First Light Surf Club will be donating 100% of proceeds made on FLSC merch sales now through September 15th, 2023 to Un Mar De Colores.
Welcome to episode two of the First Light Surf Club Spotlight sessions. We're here with Mario, Navy veteran, Indigenous Mayan, outdoor enthusiasts, and the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Un Mar De Colores. Their mission as a nonprofit is to inspire and cultivate diversity, inclusivity and ocean stewardship through surf therapy, outdoor education and mentorship to underserved youth and kids of color.
FLSC - Mario, thanks for coming stoked to have you here. If you can just start us off and just maybe share with us a little bit about your background, I think that would be a good place to start.
Mario - Absolutely. So I feel like that was the best intro I’ve ever had. But so I am an indigenous Mayan. My family's from Yucatan, Mexico, and they immigrated here and I was born and raised in Thousand Oaks, California, which is a small little suburb in Ventura County. And then I served five years in the Navy as a medic and got stationed on Camp Pendleton. And fell in love with surfing, fell in love with the area. And I've just been here since 2012, so that's ten years now or 11, I guess I'm a thing all of a sudden. The San Diegan.
FLSC - Well, we're glad to have you here. What was it like learning to surf later on in life as an adult?
Mario - Yeah, it was a trip because I didn't really have that connection with the ocean growing up, you know, by kind of living near Malibu and things like that. I just was always playing sports and didn't really get that call of the water until I was about 22 ish or whatever when I was down here and I took a friend and by me and and really like super persistent, like my best friend Ryder at the time was like, “Let's go surfing!” Like “I got a board for you. I got a wetsuit.” So like, he would take me out here to Oceanside and I'd just get like, worked dude, like womped and just like, go out for 20 minutes at a time. And then he'd keep surfing. I'd sit on the beach and just stare. But something like in me just didn't let me quit, you know, kind of a thing. Like where every time I go, I'd like, spend more time in the water. I gradually, fell in love with it, gradually got better at surfing, I'd say. And yeah, it's just I haven't looked back since. It really brought me community and brought me a connection to something bigger than myself and it brought me calmness within myself. So I'd say it's my North Star.
FLSC - So growing up in Ventura you're around the ocean. What was your perspective on surfing at that point? Did you think like it was something that it could be a part of or something that you were interested in or what?
Mario - It was like it was pretty much off my radar. I'd say culturally, growing up in a Mexican-American, Mexican household, that it just wasn't something that we envisioned doing. I was always playing soccer growing up in that realm. And then, yeah, I wasn't super called to it. I'd say, Yeah, never, never, ever pictured myself, like out there. But I always loved the water and always loved like any body of water, you know, for being from Yucatan, it's a land of water. We have like cenotés all over the place, those big cavernous water sinkholes and essentially all of Yucatan is connected through river channels underneath it. So my people have always just been strongly bonded to the water. So that calling was always there, but not through the vehicle of surfing when dancing on waves soon. And I feel like it's just an adaptation of who I've become as a human. Like, not necessarily indigenous living in Yucatan, but but here in southern California, like I found my own adaptation. Towards keeping that nativism alive within me.
So I'd say a lot of indigenous communities were really connected to nature. You know, we have it in our worship songs, in our culture. And I feel like nowadays that you have to actively go in search to connect with the water or to, like, connect with nature. And I do feel like we need to like, reintegrate that to be like a way more natural part of the day. You know, I think I think a lot of what you're kind of talking about with First Light Surf Club is like getting after it in the morning, even though you have work is so important, it's almost like it's like, how do you wake up and worship? How do you wake up and like, have this daily ritual of, I don't know, I guess praising something bigger than yourself. And that could be surfing sometimes.
FLSC - Was this connection with nature always part of your upbringing? Were your parents big on instilling that in you or has it kind of grown and evolved as you’ve matured and gotten older and gained a broader perspective?
Mario - It's definitely grown and evolved as I've gotten older just because my parents are always grinding. Yeah, my dad's a cook, my mom is a house housemaid and they're always just focused on feeding me, making sure I go to school, things like things of that nature. You know, typically like what an immigrant family focused on. So I'd say besides playing a sport which seemed pretty natural for them, they weren't really pushing towards that connection.
That was something I had to actively go in like seek. And it was just that the calling was so hard that it was just a natural walk and like a walk in the woods. For me, I'd say like, you know, from like hiking trails. At first I'd say that was like my biggest, like connection to, like nature when I was younger was just like going and getting lost in like these backyard trails that we would have to like, you know, fast forward to like my adult years and I'm like biking through Mexico, hiking like 18,000 to mountains and not just like, never stop.
FLSC - Tell me a little bit about the origin of Un Mar De Colores. How did the idea come about?
Mario - Yeah. So the idea of Un Mar De Colores came about and just like living in Encinitas and I'd been living there for what five years and I was living in what is known as like the Latino part of town, which is by El Nopalito and the 7-Eleven there. And you always see like Mexican-Americans or LatinX, people like getting ready to go to work in the donuts, like getting in their construction cars or their landscaping cars. And dipping out for the day. And I'm in those neighborhoods where, like, people are actively getting ready in the morning and then instead of going getting ready for work, I'd go and get ready for my morning surf, right? I'd be loading up my surfboard across the street. There was a little Guatemalan family and the kids would always be out getting ready for school. And I'd see them and we'd wave. They'd wave and they'd look over and curiosity. And I was driving away toward the beach. And I was like, thinking as I'd look back in my rearview mirror, like, why didn't I ever see this family at the beach, you know? And that started like spawning that bigger question of why does a family like that that looks like me, that lives a mile away from Swamis lives a mile away from Cardiff Reef lives a mile away from San Elijo State Beach? Like why are they never there enjoying, recreating, and connecting? So I didn't want that young family to go through that same process that I had to do, like wait till adulthood. Wait till a best friend extends a hand and invites you in. I just wanted to be that mentor in that guide. So from that, it kind of really sparked the idea of Un Mar De Colores. And then really from there, like everyone else, breathed life into it to develop it to where it's at right now.
FLSC - What was that process like? Cause I feel like a lot of people have these ideas and passions, but actually going forward and taking that first step and executing it is a lot. So what, what did that look like for you?
Mario - There's just like absolute certainty when you have an idea that you're passionate about that you don't really look left or right or behind. You're kind of just, you know, this is the right thing to do and this is the right time for you to do it. And that was really like an unwavering force with the path for Un Mar De Colores that I've never had to second guess myself on the right path. Like the road has just unfolded in front of me, you know, So the momentum just naturally just keeps moving. And that's when I know that I'm doing something worthwhile is because I feel like in that space of nonprofit work, like when it can be a bit of a grind. But luckily there's been so many people that see the good that we're doing that the road just keeps unwinding before us.
FLSC - Had you had any experience starting anything like this though? Like how did you even learn what steps you needed to take to form an organization?
Mario - I’m building the plane as it’s flying kind of deal. Definitely like never envisioned myself as a nonprofit leader as a nonprofit like a founder and or you know, a lot of it just overlaps with business, marketing, and fundraising and outside from like actually doing the work, actually doing the programing. And it's been really fun and exciting. Like I can get really lost. Like I sit back and it's like my playing canvas and there's just so many layers of Mar De Colores. Like we have we have our youth programming, right, which is our environmental education, our surf therapy lessons for the kids and our mentorship. But besides that, we have a lot of community initiatives like our Our Representation Matters initiative, which is this media - a media program that essentially supports black, indigenous, people of color, surfers, or artists who want to create more representation in surf media, which I'm really passionate about.
And then we have our just our daily like family community building. So we'll do like surf film screenings that primarily focus on BIPOC surfers so that there's just that community bonding element. So yeah, I think with, with all of that in mind, it's like I just, I'm really thankful that it all feels and I guess all together, even though it's all over the place. Like I guess when you look at it through an intersectional lens, like it all makes sense.
FLSC - Yeah, something that really inspires me in seeing you in this position is it is unfolding naturally because it's something that you're so passionate about and have experienced and have first hand perspective on. So I think that's just really encouraging to see you chasing this and it's something that's so natural for you.
Mario - Thanks. I really appreciate that.
FLSC - How do you go about getting kids in your program?
Mario - We do super grassroots recruiting. You know, I've actually gone to local elementary schools like Paul Ecke, where everyone goes to the farmer's market at on Sunday in Leucadia. I've gone to Paul Ecke Elementary School. I've been invited by a teacher there, Miss Sylvia Pelosi, who actually is Mexican-American, grew up in Encinitas, but essentially a super grassroots approach because she invites me in.
I speak to the LatinX PTA meetings, the Parent Teacher Association meeting. So I'm there making the pitch to the families, like, “Hey, I'm this long hair. Do you want me to take your kids out in the water? I'm like, ‘no te precupes, no tengas miedo’, like, I'll take care of the kids.” Like I explain to them the process, right?
And there are some of them who are like, “absolutely.” Like some of the moms are like, I want my daughter in this program. And then some of them are like, Well, um no I don’t think I want this. I think that's really important is when you're trying to serve a community, you really need advocates from that community to help guide that communication style because it's going to be different. I don't try to insert myself into the reservations out here in like San Diego and think that I know those dynamics, right? But I do know predominantly LatinX dynamics. So I feel confident in doing those like grassroots recruitment stations. But the kids essentially have come from local elementary schools. And then aside from that, like word of mouth from the moms kind of spreading the news.
But the students are from Encinitas, Oceanside, Vista, Escondido and San Marcos. So predominantly North County
FLSC - What has the time frame been? When did you launch your first initiative?
Mario - So Mar De Colores has been around for three years. So we started in 2020. And actually Covid kind of shaped our programing because at the time we really couldn't do mass gatherings. So this was never going to be like 100 people, like get all the kids out in the wave, right? It was always going to be small, intimate and focused. It was 15 students at a time with ten volunteers. And that kind of just shaped the model of our programing, like starting small, going deep with these kids and working with them for two years so that they actually learned how to surf. They actually learn surf etiquette, they get their own boards. They're essentially set up to go and enjoy the ocean without us, which is really important when we talk about empowerment of marginalized communities.
I feel like the most resistance you get when you hear about people learning to surf from older surfers is that there's no surf etiquette being taught. Right. And that's why we make a strong emphasis to teach these kids surf etiquette.
FLSC - How have you seen the kids transform over the time frame of being in your program?
Mario - There's definitely a huge difference from day one to day. What is that with double 365? There's definitely a huge difference from day one to the last day of our second year. And with the students' confidence level. You'll see day one, they're coming in, they're shy, they don't know each other. They're afraid of the water. They go in belly board for a second, get out, start playing in the sand. But then from the last day of our two year program, right, they're grabbing their own board. They're already suited up. They want to paddle out themselves. We're like, No, you still need us since they're like this tall. And then we like, push them into the waves. They want to surf the entire time.
Even when we're on land, they're in the water. So that confidence level is huge. They're enjoying themselves, they're enjoying the beach, they're enjoying the water. They're not afraid. And I think that's one of the biggest things that we're proud of as an organization is just creating that sense of self-confidence. And when it's so important, when you're an adult, right, those things are just crucial.
Like I feel like me, I feel like the majority of humans suffer from a lack of self-love and self-confidence, like from day to day interactions. And I feel like so much stems from just a lack of love or like, self-worth. And I want these kids to just know that, hey, I did something that I never thought I could do. I caught that wave. I face the ocean, I fell, I got back up and then I think and carry that forward into their adult lives to be better humans.
FLSC - What's the age range that you're primarily working with?
Mario - 6 to 12. So all elementary school kids
FLSC - How have you seen the change in the kids’ lives affect the parents, their friends or even the community at large?
Mario - So I'm really proud of the intersectional work that we do by really systemically addressing the problem of these barriers that exist for these families to enjoy the ocean. And that's essentially like re-shifting culture. So we involve their parents in everything that we do, we really do. And we have a strong group of parents that really want to get involved.
So a lot of the Un Mar mamas like they cook the lunch, they lead the grounding circles. They essentially make sure the kids are there on time. They're the ones that force their kids to sign up, you know, because the kids are inside and the moms are like, I want my kid to experience something that I could never teach them, you know? And they're just critical in the programming and they really are what makes Un Mar De Colores a familia. Like since day one, we've called it the Un Mar Familia and the mothers and the parents, I should say, of one right of Un Mar De Colores are just crucial in our programing. They're they're always involved. And from day one, they’ve just like, shown up and really encourage their kids to get in the water. Really trusted us whith the safekeeping of their kids in a dynamic environment which has been really critical and yeah, really thankful for them.
FLSC - Do you see any of the Un Mar mamas getting in the water and trying their hand at surfing?
Mario - Dude! Yeah, actually, yeah! So for the past two sessions. Two of the moms have gone surfing.
FLSC - Oh, that's awesome.
Mario - It's epic. And then we have one mom, Bianca and her daughter Mira, who have gone out, and then another one, Elizabeth and Bianca actually let me know that she's one of the Un Mar De Colores moms that she paddled out with her daughter. Like, aside from, like our programming, which is huge, right? It is so important when you're talking about creating systemic change and actually like what you're doing in your programing, carrying out into these communities and like actually changing the narrative for this family and like the future of the family, like so important.
But that's all them. Like we just kind of like set the stage and they're the ones that grab the board and take it out, you know? So it's really beautiful to see.
FLSC - What have the kids taught you in return?
Mario - The kids always teach me a lot. Like it's funny because it's our third year and as we're getting into our third year, this is the first time we have expanded. Like, I have an amazing team of staff, Ramon, Yvette and Piña, and they're all just kicking ass and like, really, like taking Un Mar De Colores to the next level. And I talked to myself before the summer and I was like, I'm going to sit back a little bit more during these camps and kind of just let them run it and like, you know, I kind of want to, you know, wean away and then start focusing on the bigger picture. And then there I am like day one. And this little tyke called, Iko like, didn't want to go surf. And me and her played on the beach while everyone else was trying to surf. And then I was having the best time just picking up rocks, playing in the sand. And she's like, “Okay I think I’m ready to surf.” Like an hour after that. And I was like, “Really?” “Let's go, surfing!” you know? And like, so then I'm throwing on my suit as fast as I can, and we get her in the water and she has a great time and she surf just about every other time since. But all of a sudden, I found myself in the weeds of it again.
That was kind of like a aha moment. Like, don't ever think that you're going to be like, above the work that you like set off initially to do, right? As a leader. Like you always kind of like try to start to pull yourself away, which is really important to see the bigger picture. But then like this is the meat and the mission of your work. You need to be in it and be living it. And the kids have really pulled me back into it and there's a strong connection with it and it keeps me super guided right when I'm kind of envisioning my program through their eyes. I think that's what's really helped shape Mar De Colores is I'm always wondering like, how can we best make this? How can we make this experience best for the students and then how does our programing look for the students, feel for the students? Are they learning? Are they having a good time? And
I mean, everything that comes to mind is like from some of the inspirations that I have, like Pablo Picasso, who tells you, “It takes a long time to become young.” I feel like you just kind of like always, like when you're on the beach with the kids, you see how much they're enjoying and having fun and you're like, Yeah, like it's so funny that you, like, go from being young, trying to be an adult. And then once you become and you're like, Actually, I just want to be like, whatever I want to be. I want to be goofy, I want to be fun. I want to ride waves all the time and like, So it really does take a long time to decondition yourself from like what everyone's trying to tell you to be, you know, and just being whatever and be goofy, relentless fun, you know, just enjoy yourself and love yourself.
FLSC - Yeah, I feel like just playing in shore break or on the sand, it's hard to take yourself too seriously because you're jumping over waves, and feel like a kid in the sand. The grounds kind of level for everyone at the beach, which I think is cool.
Mario - Yeah, it's contagious. Their energy, their vibe, their joy, their smiles. Like even on some days where I've come out, like, super, tired and, I'm like, “okay, here we are. Where are we? Oh, yeah. We're like, we're doing our camp.” And then I'm like, “woo”, like, I'm not really feeling the woo, but I'm like, cheering on. And then by the end of it, I'm like, “WOOW!” just because I've seen the stoke on their face, you know? And it really is an infectious energy that kids bring around here. And it's really important to have that like intergenerational relationships, whether it be with older adults, grandparents or whether it be like younger kids, like you really just kind of always expose yourself to that those demographics in order to really feel what life is like.
FLSC - What's that mentorship process like for the people that are involved on your team?
Mario - The volunteers are essentially the ones who want to dive deeper, stick with us through the fall and then in the winter they become mentors. And what that looks like is essentially like we start off with these big famila group sessions, right? And those natural bonds happen. Where this volunteer is connected with this student. And they love surfing together all the time. So then essentially in the winter, they can go have a one on one session where they can really just drop in with each other and then like, that's where these bonds form that last a lifetime where the relationship from volunteer and student becomes one more like mentor and like mentee.
And just like all of us who have gone through who are surfers like you don't really learn to surf in that big of a group. There's only a certain level it could take you too, but you really progress when it's like one on one sessions and you know, with a friend. So that's essentially what we're trying to foster with the mentorship program.
FLSC - Looking ahead, what are some of your goals? Where do you think you want to take Un Mar De Colores in the future?
Mario - Looking ahead at the future, essentially we only have one chapter right now and are based out of Encinitas, and I want to expand. That's always been the low hanging fruit. I've always been focusing on dialing in the programming first, and now we're in that place where I feel confident that this whole two years outdoor education program for kids is in the right spot to carry forward into another spot.
So then I want to go into South San Diego and serve predominantly Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, National City. But a lot of those communities. Then I want to open up a chapter in Baja and create this like trans frontera, this trans border community of surfers and ocean stewards between southern Diego or San Diego in general and Baja. You know, there's already such a culture. There is such a culture of surfers that already exists, like a lot of San Diegan surfers drive down to Baja and surf. And I feel like it'd just be like a natural progression for our organization to kind of start creating this like, well, this international collective of ocean stewards.
FLSC - For someone watching this, how can they get involved or learn more about Un Mar De Colores?
Mario - Follow us on Instagram, we’re @un.mar.de.colores. We’ve got this little blue logo. I think we're the only ones and we got a website. We have all the volunteer opportunities there and we have a lot of community happenings coming up. We have our next surf camp, September 9th with the kids, and then we have a premiere of a big movie that we’re working on in Fall of this year. It's called “Hado”, and that's a part about Representation Matters Initiative, but it's based on a Japanese surfer, Kandai, who is obsessed with the sound of trees, and wants to learn how to interpret them and then surf them. So it's just as much of an art film as it is a surf film. You know, we're really stoked for that, and it's coming out in November of this year.
FLSC - I appreciate you taking the time to sit down and share a little bit about your story and your perspective. And as First Light Surf Club, I just want to give back in a way. And, um, the details will be down in the, in the description of this in this video podcast. But, I want to donate some proceeds of sales on our merch to Un Mar De Colores. I really appreciate what you're doing and as we're trying to build community, I know we're not the only way to build community. There's other people that are doing it so well and I really appreciate and admire what you're doing. So yeah, I want to do what I can, do with this community can to help.
Mario - No, that's huge. That goes a long way for our little grassroots efforts that we got going on. So I appreciate that, that's ethic.
FLSC - Mario, thanks for the conversation. I hope you enjoy the Spotlight Session. I'll see you at first light.