Americas Latino Eco Festival: Celebrating the Next Generation of Climate Activists

Now in its fourth year, Americas Latino Eco Festival celebrates and empowers leaders of the Latino climate movement, which has flourished outside of the mainstream for decades. 
For Irene Vilar, a love of Mother Earth is ingrained in the bones, the blood and the history of her people.

"Latino Americans have incredible assets that make them wonderful stewards of the earth, because of the fact that we have 20,000 years of indigenous genes still living in us," she says. "All of these indigenous elements are embedded in us; we have an inherited memory, at the genetic level. It's in our DNA."

An internationally published author, researcher and activist, Vilar has bright, dark eyes and light brown skin that trace to her native Puerto Rico. Her rapid-fire speech is often infused with Spanish words and idioms, especially when she's speaking about issues she's dedicated her career to exploring, including identity, women's rights and how history imprints on cultures and people. These days, as the founder of the Americas Latino Eco Festival, she's focused on the ways in which Latinos can shape and lead meaningful actions against climate change.

Vilar launched the Americas Latinos Eco Festival partly in response to the fact that Latinos and people of color, especially in low-income communities, are much more likely to experience the negative effects of environmental degradation, both in the United States and all over the world, especially Central and South America. Yet those who occupy vulnerable places, and those who descend from them, are underrepresented in the mainstream green movement.

Digging deepFor Irene Vilar, a love of Mother Earth is ingrained in the history of her people.

When Vilar launched the festival, she knew she'd have to come out strong, with a big story, to make a dent in deeply ingrained misconceptions about the role of Latinos in the green movement.

"I started knocking on doors, and every brand marketing manager would say, 'Ooh! A Latino environmental festival? Where's the market?'" she recalls. "I had only $30,000 for a festival I wanted to be huge. I took a second mortgage on my house. I knew that if we didn't dig deep, we wouldn't have an impact."

Her gamble paid off. The 2013 festival generated more than 30 million media impressions, which made fundraising, and marketing, a bit easier. Over the past three years, the Americas Latino Eco Festival has brought hundreds of thinkers, filmmakers, writers and climate change activists together to share ideas, energy and information, celebrate victories and share a space for energizing and activating the next generation of Latino climate leaders. 

Last year, 5,000 people participated in the festival, 60 percent of them Latino. The numbers support what Vilar says is a deep engagement in environmental issues among Latinos in ; Colorado and beyond, despite a common narrative to the contrary.

"The story that I kept seeing that was being sold was propaganda, and it was a story that was a stereotype," she says. "But somehow we bought that campaign that told us the following: That we're guests; that we don't care; that we're users and takers and not givers; that we're the problem not the solution. I heard that story from so many places: From Fox News, from CNN, The New York Times. If you buy the story, you feel powerless. You feel you don't belong. You feel displaced, you feel this is not your land, even if you've been here for five or more generations."

"I realized that the only way to break down a bad story is with a good story," she continues. "And so this festival is a very militant attempt at telling the right story. And that story includes the fact that people in the Mestizo population, which makes up 90 percent of the immigrant community in this country, have a sort of innate, gestaltic sense that our natural resources are not things to be consumed. They are gifts that we are to be stewards of. We don't look at it as, 'We have to manage natural resources.' We have to protect them. They are not ours to use."

This year's festival, which runs Oct. 13-15 at the McNichols Building and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, focuses on issues of inclusion, advocacy, education and mobilization as well as youth development. A youth program track will focus on leadership development among a group of 75 high school students, a pilot for a program Vilar hopes to establish as a pillar of the festival.

Building critical massThis year's festival runs Oct. 13-15.

Vilar's work reflects the growing movement to elevate, validate and advance the work of eco-minded Latinos across the world. In Denver, groups are working at the grassroots, policy and philanthropic levels to empower and build critical mass around environmental justice in communities with different cultural contexts than that of the mainstream, mostly white green movement. Protége, a collaboration between the League of Conservation Voters and Conservation Colorado, provides citizen empowerment training to Latinos in Metro Denver.

"We're not just talking about their right to clean air or clean water," says Hilda Nucete, Protége's director. "We're looking at the points of intersection -- where an environmental issue has a direct impact on their personal lives, whether its health and nutrition, the quality of food, access to the outdoors, voting rights. We're looking at how it intersects with their principles, their personal lives."

Protége is funded in part by The Denver Foundation's Environmental Affinity Group (EAG), a circle of donors who pool resources to increase their collective impact around a specific issue. This year, the EAG made funding environmental engagement in the Latino community a priority.

"What we saw coming into the awareness of many environmental organizations was that they weren't very inclusive," says Linda Campbell, a member of the Foundation's Environmental Affinity Group. "But often times, it is communities of color that suffer the worst of environmental disasters. And even though most environmentalists tend to be progressive thinkers, there was a kind of a mismatch. As our own understanding of that grew, we shifted our funding to reflect it."

"In our community, there are natural conservationists," says Nucete. "We know that our community hangs dry their clothes, reuses plastic containers, reuses bags and doesn't waste resources. The question is how do we civically engage this community in a way that builds trust. No environmental group has ever invited us to the table, or approached us with any kind of language competency or cultural awareness that would build trust. With a lot of people we have to start with the beginning."

For Irene Vilar, the Americas Latino Eco Festival is a great place to start. All are welcome, no matter their level of experience or vocabulary around climate issues. She expects a big, diverse crowd, brought together through arts and community, a collective step towards a new story.

This story was underwritten by The Denver Foundation.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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