Dogtown’s Z-Girl

Margot Pepper, Photo by Robin Balliger

by Jack Neworth, Santa Monica Daily Press

Having spent her teenage years skateboarding, boogie boarding and surfing in Santa Monica, Margot Pepper went on to become an acclaimed author, poet, journalist and bilingual educator. A summa cum laude with an M.F.A. in creative writing, Margot’s fiction, poetry, articles and translations have been published internationally. Among others, her books are carried by libraries at Harvard, Brown, Rutgers and Melbourne universities.

But of all Margot’s honors, what she might actually be proudest of is her 1980 Morey Boogie Board Surfing trophy. Margot won first place at the Zuma Beach event catching a wave standing on her head. How many other authors/educators can say that?

Margot is happily married with a pre-teen son. But, at this point, you’re probably wondering, what is a “Z-Girl?” To answer that we have to go back to 1962, when Margot was born in Mexico City.

Essentially escaping the U.S., Margot’s parents came to Mexico many years before as her father, George Pepper, was a blacklisted movie producer. Many other politically radical artists had sought refuge there, including, briefly, Dalton Trumbo, the storied screenwriter of “Johnny Got His Gun,” “Spartacus” and “Papillion.” (The movie of his life, “Trumbo,” just opened Nov. 6.)

Unfortunately, when Margot was only 7, tragedy struck with her father’s death from cancer. As an only child, for the next year she would live with Dalton and Cleo Trumbo in the Hollywood hills. (It was Cleo who taught Margot to stand on her head!) Later Margot’s mother, Jeanette, remarried and they moved to West Los Angeles where Margot attended middle school and later Palisades High.

But, as kids can be cruel, at school Margot was frequently called a “beaner,” and subjected to racist bullying. Additionally, Margot’s stepfather was abusive. As a much-needed escape, Margot turned to surfing and skateboarding. (Interestingly, even though her parents were Jews born in the U.S., Margot identifies with being a Latina and jokingly refers to herself as a “Jewcana.”)

Next we jump to mid-70’s Ocean Park, which was rather rundown. In fact, it was known as “Dogtown.” (Not for the residents’ love of dogs.) The Ocean Park Pier was abandoned and decaying but was ideal for dangerous surfing exploits, primarily the art of dodging the many wooden pylons. In the afternoon, when the waves typically died down, a group of these surfers would hang out at Zephyr Surf Shop on Main Street.

Skateboarding was just becoming huge and even lucrative. And when Zephyr entered a highly successful team in skateboarding competitions the group would eventually become known as the “Z-Boys.” But a few girls were also talented skateboarders, including Margot and her friend, Pandora Williams.

The two girls routinely skated after school with future Z-Boys, Tony Alva and Jay Adams. They skated (referred to as “carving”) the cement slopes on the playground at Paul Revere Junior High. From the Z-Boys, Margot learned to do 180s to avoid smashing into the metal fence at the “top of the mountain,” another skateboarder term.

Due to a severe drought, many pools in the area were drained. As such, they made ideal skate parks for uninvited skateboarders to perfect their highflying skills. But Alva and Adams started doing the highly dangerous aerials. That’s when Margot focused more on surfing at Bay Street and the guys went on to become members of the famed Z-Boys.

Just as Margot’s life was touched by Trumbo, who’s back in the news thanks to the movie, so it is that President Obama ‘s re-opening relations with Cuba has special meaning to her. From 1992-1994, Margot lived in Cuba as a freelance correspondent for various international publications.

Although filled with difficult living conditions, her time in Cuba was more than a challenging job. It was also a vindicating odyssey of self-discovery. Given her parents’ radical politics and the price they paid (as did Margot, when you think about it) was it worth it? The answer for Margot was definitely.

Both critical and admiring of various aspects of Cuban life, Margot is optimistic now that the doors have finally been re-opened to this amazing island nation. (She’s excited more for U.S. workers than the Cubans.) Margot’s Cuban experiences made for her historical memoir, “Through the Wall: A Year in Havana,” a finalist for the 2006 American Book Award.

Earlier this year, Margot released a dystopian science fiction thriller “American Day Dream”, which one reviewer compared to Orwell’s iconic “1984.” She’s currently working on a book of short magic realism, “The Acrobat, and other Stories for Dark Times.”

Living in the Bay Area, Margot’s incredibly busy as an educator, writer, spouse, mom and caretaker for her ailing 97-year-old mother. But, weather permitting, she’s been known to sneak in some boogie boarding. (And, knowing Margot, while riding the wave she might just stand on her head for old times’ sake.)

Margot Pepper is at www.margotpepper.com, facebook.com/authormargotpepper and margotpepper on Instagram. Jack is at jnsmdp@aol.com.

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