Surfing helped nonprofit director connect to his Indigenous culture, build connection with community

Mario Ordoñez-Calderon, pictured with his surfboard at San Elijo State Beach in Cardiff
Mario Ordoñez-Calderon is the executive director and co-founder of Un Mar de Colores (An Ocean of Colors).
(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mario Ordonez-Calderon is executive director and co-founder of Un Mar de Colores (An Ocean of Colors), a nonprofit focused on fostering a generation of BIPOC surfers, watermen/women and stewards of the ocean through environmental education, mentorship and representation


Mario Ordoñez-Calderon noticed his neighbors watching him curiously as he’d load up his surfboards while they got ready for work and school. He began to wonder why he never saw that Guatemalan family enjoying the beach that was only a mile from where they all lived, and that’s when he saw a version of himself. He was fortunate to have a friendship with someone who taught him how to surf, as an adult, leading to a stronger connection with his culture, and he didn’t want another Black, Latino, or Indigenous young person to have to wait until their adulthood to have that experience.

“I had the privilege as a Brown, Indigenous man to learn how to surf. Then, it became my responsibility to lead others to that body of water, knowledge and connection,” he says.

He co-founded Un Mar de Colores (An Ocean of Colors) in 2020, a nonprofit that provides free surfing instruction and mentorship to youth from historically marginalized communities. They focus on a small group of 15 students and their families, allowing them to develop what they call a “dive deep, not wide” philosophy that’s focused on building and strengthening relationships over a two-year period.

Ordoñez-Calderon, 28, lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea and also serves as executive director of the organization, while also working as a physical therapy assistant. He took some time to talk about Un Mar de Colores and his commitment to taking care of the environment and community.

Q: Talk about your relationship with the ocean. How would you say your current understanding of it, and the connection you talk about, got started?

A: I’ve felt a greater connection to the ocean since learning to surf, which has helped me come to remember my people, the Yucatec Mayas, who have always been people of the water. I call it a “remembering” 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’ve been surrounded by two different bodies of water and our land is filled with sacred cenotes (natural, deep-water wells) and their water channels, which continuously remind us that water is life. Connecting to the water helped me connect to myself and my ancestral roots.

Q: You talk about your identity as a Mexican Indigenous person, specifically Mayan, and the power you find in experiencing the outdoors and nature. Can you talk about what your experience revealed to you about the connections between your culture, the outdoors and social justice?

A: I feel a deep connection to nature because my people have always had reverence for nature. Even our creation story of how humans were born from maize (corn) puts us in the circle of life and with nature, not above it or outside of that circle.

The social justice connection comes from the way we view generational wealth as a culmination of money and assets that give a certain demographic advantage; so, too, is generational knowledge a form of wealth. In Southern California, that’s how a lot of these outdoor recreational sports are. These sports require a teacher and many times that teacher is a White male within a family with a background in the sport. This knowledge of the sport, such as surfing, gets passed on from generation to generation, continuously skipping outsiders unless they actively seek that knowledge. I challenge that idea by spreading this generational knowledge to my communities despite the gatekeeping of localism and overcrowding that sometimes is just masking unchecked racism or biases.

Q: What did your initial experience with surfing lead you to understand about privilege with relationship to the outdoors, particularly the ocean and bodies of water?

A: I had the privilege as a Brown, Indigenous man to learn how to surf and then it became my responsibility to lead others to that body of water, knowledge, and connection. My initial experience as with many outdoor sports was a warm embrace and that’s the feeling I wanted to share with others so that others can build a relationship with nature as a teacher, healer and friend. I was lucky enough to have a best friend who invited me into this, what sometimes feels coveted, sport of surfing. I realized not everyone has a White best friend who knows how to surf or camp, whatever the sport may be, and wanted to be a community leader for those that don’t.

What I love about Cardiff-by-the-Sea ...

What keeps me here is the amazing group of humans I’ve found who naturally gravitate to the area. It really is all about the special community of artists, surfers and small business owners who inspire and welcome me, which makes it special. I also love being surrounded by Carlsbad, San Elijo, and Cardiff State Beach, which limit private ownership of the coast. It keeps the beaches accessible and easy to enjoy for everyone. It really wouldn’t feel 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 may not recognize?

A: The barriers to entry in the sport of surfing exist on multiple levels of social and economic constructs. For example, when you examine coastal access historically, it’s made clear that Black and Brown bodies have been disenfranchised from coastal communities and access. In San Diego, the Kumeyaay territory once extended all the way to the Pacific coast. Due to colonization from Spanish, Mexican, and later, American forces, the Kumeyaay were forced off of their ancestral lands. It’s tragic because the water is deeply ingrained in their culture. The name “Kumeyaay” actually translates to “Those who face the water from a cliff.” Now, they are having to fight for their sovereignty to reconnect with these coastlines against private and government ownership of the areas. California history is littered with examples of Black and Brown disenfranchisement from coastal areas.

Q: Can you talk 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 fiestas, eco-field trips, and a mentorship program for a cycle of nine months each year. We start with the summer program and our group surf fiestas, introducing participants to the ocean through monthly group surfing days, familiarizing them with the ocean, and providing them with tools, resources and education regarding the sport of surfing. It’s like one, big family beach day. As the fall approaches, we shift to our filed trips, educating students on our relationship to the environment and each other. We get a chance to show the students how ocean conservation begins outside of the water, with our everyday decisions. The mentorship program overlaps with the field trips, pairing students with a surf instructor who they create bonds with during the summer fiestas. In the mentorship program is where we witness the relationship between the surf instructors and the kids grow and solidify into familia as they actively participate in building bonds in and out of the water. Mentors and mentees spend an hour together each month, focused on time outdoors. We’ve had mentors take students for walks on the beach, rock climbing and skating to strengthen this relationship so that they have a role model in the surfing community. The ocean can be a frightening place to take on alone, and it’s our mentors’ duty to act as a positive influence for trying new things, helping students embrace themselves, and having fun. This contributes to building the confidence and self-esteem of our students.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: My tia in Mexico was giving a gift to my best friend on our last visit to the Yucatan, and he politely declined. My tia persisted and said, “We don’t give because we have a lot; we give because we know what it’s like to not have a lot.” That taught me about 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 relaxed demeanor, that always surprises people.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: It would start with a morning surf at Swami’s Beach, hanging out at San Elijo State Beach with friends until the afternoon, and then biking around Leucadia to watch sunset at beacons. Then, eating fish tacos from Fish 101, catching a surf premiere at La Paloma Theatre, and after that, if there’s still momentum, grabbing a drink at Captain Keno’s.