The fear of el agua

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What do you call four Mexicans swimming? Cuatro, sinko. Ba-dum-bum!

Odds are if you’re reading this and you’re Latino, you can’t swim. But don’t worry; at least you’re in good company. A recent study by USA Swimming reports that a whopping 58 percent of Latino children can’t swim or have poor swimming skills, a number that is sure to increase when you lump in adults.

So why is it, then, that they say we all swam over here?

Some of us can laugh at jokes poking fun at our buoyancy; others may get ticked. But we can’t deny that as a culture, our floating abilities are lacking. We’re not exactly teeming with Mark Spitzes. It’s Michael Phelps, not Miguel Phelps.

This is not to say we don’t have a rich tradition of grace in the water. I still remember watching as a kid with nervous anticipation and pride, the graceful (if somewhat un poco loco) Acapulco cliff divers on Saturday afternoons on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. In competition with American divers, they would risk life and limb and dive from as high as 85 feet.

But come to think of it, I don’t recall ever seeing them swim back to shore. Hmm. Were they towed back to safety on old tire tubes?

Still, the question remains. Why can’t we swim at the levels most others can? Is it because, like me, we didn’t own swimming trunks? Was it because the public pool didn’t let us in wearing our cut-off Levi’s? Is it because we don’t like to take our clothes off in public and why we get in the water wearing shirts?

Whatever the reasons were in the past, the numbers need to change. I myself am learning to swim. I can get the swimming-back-and-forth part, it’s the treading-water part that makes me think of that damn joke.

It’s also why I regularly take my three-month-old boy in the water. He loves it. While he doesn’t formally start his swimming lessons for a few more months, he’s already acclimated to the water. He floats easily (his mom’s genes, I presume) and kicks his legs (seemingly) instinctively. He’s my little Mark Spitz.

The report suggests that it is not necessarily socioeconomic conditions that attribute to the high number of non-swimmers as much as a fear of drowning.

And not just the child’s fear. Some parents who participated in the study admitted they would not let their children take swimming lessons even if the lessons were free.

Understandable, but fear of drowning is all the more reason to learn to swim. I think about it every time I step into the water with my son. And then we float.

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