Latino Conservation Week

July 14-22 marks Latino Conservation Week, a time to support the Latinx community getting into the outdoors and participating in activities to protect our natural resources. To celebrate this week, we're highlighting four current and former Office of National Marine Sanctuaries staff members and volunteers. Read on to hear their stories and how they connect to the ocean!


Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar

alexandra avila

What does the National Marine Sanctuary System mean to you?

Imagine if we had no Yellowstone or its iconic Old Faithful geyser and American bison, no Statue of Liberty or its history, no Grand Canyon that was carved into the red rock by the Colorado River. The national parks have helped ensure these special places will still be there for future generations to enjoy. That is what national marine sanctuaries do for special places that are underwater.

Sanctuaries help preserve and protect iconic coral reefs, protect nursery habitat essential for many fish and other marine life, preserve historic and culturally-important sites that are part of this nation's history, and more. National marine sanctuaries help ensure that we will be able to enjoy these special places for generations to come and that we can continue to use these resources in a sustainable manner.

How do you help protect the ocean?

Here are a few of the way I try to help out the most:

I make sure to make sustainable seafood decisions. When buying any seafood, I make sure they were caught sustainably by either buying locally and asking the fishermen how they caught it (this of course requires a bit of research on what are sustainable fishing practices), or you can check through Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list or look for certified sustainable seafood by the Marine Stewardship Council.

I also make sure to try and recycle everything, and use least amount of plastics possible. For example I never buy disposable single-use plastic water bottles and always carry my refillable, reusable stainless steel water bottle. In my family we also use small mason jars and re-fill them with juice instead of buying juice boxes that also create a lot of waste, and have a few stainless steel straws at home which we use instead of plastic ones. We always use paper bags or reusable bags when going to the grocery store. It has been well documented that many marine life die because of ingesting plastic materials, such as plastic straws or plastic bags.

Beach clean-ups and dive clean-ups are also a great way I like to help out ocean. Every piece of plastic or other marine debris removed from our beaches and ocean make a huge difference. We are now learning about the effects of microplastics on our ocean, and just picking up one single-use plastic water bottle (which eventually breaks into thousands of microplastic pieces) can make a huge difference! Anyone can help pick up a few pieces of trash anytime they visit the beach.

How does your heritage inform your experience in the outdoors?

I grew up in Ecuador surrounded by amazing marine and aquatic ecosystems. Since I was quite young, I was drawn to the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon region. Being part of this vast and unique biodiversity gave me an unbounded curiosity and enthusiasm for nature, for animals, and for our water resources. I saw their inherent beauty, and early on recognized what an important resource our waterways were to all living things and how much we owed them in return.

At a young age, I also realized that there were issues troubling our ocean, and it was then that I made it my goal to dedicate my life to finding ways to protect them. When I was little, my mom would take me to the beach in Ecuador, and I remember always going to the fishermen's boats as they would come in early in the morning after spending all night fishing and looking at all the fish they caught and being fascinated by all the unique life that lived just beneath the surface.

My whole life since I was little I always thought of myself as a mermaid, mean to live life in the ocean, beneath the waves. The first time I dived into the deep blue I could not see the bottom. I was in a very special marine protected area off the coast of Ecuador called Machalilla, Isla de la Plata. My heart started racing with a mixture of excitement, curiosity, and a slight fear of the unknown. As I slowly started to descend I began to see the wondrous life that surrounded me; I could hear the fish pecking at algae on the reef, I saw a wall of fish dance and change forms as other fish swam around them. A baby sea lion playfully came close to me, blew bubbles in my face, and ran off to bring back its toy piece of algae. I felt like my heart skipped a beat, that moment I knew that is where I was meant to be, I have to come back as often as possible to visit the most beautiful places on Earth.

Although I began scuba diving later in life, I was able then to observe our impact on coral reefs and other marine habitats, and how we have decimated so much of our marine life. As I have grown, I have learned that marine ecosystems and the fisheries they support are some of our most priceless legacies, but if not handled properly they may soon be irreparably damaged. I cannot remember ever having a different life goal than to dedicate myself to preserving these special places.

As an optimist, I believe that change is possible and this is my motivation. It is a common misconception that conservationists, scientists, and fishermen must forever be embattled over “to fish or not to fish.” Rather I believe that we have a common goal: to ensure best practices so that this source of livelihood and cultural heritage does not decline over time, and that our descendants may enjoy and benefit from it too. It is possible to have both a healthy ecosystem and a prosperous economy.

What is your favorite way to enjoy the ocean and Great Lakes?

When I was little I loved to go tide-pooling and see all the cool little critters that make the rocky shoreline their home. I also love bodyboarding and hope to learn how to surf. It wasn't until recently that I was able to experience the joy of diving. Diving has given me the opportunity to become a mermaid and to interact with the most amazing marine life. I have had the opportunity to go diving with sea lions and sharks in the Galapagos, dolphins and manta rays in Hawai‘i, and I hope to be able to go diving in kelp forests off the Oregon and Washington coastlines and see the rockfish that I am studying first-hand in their natural environment.

Olivia Bravo

Volunteer Education and Outreach Intern

olivia bravo

What does the National Marine Sanctuary System mean to you?

The National Marine Sanctuary System is becoming increasingly special to me because during my time here, I have seen the narrative for what a “marine sanctuary” is change and represent something much bigger than just ocean conservation. The National Marine Sanctuary System brings together communities and people of all backgrounds by educating and facilitating engagement, not to just promote the interests of the national marine sanctuaries, but to unite people under a great equalizer, the ocean. I think this is something special, and something I am so glad I can be a part of.

How do you help protect the ocean?

How do you help protect the ocean?

I think I protect the ocean by doing the small things that matter on a greater scale; I reuse plastic bags, recycle all of our waste, opt out of using straws at restaurants, and so on. These acts are really small in the scheme of things, but I think it is the awareness of a problem that accompanies those acts that truly makes a difference. If I show that I can make the smallest effort to reduce waste and minimize plastic, than maybe it will become a societal norm for everyone.

How does your heritage inform your experience in the outdoors?

The belief system of the Mesoamerican cultures centers around the worship of the elements; sun, earth, wind, water… and corn. This appreciation for the natural world is woven into the Hispanic culture and reflected in our vibrant colors, cuisine, and love for the outdoors. For me as the younger generation, my involvement in conservation has emerged as not only an effort to preserve the environment, but also my heritage.

What is your favorite way to enjoy the ocean and Great Lakes?

Without sounding completely corny, my favorite way to enjoy the ocean is to walk on the beach. Yes, I love finding the shells that wash up on the shore and feeling the wet sand under my feet, but to walk right against the water and follow where land meets sea, that's where I have the greatest appreciation for the vastness of the ocean because I realize that I could walk along the beach for hours and never reach a point where we are not surrounded by water.

Gonzalo Cid

International Activities Coordinator

gonzalo cid

What does the National Marine Sanctuary System mean to you?

Paraphrasing Wallace Stegner’s quote for the U.S. national parks, for me the national marine sanctuaries are this nation’s best idea for our oceans and Great Lakes. The system is a world-class group of marine protected areas, an approach to effective ocean conservation, and a model and an inspiration for many people in this and other countries. Professionally, it allows me to say where I work and what I do with “humble pride.”

How do you help protect the ocean?

Practicing, as much as I can, what I preach. For almost 20 years I have worked in international marine conservation activities, which has allowed me to learn from many cultures, develop partnerships, promote ocean conservation cooperation, facilitate capacity building, and share best practices. When I have the chance, I also enjoy presenting scientific evidence and arguing with people who still believe sharks are human eaters and climate change is a hoax.

How does your heritage inform your experience in the outdoors?

Personal heritage gives everyone different values on how to respect and appreciate nature. I learned I was classified as a Hispanic or Latino only when I came to the United States – before that, I was simply a Chilean, no different than anyone else who respects and cares for the ocean. I descend from generations of Spanish and Lebanese immigrant families, and growing up I never thought it was anything special. Although I grew up in a big city, I spent most of my childhood summers in the countryside and at the beach, being in contact with animals and nature. This taught me to appreciate nature and how important is to protect it as well as to enjoy it.

What is your favorite way to enjoy the ocean and Great Lakes?

Since I was a kid I have enjoyed watching the ocean. Simply put your feet in the sand, right where the water reaches up the beach, and you can feel the backwash and look at the crests of the waves and the horizon. I enjoyed (and still do) thinking that the ocean connects us all, that there are no borders, closing my eyes and thinking that a kid like me standing on the beach of Las Cruces in Chile, could be enjoying the Pacific Ocean at the same time as someone Japan, Rapa Nui, or far up the coast in California.

Jennifer Damian

Former Volunteer Intern

jennifer damian

What does the National Marine Sanctuary System mean to you?

The National Marine Sanctuary System holds a special place in my heart. Whereas most people visit or learn about national marine sanctuaries after already having a love for national parks, my experience has been the opposite. My first connection to the system was by chance: I moved to Monterey, California for a study-away program to study ocean policy. To me, the system is a connection of sites joined together beyond the site status. It is joined by a shared respect for the ocean and Great Lakes, an appreciation for how the protected area status supports healthy ecosystems, and a value that marine sanctuaries should be places that future generations of children, parents, scientists, artists, teachers, and more have the right to enjoy and learn from.

How do you help protect the ocean?

One of the most direct ways that I am helping to protect the ocean is by paving a path to a career in ocean advocacy. In summer 2017, I interned with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries where I met a diversity of leaders in the ocean field who inspired me to continue my educational studies in ocean policy. I recently earned my bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, and I will earn my master’s degree focused on ocean and coastal resource management in 2019. Although I don’t know exactly what my career trajectory will be, I understand that it doesn’t have to go a certain way. I have many amazing mentors, peers, and colleagues who I am learning from who are themselves ocean and Great Lakes advocates. Although I know there will be challenges, I am very happy to have a career in environmental advocacy for people, the environment, and future generations.

How does your heritage inform your experience in the outdoors?

To be honest, my cultural background did not really influence my experience with the outdoors, and I think it’s a big problem in the Latino community. Besides having fun at city parks, and one camping trip when I was about 10 years old, my experiences with the outdoors were limited. I didn’t grow up engaging in all the fascinating, often expensive, recreational activities that I hear other families get to do. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, or time, for these experiences, and this is common for many Hispanic households.

Nonetheless, I am learning of Hispanic/Latino organizations who are working to bridge this gap in the community, such as the Hispanic Access Foundation, which connects with the National Marine Sanctuary System.

What is your favorite way to enjoy the ocean and Great Lakes?

When I said my outdoor experiences were limited, I had one exception. Beach days with my family along downtown Chicago’s shores were my favorite. They were simple, what any typical trip may consist of: unrecognizable sandcastles, sandwiches, and shell collections that I got to take home to marvel at.

My junior year of college, I studied ocean policy at a school in Monterey, California. I felt like I was living my childhood dreams. Picture books with marine mammals were my only gateway to the ocean, and The Rainbow Fish was always my go-to book in elementary school. Thus, I literally spent almost every evening while I was living in California walking along Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s boardwalks, paths, and docks. Because of my college’s generous financial aid, I felt that it was a great privilege to be living almost a thirty minute walk from my bed to the shore. It was amazing to connect my educational studies in the classroom to California’s ocean ecosystems.

Chicago has dozens of museums, with the most popular ones located along Lake Michigan. My absolute favorite is the Shedd Aquarium. To this day, I always walk in feeling like a child at a candy store. The culmination of curiosity, education, science, and more importantly sharing the experience with the people you love is just beautiful. It’s how I felt walking along one of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s boardwalks. Just as I plan on visiting every aquarium in the U.S., a goal of mine is to visit every national marine sanctuary in the system. They are beautiful places that everybody should enjoy and learn from.