The last time Mario Ordonez-Calderon quit something, it was on day six of a silent meditation retreat. “We were meditating for ten hours a day,” he says. “No journaling, no talking, no looking people in the eyes, no exercise. I was sitting there in a dark room when I had the realization that I don’t have to see everything through for my own ego. It was the first time I walked away from something and didn’t feel down on myself for it. I went up to the organizers and thanked them, and started bawling immediately. I think I cried the whole ride home [laughs]. It was a cathartic experience to learn that quitting could feel good.”
Surrendering to a nonlinear life path wasn’t something the 28-year-old Navy veteran and aspiring firefighter ever expected to do. But in letting go of his rigid plans he found a new way to help others: Un Mar De Colores, his nonprofit organization that provides free surf lessons to children of color and underserved youth. His team of volunteers facilitates summer surf camps that teach kids how to share the waves, diversify the lineup, become stewards of the ocean, and build confidence to follow their own dreams.
As told to SeaVees. Photography by Johnie Gall.
“I had the whole ten-year life plan mapped out before I even graduated high school: join the military, get my EMT license, get out of the military, go to college, get my bachelor’s degree, join a firehouse, fight fires until my body can’t do it anymore, teach, retire. It’s funny because I ended up ticking off a lot of those boxes, but my life went off track the last few years in the most beautiful way.
I’ve always been the rigid, structured, nine-to-five guy, but I’ve also had a history of letting myself be led by intuition. Being surrounded by creative people here in Encinitas rubbed off on me. After graduating college and working at a physical therapy office, I started unwinding from this dream of firefighting and let life flow instead, doing things that felt right in my heart. I ended up riding my bike through Mexico to reconnect with my Indigenous Mayan ancestry and making a documentary about it with my best friend. I started doing photography and creative direction, some modeling, finding myself in these new pockets of life. One of them was surfing.
My best friend invited me surfing for the first time. It was one of the worst experiences of my life — 17 stitches to the arm after wiping out in Malibu. Every time after that, I’d go out, get tumbled in the whitewash, then sit on the beach while the rest of my friends had a great time. But something kept calling me back in and eventually it felt less like having to try and more like wanting to. It felt special to live in this place and be part of this culture, but as I started reflecting on it I realized I never would have gotten the chance to learn had it not been for my white friends. More than thirty percent of the population of San Diego is Hispanic, but you’d never know that if you were just looking at who’s out surfing.
“More than thirty percent of the population of San Diego is Hispanic, but you’d never know that if you were just looking at who’s out surfing.”
Across the street from our house there was a little Guatemalan family and I could tell they were from the same background as myself because it was a multi-generational, multi-family household. I knew they probably didn’t spend much time by the ocean. I’d see the kids playing in the front yard as I’d load my surfboard in the car, and they’d look over with curiosity and we’d wave at each other. But what I really wanted to do was invite them with me to the ocean, to teach them to surf and show them there was this beautiful natural space here, and maybe it would change their lives.
That was the catalyst for this idea for Un Mar De Colores, which means ‘an ocean of colors.’ The ocean can be a thousand different colors on any given day: slate gray, bright orange, deep blue or teal. All of its colors are beautiful, and the people in the water should represent all colors, too. I ended up sitting on it for a year until 2020. It was the summer George Floyd was murdered and people where wondering how to use their talents and skills to make the world more equitable. Kat, my dear friend and co-founder, and I wanted to combine our love for the ocean and our love for storytelling to try and help people — she was really the person who believed in my idea and convinced me it was the right time to run with it.
The first thing I did was create a logo, actually. Our creative designer listened to me describe my idea and he created this beautiful, colorful piece of art that embodied it. It sounds silly, but all it took was one small step, one tiny conversation, one tangible thing being done and everything took hold. After that, it was super grassroots. I went to the local elementary school and spoke during the Latinx PTA meeting and recruited families from there. Then it was crossing off a long checklist: finding boards, texting friends, borrowing vans, borrowing wetsuits. The families committed to the whole summer with us, and we started working out the kinks and getting better.
There are a lot of variants, from ocean conditions to the kids’ comfortability in the water, and there have definitely been moments when I get a kid on the board and then we just go down, and it’s my fault. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think to myself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be the one doing this. This is too much responsibility. I don’t know enough.’ But those thoughts are dream killers. I’m learning the same way the kids are learning, and what example would I be if I thought like that? Some thoughts just function to keep you stunted, so I try not to give energy to them. It was a fake-it-till-you-make-it operation at first, and sometimes it still feels that way, but it’s not like the families know that — they’ve had a beautiful experience.
“That’s where sustainable generational change is made: when you empower someone to take what they’ve learned and pass those tools on to their own community.”
One of my favorite moments was watching the reaction of a single mother from Columbia to seeing her kid surfing. She was tearing up as she told me, ‘This is something I’d never be able to do because I don’t know how to swim, but I’m so happy my daughter gets the ability to. I don’t have anyone else around to teach her, and I can’t afford to pay for it. Thank you for giving us this opportunity.’ Some of the moms will text me photos of their kids with the surfboards we give them during the off-season and they’re using them to teach friends or cousins to surf. That’s where sustainable generational change is made: when you empower someone to take what they’ve learned and pass those tools on to their own community.
It matters that I look and sound like these families. Speaking in Spanish at that PTA meeting leveled the playing field — some of the parents are immigrants, and they could tell I was someone who understood because I am of immigrant parents. The beauty of Un Mar De Colores is that a lot of our kids are too young to really understand what makes people ethnically different, so we can get in there before those negative stereotypes take hold at school or through the media or some jerk on the street and give them the confidence to know they aren’t true. We can expose them to people who look like them doing cool things so they never, ever doubt they can do those things, too.
“We can get in there before those negative stereotypes take hold at school or through the media or some jerk on the street.”
It’s a responsibility I think about when it comes to my own career. There’s this burden of the minority, right? In knowing what opportunities to take without getting taken advantage of. I signed with a modeling agency this year, and the other day I realized that I want to eventually be brought into these photoshoots not by someone who is looking for a BIPOC model, but by a BIPOC art director. I am so grateful for the opportunities, but how special would it be to not be the only brown guy on set sometimes? Modeling has let Un Mar De Colores stay a dedication of love because I’m not relying on it as a meal provider. It’s also something I truly enjoy because I love the human body and movement as an expression of art and I see it as a way to dip my toe in a creative field — I’m in front of the camera but I’m also studying how shoot are produced because one day I want to be just as much behind the lens as in front.
One way I’ve been able to do that already is through Un Mar De Colores art grants. We dedicate money to support BIPOC creatives in being able to complete their dreams of creating an ocean or surf-based film or art piece. Right now we’re working with a Japanese artist who came up with this concept of listening to the sound of the Sequoia trees and then surfing those sounds. It’s super ethereal and out there, but we took that idea and figured out how to make a film. It’s been a dream to not only produce and creatively direct and take behind-the-scenes photos, but to lead an organization that facilitates these stories being told.
“Am I going to be happy, proud, in love, calm, tranquil and steady? Those values are what I use to navigate toward my dream.”
My dream has always been associated with feelings. Am I going to be happy, proud, in love, calm, tranquil and steady? Those values are what I use to navigate toward my dream. That dream used to fit in a very well-defined box, but I think I always knew it would be bigger than that. I just had no idea it would be this big. I consider myself an outdoor educator now, I’m just not in classrooms like I thought I would be back when I was creating this plan for my life. But I’m creating curricula for surf camps, for taking kids to local farms, for discussions about tide pools and how to read waves — it’s all connected. My dream is to not look at what I’m doing in terms of how to make more money or improve, but to enjoy it for what it is right now. Indigenous people have always lived with a sense of interdependency. I want to return to that way of living where you rely on your community while also giving back to it. Un Mar de Colores was my dream, but it was everyone else who breathed life into it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to incorporate other people because when you have passion for an idea, it’s contagious and everyone will want to get on board.”
Mario and Leslie wear the waterproof Bolinas Boot. 10% of sales from the Bolinas Boot benefit Un Mar De Colores.