When I think of the ocean, I think of oxygen. Most of us associate clean air with leaves and trees, but organisms in the ocean are the ones that produce most of the oxygen we breathe.
The ocean regulates the planet’s temperature, seasons and freshwater precipitation. The ocean is not only home to about 240,000 species, but also makes Earth a hospitable planet.
I’ve always had a deep connection to the ocean, which stems from my family and the experiences we shared. My family and I would go on vacation to visit my grandmother in Veracruz, Mexico, where she lived next to a river. And it became part of a tradition to go to the river and learn about it.
When I came back to living in San Diego, whenever I went to the Tijuana River Estuary in Imperial Beach — where the Tijuana River meets the Pacific Ocean — I would see and experience the plastic and sewage pollution that caused the beach to be closed.
Latino families are among the demographic groups most affected by water and ocean pollution because we tend to live in places that have contaminated bodies of water. And because of the lack of resources and language barrier, we don’t know the reasons why it’s polluted and hence can’t go in or swim in it.
Even if there is signage, most of the time it’s not in Spanish. So people swim, fish and eat contaminated fish.
The language barrier is one of the main reasons why Latinos tend not to get involved in marine protection efforts or legislation. How will they take part in something that they don’t understand or know about?
Another barrier to low-income Latino communities is the lack of financial resources and time. When a head of household is concerned about how to make sure that their children have food on the table the next day, ocean protection isn’t a priority.
Low-income communities also tend to spend more time working away from their families, so taking part in time-consuming or inconvenient marine conservation efforts is not a priority. It is only until there is a sense of security that one tends to think of less immediate issues and concerns.
Fortunately, there is hope. And a trend is starting to emerge in the Latino community’s environmental and marine protection behavior. The newer generations are championing several ocean protection initiatives and getting more involved in community participation and legislative work.
This is a result of the elimination of the previously mentioned barriers as generations pass. When the immigrant generation that arrived in the country had to survive and navigate without understanding the language and with no financial or familial support, their main focus was getting by and ensuring that their children were properly fed and had access to some type of education.
As the children grew up, they were able to get better-paying jobs and have some type of financial stability, which allowed them to take their own children to recreate at the beach and other open and natural areas.
It is the second-generation children who have had access to these places that are injecting the environmental movement with the enthusiasm and creativity that it needs to have the best results.
In some cases, it may take a generation or two to have the ocean stewards that we need. But considering that more than 1,500 marine species are at risk of extinction, will it be too late to conserve whatever is left? I don’t think so.
Hesitating and asking if it’s too late is a barrier to trying to fix it. So the question should not be whether it’s too late, but what can we do regardless of the time left.
The younger generations are currently making up for the environmentally detrimental actions of older ones. And although it is true that one cannot protect the ocean without the involvement and support of big corporations and the government, we don’t have to wait for their support to take action. Nor should we question if it’s worth it to try to fix it without their support.
One has to set an example so that others can follow.
I invite you to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by taking action and joining the ever-growing movement to protect the ocean that holds such significance in our lives and culture. Latino families are the ones most affected by marine pollution, so we should be the ones leading the conservation effort.
Be part of the ever-growing movement to protect our marine natural resources. Reach out to the Hispanic Access Foundation, Azul, the National Ocean Protection Coalition, the Surfrider Foundation or the Ocean Conservancy for free resources, toolkits, connections and the help you may need to become a marine conservation leader.
With passion, patience and perseverance, we will be able to protect the oceans in such a way that they recover, and your children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy them as you did.
Vanessa Muñoz, a San Diego resident, is conservation program manager at Hispanic Access Foundation.