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Outside the Cave
updated: Oct 05, 2013, 3:00 PM
By Karen Pelland
Turf 2 Surf: Manny Raya gets ready to paddle out at Rincon. (Karen Castillo Farfan)
On a sunny afternoon in early September, about 30 young men and women from varying backgrounds
pack Room 201 in the interdisciplinary studies building at Santa Barbara City College. They are here for
Philosophy 111: Critical Thinking & Writing in Philosophy.
An open set of second-story windows offers scant relief from the stifling mid-day heat. Any inclination
toward a quick siesta, though, disappears as soon as Professor Manny Raya, 32, strides into class with a
backpack slung over his shoulder and shades hanging off the back of his head. Raya's summertime
attire of sneakers and board shorts has surrendered to hard shoes, dark slacks, dress shirt, pinstriped
vest and loosely knotted tie. He has a full, closely cropped beard.
"So what's going on in the world?" Raya asks. "What'd you do over the holiday weekend?"
"My girlfriend came to town from San Diego, and we had a great weekend," a young woman in the back
of the class says.
"That sounds awesome," says Raya.
"I did my chemistry homework," a boy in the front row adds.
"That sucks," Raya replies. "Unless you really like chemistry."
"Syria!" one guy says.
Raya jumps at the opportunity to get topical. "It seems to be the case that Syria allegedly used chemical
weapons against its own people," he says, and then ticks off details about U.N. resolutions, sanctions,
military strikes, rebels, reactions from Iran, China and Russia, not to mention revelations from a Senate
hearing. "Turns out it's like the 13th or 14th time Syria's done this! So why would we attack now?"
Raya, who has a passion for boxing-he's president of Primo Boxing Club's board of directors and was
instrumental in raising funds to keep the iconic Eastside gym and its Say Yes to Kids program operating
-paces back and forth in front of the blackboard. Up till now, he's been feinting, jabbing and setting up
his students for the power punch.
"So who the fuck are we?! What do we believe in? Why do we believe these things? Is the media telling us
the truth? How is it that we come to know anything?"
"It's an illusion," a quiet female voice offers.
"It's an illusion," Raya echoes. "That's what Descartes starts with, right?"
Lesson plans on 17th century French philosophers are a future consideration on this late May afternoon
as Manny Raya undresses in the parking lot of Rincon Del Mar, the storied surf break where Santa
Barbara and Ventura counties meet.
Before his wetsuit renders him a study in black, Raya displays a heavily tattooed torso, the centerpiece
of which is a gothic script high on his back reading West Bruta, signifying his old Westside
neighborhood. Below that is an impressive rendition of the Curly Bridge, a footbridge that links West
Anapamu Street on either side of the 101 Freeway. In the foreground, a clown points a large handgun.
"He's got my back," Raya jokes.
Suited up and with surfboard underarm, Raya makes his way down a wooden staircase to the beach.
Despite the marginal conditions, Raya zips up, paddles out and fights poor surf for a couple of hours to
catch just a few waves. But he doesn't care.
"I love being in the water," he says. "The ocean just feels so good, and it makes everything else better. If
I have a good day surfing, or even an O.K. day surfing, I can be walking down the street, get shit on by a
bird, hit by a car, and I'm still O.K. My day is good."
Raya speaks with a melodic blend of intellect and street-like John Leguizamo on his way to a Ph.D.
Later, he is barefoot, in shorts and a button-down, sprawled out on the living-room floor of his
apartment remembering when he first considered surfing. He was 19 years old and working as a waiter
at a downtown restaurant near the beach. "I'd hear these kids at work talk about surfing like it's the
best thing on Earth. And I had a little moment when I thought to myself, ‘Can I do this?'"
Growing up poor to a single immigrant mom had left Raya with few horizons beyond his Westside
neighborhood "I'd never really seen people surf, so I don't know what the hell I was thinking," he says.
Inspired and confident that this was not a passing fad, he saved up $700 to buy a brand-new surfboard.
When that money was stolen out of his work locker, Raya saved up another $700, walked into the
Channel Islands retail shop in downtown Santa Barbara and bought his first surfboard. "I went home,
and I was so happy with it," he says. "I had it on the bed lying next to me, and before I knew it, I passed
When Manny's mother came home and found her son sleeping next to a surfboard, she thought he was
nuts. "She woke me up and said, ‘What the hell is going on here? You don't even know how to swim!'"
The next day he called a cab to take him to Mesa Lane, a beach just north of Shoreline Park. "I tried and
tried, and I finally stood up for the first time for maybe three seconds, and it was the best three seconds
I had ever experienced. It was amazing."
Right away Raya thought: "I want to do this forever!"
The poor sons and daughters of single, immigrant moms on the Westside aren't expected to go surfing;
they're expected to become statistics. But that day at Mesa Lane, Raya took a major step away from the
streets and toward new horizons. For beleaguered Westside and Eastside youths struggling to a way out
of dead ends and into productive lives, Manny Raya is an exception, and maybe even a lesson.
Winners: Raya (far right) and Santa Barbara City College students in San Diego at the spring International Business Ethics Case Competition, where his
team took first place in its division. (Courtesy Manny Raya)
Manuel Ernesto Raya was born at Goleta Valley Hospital, in the spring of 1981. Months prior, his 19-year-
old mother, unaware she was pregnant, left her hometown of Mexicali, Mexico, seeking a better life in
Santa Barbara where relatives lived. Once she arrived here, she found work as a housekeeper. About a
year after giving birth, she decided her son should get in touch with his roots and took him back to
"We lived in extremely poor conditions," says Raya of his time in Mexico. "We had an outhouse, we
didn't have running water, and I remember living for years off of rice and beans."
Despite the poverty, Raya says he didn't know any better and was perfectly content. Indeed, old family
photos show a happy, goofy kid surrounded by an enormous family- aunts, uncles and cousins galore.
His father was mostly out of the picture, and Raya has only vague memories of him.
After about six years, Raya's mother changed her mind about living in Mexico. She told her son he was
born somewhere else and they were going to move there.
"El otro lado," Raya says. "The other side-that's what they call it in Mexico. So I'd tell my friends, ‘Hey,
I'm going to the other side.' And I remember learning that people here spoke a different language. So
I'd mess around and pretend I spoke English even though I didn't."
Ms. Raya returned to Santa Barbara first and then sent relatives back to get her son. "I remember being
in a car with strangers who were speaking a language I didn't understand, coming across the desert and
throwing up because I was just so nervous," says Raya.
Read the full story at MissionAndState.org
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