For Latine Heritage Month, Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, the founder and executive director of the only marine conservation group dedicated to Latines in the U.S., shares how her community carries a special relationship to the ocean on The Frontline.
I remember falling asleep to the lullaby of waves crashing. That is one of my earliest ocean memories. And it wasn’t just the sounds—there were the smells and views. I could look outside my bedroom window and see the water: an endless blue that stretched on and on.
Even back then, riding my bike up and down in the Playas de Tijuana—a beachside neighborhood in the Mexican border town—I didn’t imagine I’d go on to do ocean conservation work. The environmental space has never quite known how to welcome people like me. It’s struggled to create space for the Latine community, for the immigrant community, for the non-English speaking community. That’s why I founded Azul, a marine conservation organization focused on the Latine community, in 2011.
I pursued this work after joining the international fishing field. I only joined out of my interest in international relations, but I quickly grew interested in something more. I worked in operations, organizing the boats that would be sent out to capture fish to then sell into the market. I spent five years with this company where I began to notice that we were catching fewer fish every year while spending more on fuel because boats had to travel farther and farther to find fish.
Then in 2006, I read a stat that absolutely gutted me: the ocean would be empty by 2048. That data point (and the paper that made it) has since been challenged and debunked, but the severity of the ocean crisis is still very real. I moved into action. By 2007, I quit my job and pivoted into the nonprofit sector. I dedicated myself to working to protect the ocean and the people who depend on it. It wasn’t until 2009 that I realized how ocean conservation connected back to my Latine community.
At a public hearing to support marine protected areas, I was tasked with building a Latine cohort to attend and speak out. We provided a bus and lunches to students, parents, and their children. As soon as we arrived, however, we were met with a bunch of angry white folks who were yelling racist nonsense at us. After all was said and done, I felt betrayed by the folks who organized this. I knew then that the only way forward was to build something of my own—for the people, by the people.
“I knew then that the only way forward was to build something of my own—for the people, by the people.”
My mom helped me come up with my organization’s name. “Azul” means “blue” in Spanish. It’s easy to pronounce for English speakers, and it resonates with Spanish speakers. It’s a bit like my own name. Mar is short for Marce—and “mar” translates to “ocean.” I wanted to build something people would remember, something that would stick.
Azul is working on building workers’ rights in the fishing sector, stopping destructive fossil fuel infrastructure, and promoting ocean conservation at large. We don’t want to only keep plastics out of the ocean; we want to bring more people to the ocean. We want to see 30% of the world’s ocean protected by 2030, but we want to protect nature with people. We don’t want to keep it from people. We want people to understand how the ocean and its supply chains work so that they’re thinking more critically about from where the food on their dinner plate came.
As a born and raised Mexicana, I understand that all communities should be a part of the effort to protect our planet. In California, where Latines make up 39% of the population, marine conservation organizations have long missed an opportunity by ignoring us. I know Latine communities care about the ocean. I’ve seen it—from the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento where youth and families have stood to share their thoughts with legislators through Latinos Marinos (an Azul-led effort to bring more Latine youth and families to advocate for our ocean) to within my own family where I was taught to take care of the beach every time I visit.
Unfortunately, that’s never been enough to convince the white-led organizations to take us seriously. Perhaps a report we recently released will. We found some of the best pollsters to survey 1,900 Latine voters across the country to assess their opinions on climate change and conservation. This was the first national poll to cover these topics. Unsurprisingly, we found that U.S. Latines overwhelmingly support environmental protections. This is no longer my perspective—this is facts.
Some 87% want to see Congress create new national parks and tribal protected areas. About 78% want to see offshore drilling banned. Nearly all participants—96%—said environmental issues like pollution and climate change are personally important. Spanish speakers were the most progressive among those surveyed. Almost across the board, Spanish speakers were more concerned about these issues than English speakers.
“We want to protect nature with people. We don’t want to keep it from people.”
So, Latines don’t care about ocean pollution or climate policy, right? I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that throughout my career. Now, we have data that shows how wrong they were. There’s been this idea in the movement that people don’t know better because they don’t practice environmentalism the way white folks understand it. Well, we have our own way. We’ve been doing it for generations. There’s more than one way to do conservation work, but white supremacy has tried to tell us there is only one.
That is partly why Azul published the album En El Mar in 2021. It’s a compilation of music inspired by the ocean and our relationship with it. This is how my people have connected with the land for generations. My father and his father connected to the ocean in their own way, serving the Navy and working the docks and building ships. My daughter will connect in her own way as I take her on visits to the beach.
For Latines, environmentalism isn’t about what we can buy to go zero-waste or stop guzzling gas. It’s about mutual aid—the daily practice of community that lends itself to being better stewards of the land. It’s about sharing. It’s about la cultura and making the most out of what we have.