An Ocean of Colors

An Encinitas nonprofit wants all kids to know the ocean is for them.

paddle out for unity

In the summer of 2020, the surfing world—like the rest of the United States—was reckoning with an amplified social justice movement sparked by the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Surfers paddled out all over the world, from the open waters of Hawaii’s north shores to the coastlines of Southern California, coming together in beautiful displays of solidarity against racism.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Standing up for social justice isn’t exactly what most people would expect from the surf community, whose demographic in California is predominated by wealthy white males. The sport also has a well-documented history of racism. Access is another reason surfing is homogeneous: like other adventure sports, surfing requires expensive equipment, reliable transportation, and mentorship from others to make a newbie feel like part of the community.

In many ways, “getting taught how to surf is like generational wealth because it’s generational knowledge,” explains Mario Ordoñez-Calderón, cofounder of Un Mar de Colores. Ordoñez-Calderón, a child of Mexican immigrants and a former Navy medic who lives in Encinitas, was welcomed into the surfing community in his early adulthood. In surfing, he found a sense of belonging and personal tranquility.

“The aha moment for me was in a lot of the people I have met surfing,” says Ordoñez-Calderón. “There is just something about connecting through that medium. It’s just different.” Attracted to the outdoors from a young age, Ordoñez-Calderón says he never considered the ocean a place of solace. “Early on, surfing sucked for me, but something kept calling me back,” he says.

That something was a growing sense of purpose to connect surfing with social justice, showing kids of all backgrounds that, as Ordoñez-Calderón puts it, the “ocean is for them.”

Un Mar de Colores, which means “an ocean of colors,” is a nonprofit that provides surf therapy to kids ages six to 12 from historically marginalized communities through mentorship and outreach programs. “I think surfing has the opportunity to change a human’s life, and I just wanted to pass that along to kids with backgrounds similar to mine,” Ordoñez-Calderón says. Some of those kids, Ordoñez-Calderón acknowledges, may not view surfing as something for them. “Coming from a background of a Mexican American immigrant family,” Ordoñez-Calderón explains, “you’re kind of more focused on succeeding in school, and extracurricular activities might not be your top focus.”

Un Mar de Colores invites young people into the surfing community and reinforces a historical connection to the coast. As Ordoñez-Calderón sees it, this is also good for surfing, since it increases diversity in the sport and expands the next generation of surfers.

Ordoñez-Calderón recalled a story from the organization’s first community donation drive, when it gave away a surfboard to a local family but the parents had no way of transporting it back home: their car wasn’t large enough and they lacked roof racks. It may seem like a small detail, but it’s an example of how access can be limited by things that many surfers take for granted.

Luckily, Ordoñez-Calderón and his team were able to buy and install a surf rack for the family.

Those two young siblings who were given the board will celebrate their graduation from the organization’s mentorship program this month. For the past two years, they have been surfing with Un Mar de Colores, developing a newfound relationship with the ocean. They join the rest of their cohort as part of the organization’s first graduating class.

This summer, Ordoñez-Calderón and his team will start working with the next group of kids, the newest members of a growing community who recognize that the ocean is for them.•

Keegan Sentner is an environmental journalist with a background in conservation.
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