Surfing Helped Nonprofit Director Connect to His Indigenous Culture and Build Community Connections
Mario Ordoñez-Calderon noticed his neighbors watching him curiously as he loaded up his surfboards as they got ready for work and school. He began to wonder why he had never seen this Guatemalan family enjoying the beach which was only a mile from where they all lived, and that was when he saw a version of himself. He was lucky to have a friendship with someone who taught him how to surf, as an adult, which led to a stronger connection to his culture, and he didn’t want another young black, latino or aboriginal has to wait until his adulthood to have this experience.
“I had the privilege, as a brown Native, of learning to surf. Then it became my responsibility to lead others to this body of water, knowledge and connection,” he says.
He co-founded Un Mar de Colores (An Ocean of Colors) in 2020, a non-profit organization that provides free surf lessons and mentorship to young people from historically marginalized communities. They focus on a small group of 15 students and their families, allowing them to develop what they call a “deep dive, not broad” philosophy that focuses on building and strengthening relationships over a two-year period.
Ordoñez-Calderon, 28, lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea and is also the organization’s executive director, while also working as a physiotherapy assistant. He took the time to talk about Un Mar de Colores and its commitment to caring for the environment and the community.
Q: Talk about your relationship with the ocean. How would you say your current understanding of it and the connection you speak of began?
A: I have felt a greater connection to the ocean since learning to surf, which has helped me remember my people, the Yucatec Mayans, who have always been water people. I call it a “memory” because it’s an innate knowledge in my being, but I needed to tap into it after so many generations of losing some of our ways. We were surrounded by two different bodies of water and our land is filled with sacred cenotes (natural deep water wells) and their water channels, which continually remind us that water is life. Connecting to water helped me connect to myself and my ancestral roots.
Q: You talk about your identity as an indigenous Mexican, particularly Mayan, and the power you find in experiencing the outdoors and nature. Can you talk about what your experience has taught you about the connections between your culture, the outdoors and social justice?
A: I feel a deep connection with nature because my people have always had respect for nature. Even our creation story of how humans were born from corn (maize) places us in the circle of life and with nature, not above or outside of that circle.
The link to social justice comes from how we view generational wealth as the culmination of money and assets that provide a certain demographic advantage; likewise, generational knowledge is a form of wealth. In Southern California, that’s how many of these outdoor recreational sports take place. These sports require a teacher and often that teacher is a white male in a family with a background in the sport. This knowledge of the sport, like surfing, is passed down from generation to generation, continually ignoring outsiders unless they actively seek out this knowledge. I challenge this idea by spreading this generational knowledge in my communities despite the control of localism and overcrowding that sometimes only masks unchecked racism or prejudice.
Q: What did your first experience of surfing lead you to understand about the privilege of the relationship with the outdoors, in particular with the ocean and bodies of water?
A: I was privileged as a brown native to learn to surf, and then it became my responsibility to lead others to this body of water, this knowledge and this connection. My initial experience, as with many outdoor sports, was a warm embrace and it was the feeling that I wanted to share with others so others could build a relationship with nature as a teacher, healer and friend. I was lucky enough to have a best friend who invited me to this sometimes coveted sport of surfing. I realized that not everyone has a white best friend who knows how to surf or camp in any sport, and I wanted to be a community leader for those who don’t.
What I love about Cardiff-by-the-Sea…
What keeps me here is the incredible group of humans I found who naturally gravitate to the area. It’s really about the special community of artists, surfers and small business owners who inspire and welcome me, which makes it special. I also like being surrounded by Carlsbad, San Elijo, and Cardiff State Beach, which limit private property from the coast. It keeps the beaches accessible and easy to enjoy for everyone. It really wouldn’t be the same if there were rows of houses or hotels on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Q: What are some of the barriers to water activities, like surfing, that some of us might not recognize?
A: Barriers to entry into the sport of surfing exist at many levels of social and economic constructs. For example, when you look at access to the coast historically, it’s clear that black and brown bodies were disenfranchised from coastal communities and access. In San Diego, the territory of Kumeyaay once extended to the Pacific coast. Due to colonization by Spanish, Mexican and later American forces, the Kumeyaay were driven from their ancestral lands. This is tragic because water is deeply rooted in their culture. The name “Kumeyaay” actually translates to “Those who face the water from a cliff”. Now they must fight for their sovereignty to reconnect with these coasts against private and government ownership of the areas. California’s history is littered with examples of disenfranchisement of coastal blacks and browns.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about some of your programs?
A: We operate on a two-year scholarship basis, hosting all-inclusive events for 15 students and their families in a combination of group surf parties, eco-excursions and a mentorship program for a cycle nine months each year. We start with the summer program and our group surf parties, introducing participants to the ocean through monthly group surf days, introducing them to the ocean and providing them with tools, resources and education in the sport of surfing. It’s like a great day at the beach with the family. As fall approaches, we transition to our Graded Trips, educating students about our relationship with the environment and each other. We have the opportunity to show students how ocean conservation begins outside of the water, with our daily decisions. The mentorship program overlaps with field trips, pairing students with a surf instructor whom they bond with during summer parties. In the mentorship program, we see the relationship between surf instructors and kids grow and solidify into a familia as they actively participate in bonding in and out of the water. Mentors and mentees spend an hour together each month, focused on time spent outdoors. We’ve had mentors take students on beach walks, rock climbing, and skating to strengthen that relationship so they have a role model in the surf community. The ocean can be a scary place to face alone, and it’s our mentors duty to act as a positive influence to try new things, help students embrace each other and have fun. This helps to build the confidence and self-esteem of our students.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: My tia in Mexico was giving my best friend a gift when we last visited the Yucatan, and he politely declined. Mon tia persisted and said, “We don’t give because we have a lot; we give because we know what it’s like not to have much. It taught me perspective.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I served five years in the navy as a medic. With my long hair and laid-back attitude, it always surprises people.
Q: Please describe your ideal weekend in San Diego.
A: It would start with a morning surf at Swami’s Beach, hang out at San Elijo State Beach with friends until the afternoon, then bike around Leucadia to watch the sunset over the beacons. Then eat fish tacos from Fish 101, catch a surf premiere at the La Paloma Theater, and after that, if there’s still momentum, grab a drink at Captain Keno’s.