The Latinas behind the Americas Latino Eco-Festival

Festival founder, Irene Vilar (Photo/Gary Isaacs)

Festival founder, Irene Vilar (Photo/Gary Isaacs)

Irene Vilar is no stranger to activism. She says her own grandmother spent 27 years in prison for fighting to make their native Puerto Rico an independent state.

Vilar wrote a memoir and became an author at the tender age 22. Years later, she founded the non-profit Americas for Conservation + the Arts, the mother organization of the Americas Latino Book Awards, as well as the first non-profit literary agency in the U.S. dedicated to proliferating minority literature in the Americas.

The busy 45-year-old mother of two young girls is also the founder of the Americas Latino Eco-Festival, starting today in Boulder, Colorado. The green fest is expected to attract more than 10,000 people over its five days of workshops and panels led by Latinos. In its second year, Vilar is proud to do her part in blending two causes she’s passionate about: Latinos in the arts with environmental activism.

“It has a mission of helping expand the mission of browning the environmental agenda and realizing the roles that Hispanics can play now, and in the future,” says Vilar, explaining that in 2050, 30 percent of the nation will be Hispanic. “There’s no future for the conservation movement if Latinos are not at the table at a leadership role.”

Some of the Latino leaders who will be in attendance are political activist Dolores Huerta, actor Edward James Olmos, writer and comedian Rick Najera (who will be performing a green version of his one-man play “Latinologues”), and Grammy winning band La Santa Cecilia who will be making celebratory noise opening the Festival. Vilar says now is a very momentous time to have this meeting of diverse minds.

“We all know now in the last two years that climate change is happening,” she Vilar. “The most urgent thing is saving the planet right now…Ninety-eight percent of Latinos say that we have to take care of God’s creation. That’s good news for the environmental movement.”

She says after identifying who these Latino leaders were, she decided to create the home they needed to start a conversation and create solutions. The three most important themes to be discussed at the Festival, according to Vilar, are: clean air (a world without coal), natural foods (no GMOs), and water justice (having access to clean water and not having to pay a corporation for it).

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, nine in 10 Latinos in the U.S. want the government to intervene against global warming and climate change, and eight in 10 Latinos want President Obama to take action on carbon pollution.

Military veteran, Grace Tiscareño-Sato, and author of multi-award-winning book, “Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them” – the first book showcasing Latino-led innovation and entrepreneurship in the green economy – was invited by Vilar to take a lead in three important panels, including Latinnovating — A Gathering of Latino Leaders in the Green Economy: Environmental Entrepreneurs and Innovators and Green Latinos Forum: Why Environmentalism Matters to Latino Americans and Why We Are the Solution and Not the Problem?

“When you’re an aviator like I was, in the military, you see a lot of the planet, and I realized how small it really is,” says Tiscareño-Sato about why she feels the Eco-Festival is important. “I grew up recycling before it was cool. It wasn’t because we didn’t have stuff. In our culture, you learn to be smart with what you have – the opposite of a consumer society.”

She also says she’s based in California, where 52 percent of public school students are currently Hispanic.

“That means in this country, the future is Latino,” says Tiscareño-Sato. “The school population is important, because it tells you what the future brings.”

Graciela Tiscareño-Sato (left) with Sandra Artalejeo (right) meeting for the first time in Boulder. (Photo/Graciela Tiscareño-Sato)

Graciela Tiscareño-Sato (left) with Sandra Artalejeo (right) meeting for the first time in Boulder. (Photo/Graciela Tiscareño-Sato)

Tiscareño-Sato says she wrote her book, which she plans on expanding to a five-volume series, to show how positive and valuable Latinos, as a community, are

To put an even brighter spotlight on some of the many Latinos doing extraordinary work in green entrepreneurship, she also invited fashion designer and children’s book author Sandra Artalejo, from her book; and fellow veteran and clean energy entrepreneur, Liz Perez-Halperin, who will be in the next volume, to take part in her entrepreneur panel on Tuesday.

Perez-Halperin, who was named a “Champion of Change” by President Obama in 2013, will talk about her continued work as the CEO of her own renewable energy company, GC Green, which offers jobs to veterans, at $20 to $50 an hour.

“I saw our dependence on oil [while serving as an aviation logistics specialist in the Middle East], and I thought why not create a way to reduce our energy consumption?,” Perez formerly told NBC.

Like Tiscareño-Sato, Artalejo remembers vividly how her family reused everything while she was growing up.

“If my grandmother made scrambled eggs, she’d put them in the garden,” says the designer, originally from Dallas, who also learned to make clothes out of recycled materials from her family. “It wasn’t cool then, it was just the way they were raised. And my mom was like that – she’d reuse fabric. It was amazing…”

She feels proud to debut her first bilingual children’s book, “Chulita and the Very Hot Pickle,” which talks about the importance of recycling, at the Eco-Festival.

“I’m showing Chulita to my family first, and they’ll help me share her with the rest of the world,” says Artalejo, equating the Latinos going to the Festival to being like a second family.

Vilar shares in her sentiment.

“Inspired by a sense of community, of kinship, that we are in this all together, the Festival highlights solutions, brings talent to solve the problem, gives a sense of hope and duty, and of course, influences people’s perception of Latino Americans – not thinking of them solely as immigration subjects, but as a community that has been here since the start,” she says.

A condensed version of this article was published on NBCNews.com

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