Reuniting with the Sea: A Story of Access, Joy, and Connection

Photo credit: Katherine Escalante

Written by: Katherine Escalante, Yale Conservation Scholar and Intern, The Ocean Project 

Last month, my mother returned to the ocean for the first time in 22 years. It was a reunion my family and I felt blessed to witness.

Two decades ago, my mother and father, at age 46, bid farewell to their homeland of El Salvador, a tiny country in Central America with a coastline that stretches 191 miles along the Pacific Ocean. Driven by a desire to create a better life filled with opportunities for myself and my siblings, my parents sacrificed everything. They embraced the unknown, leaving behind their loved ones, culture, and those breathtaking Salvadorian sights.

My family settled, and I grew up in South Dakota, thousands of miles inland; the ocean was always a far-away concept for me. Still, I grew up hearing about El Salvador’s beauty, coastline, beaches, and cliffs. My parents often watched Salvadorian YouTube videos to feel connected to the scenery and nature they could no longer access. The ocean was especially remarkable in my parent’s stories about our homeland. I would hear about my mother’s first trip to the sea and how she fell in love with the waves, how much my father loved playing with my siblings on the beach, and how my siblings would never want to leave.

Like me, my parents had little access to the ocean growing up. They both hail from humble backgrounds and despite living in a country known for its coast, their families faced circumstances that restricted their access to the sea. My father’s family led a nomadic life due to my grandfather’s military service, leaving them little time for vacations, and my mother’s family resided in rural El Salvador, where their daily lives revolved around tending to their small coffee bean farm. For both their families, survival took precedence over leisure, and the ocean was a distant dream.

My parents established our family in their early 20s. Their new lives together ushered in more financial stability, access, and freedom of movement than they had grown up with. Soon, family visits to the beach became an Escalante family tradition. To my parents, this time was sacred; visiting the ocean meant being with family. It meant connecting with something bigger than themselves and work. As my father puts it,” That connection is hard to beat. It held so much peace and joy for us. Neither of us experienced this growing up, but we got to experience this beautiful thing together and show it to our kids! That was special.” I only experienced one family Beach trip in El Salvador before we moved to the US, and unfortunately, I was too young to remember it. However, I heard many stories of these trips growing up, and even as decades passed, the joy that these memories would fill a room with was incredible.

In the years following our move to the US, my parents dedicated themselves to working and providing for our family. Time slipped away, and work and financial responsibilities overshadowed any plans for a coastal retreat. Well into their 60s, my parents are still hard at work, and as is the case for many immigrant parents, it’s hard to get them to take a break. For immigrant communities, our value as people has been defined through the work we can produce. It can be challenging to redefine these narratives and emphasize rest and self-care for my parents.

Yet, last month, my mother agreed to embark on another Escalante family beach trip, the first one since being in the United States. This experience was nothing short of spiritual. As I stood by my mom, siblings, and their families, overlooking the water, I felt the deep connection and peace with the ocean I grew up hearing about in their stories. This week, I saw my mom’s spirits soar as we all made memories together on a new sandy beach. My mom described her reunion with the ocean as “something magical– it was like reliving a part of my life after so many years; it was unforgettable to experience that peace and healing with my family, now all grown up.”

As I reflect on my mother’s reunion with the sea, I am reminded of the transformative power of the ocean. I am also reminded that access defines experience and that we are far from equal access to the sea. Socioeconomic and geographic barriers have hindered individuals, families, and whole communities from experiencing the sea. My mother’s story is a testament to the importance of accessibility. Regardless of background, everyone deserves to connect with the ocean’s beauty – this should not be limited to a privileged few.

As we move forward, let us strive to break down barriers and to create pathways that enable more of us to experience ocean joy. One Ocean, One Climate, One Future – Together.

Katherine Escalante speaks on the Margaret Davidson Emerging Leaders Roundtable during Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2023. Photo credit: National Marine Sanctuary Foundation/ImageLink