takes us on a journey to a 13-mile stretch of Salvadoran shoreline that has turned into one of the world’s newest surfing meccas — thanks, in part, to Californians.

It’s a spot where the waves are so ripe and the water so warm, tourism officials are hoping it can repair the country’s battered image while the International Surfing Assn. has chosen it as the location of the final qualifying rounds for the debut of surfing as an Olympic sport this summer.

The eight-day competition, known as the World Surfing Games and featuring 256 athletes from 51 countries, concludes Sunday.

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It might never have happened had Bob Levy, who learned to surf in California, and two Huntington Beach teenagers he met there kept the secret of Salvadoran surfing to themselves.

The story of how Levy got there involves an Oxford-educated veterinarian, a beach visit the summer he graduated high school and a creaky Volkswagen van he and friends often had to push on the way from the Texas border to the Salvadoran shore.

Levy, who grew up in El Salvador but discovered surfing in California, went in search of the open waves he recalled from childhood trips in his homeland. He was joined by Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson, who had left Orange County and headed south on a surfing safari of their own. What they found when they reached El Sunzal was a beach that was both perfect and deserted.

But the secret spot didn’t stay secret for long, especially not after Naughton wrote a couple of articles for Surfer magazine that Peterson illustrated. They never pinpointed their location — referring only to beaches south of Mexico — but other surfers figured it out and the crowds, like the waves, began to swell.

Soon, Levy opened a small shop to feed the demands of a growing band of surfers, driving back and forth to California to gather boards and other surf paraphernalia.

It’s a wild tale about what surfing has come to mean in El Salvador: A chance to change perceptions of a country that recently ranked as the deadliest in the world without a war within its borders. Does 75-year-old Levy still surf? Read and find out.

[Read more about these surfers in the Los Angeles Times.]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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L.A. STORIES

First rule of fight club. During the pandemic, Damian Gutierrez founded an underground, pop-up fight club known as Backyard Squabbles. The fight club’s motto is “Guns down, squabble up.” Los Angeles Times

Granndaddy delivers a flurry of blows to The Ram Donnis on Sunday
Granndaddy delivers a flurry of blows to The Ram Donnis on Sunday in Los Angeles. Granndaddy continues to be undefeated in the BYS ring.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Life inside an unpermitted L.A. apartment complex. For residents in the city’s vast web of unpermitted housing, life during the pandemic was not “safer at home.” There were dangerous living conditions, eviction threats and slow responses from city officials. LAist

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Au revoir? The Los Angeles City Council decided Wednesday to recognize Taix French Restaurant as a historic monument but granted no special protection to its Sunset Boulevard building. The Echo Park site is slated for redevelopment. Los Angeles Times

Chinese tech giant expands footprint. Tencent is significantly expanding its footprint in Los Angeles, opening an office in Playa Vista that could accommodate 300 employees. Over the next three years, Tencent America, the company’s Palo Alto-based U.S. division, said it plans to double the size of its L.A. workforce. Los Angeles Times

THE CORONAVIRUS

The quiet war in Room 533. Richard Perry claimed his berth in the middle-class the way most Black people do — by sheer drive and against the odds, with little or no generational wealth to lean on in a crisis. By mid-January, Perry was watching the virus rip through nearly every aspect of his life. Los Angeles Times

Mask and you shall receive. The state will later this month begin allowing those who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to go without masks in most situations. And a California workplace safety board on Thursday is scheduled to consider a proposal that would allow workers to shed their masks if everyone in a room is fully vaccinated and free of COVID-19 symptoms. Will it push skeptics to get their shots? Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Hundreds of death penalty sentences could be overturned. For decades, California’s highest court has left it up to individual jurors to decide which"aggravating” circumstances warrant a death penalty sentence in first-degree murder cases. On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court heard arguments on imposing new legal requirements on such jury decisions. Los Angeles Times

San Luis Obispo boosts Newsom recall. Burdened by pandemic lockdowns, San Luis Obispo County delivered a sizable number of signatures to the Newsom recall effort. Out of every 1,000 voters in San Luis Obispo County, 139 signed their names on the recall petition. Los Angeles Times

Huntington Beach at a crossroads. Tito Ortiz, the city councilman who evoked the stereotypical image of a Donald Trump supporter, resigned this week. Some say Ortiz’s sudden departure represents a crossroads for Huntington Beach, which has tried to soften its image as a bastion of hard-right politics to one of a family-friendly beach community that has the appetite to tackle societal issues like homelessness and flies an LGBTQ pride flag outside City Hall. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Search for Agua Dulce shooting motive. Two sources told The Times that there was an ongoing dispute between the victim, Tory Carlon, and the shooter, who worked different shifts but lived in the same area. The argument, believed to be about how the station was run and maintained, escalated Tuesday morning, the sources said. Los Angeles Times

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Former L.A. councilman locked up. Mitchell Englander, convicted in a corruption case last year, has started a 14-month sentence at the U.S. penitentiary in Arizona. He is the first to be imprisoned in a probe that has also produced felony charges against former City Councilman Jose Huizar, former deputy mayor Raymond Chan and several others. Los Angeles Times

Life in lock-up. What life inside a Northern California prison is like for Gina Champion-Cain, a former restaurateur sentenced to 15 years for her role in orchestrating a nearly $400-million Ponzi scheme. She’s at the same prison camp where Felicity Huffman spent time for her involvement in the college admissions scandal. San Diego Union-Tribune

New podcast

From Christopher Goffard, the Los Angeles Times reporter and host behind the hit podcasts “Dirty John” and “Detective Trapp,” comes an eight-episode true crime podcast, “The Trials of Frank Carson.” Listen and subscribe here.

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Tending land with fire. The Karuk, like many Native American tribes, used fire to manage the forest for centuries. Situated along the Klamath River, in Humboldt and Siskiyou counties, the Karuk have endured out-of-control wildfires that have decimated the area. Now, the Karuk want to keep the forests through controlled fire. KQED

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Train project off rails. Nine years after California’s transportation agency announced it was leading a multi-state partnership to buy more than 100 new passenger railcars, not a single car has gone into service. The latest issue? Excessive levels of lead found in some of the cars’ restroom water supplies. Sacramento Bee

Protecting sea lions. Human visitors to La Jolla Cove will soon see signs asking them to keep a “social distance” from the sea lions there, as the sea lion pupping season begins. San Diego Union-Tribune

IMMIGRATION

History of housing detainees. The Pomona Fairplex has been used as a temporary shelter for more than 500 migrant children who have arrived unaccompanied at the U.S.-Mexico border since March. It was also one of 15 locations in the country that temporarily housed more than 92,000 people of Japanese descent who were detained until more permanent incarceration camps were built. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Kardashians changed celebrity forever. Whether you consider this polarizing crew purveyors of a new kind of pop culture savvy or the poster family for the perils of fast fame in the 21st century, there’s no denying that the Kardashians exemplify the ascent of reality TV in American life. Los Angeles Times

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California’s popular baby names of 2020. The most popular names in 2020 in California were Noah, Liam and Mateo for boys, and Olivia, Camila and Emma for girls. California is distinct from other states in that it tends to have a lot more Hispanic baby names, especially ones that are crossovers between English and Hispanic names. San Francisco Chronicle

Tacos and Tik Tok. What was a handful of small retailers last year in this alley-like street, between West Avenue 33 and Humboldt Street in Lincoln Heights, has boomed into a full-fledged night market replete with opportunity, competition and a sense of community during the devastating pandemic. Los Angeles Times

Workers at the Avenue 26 taco stand.
Cooks work at a quick pace as customers line up for tacos at the Avenue 26 night market in Lincoln Heights.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Come as you are. Plantiitas, a queer, Latinx-owned plant shop, has had long lines since it opened in the fall. The owners center the shop in the experiences of Long Beach’s queer and Latinx population. Los Angeles Times

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Mother turned anti-police brutality activist dies. The death of Genevieve Huizar’s son in 2012 touched off the largest police protests in Orange County’s recent history. Huizar died of COVID-19. Slingshot!

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 75. San Diego: sunny, 66. San Francisco: partly cloudy, 64. San Jose: sunny, 79. Fresno: TOO sunny, 102. Sacramento: sunny, 97.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Caye Boosalis:

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In August 1969, when I was 12 years old, my father drove our family from St. Paul, Minn., to Disneyland in his Dodge Monaco station wagon. When we arrived in California, Dad headed straight to the ocean and drove a few miles along the Pacific Coast Highway. I was enthralled with the sand, waves and endless water and wanted to stop. He was too tired, but my first view of the Pacific Ocean was my strongest memory of the trip. From then on, I knew I would live on the West Coast, and I eventually moved to California.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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