Entrepreneur Creates a Bilingual Platform to Make Retirement Saving Easy

Within minutes of meeting financial entrepreneur Carlos García, you feel like you’ve known him for years, and suddenly, you’re discussing how to solve Americans’ lack of retirement savings.

“It is possible,” said the 37-year-old about one of America’s biggest challenges, “if you have the passion for it.”

This past February, García launched a startup aiming to do just that. Finhabits is a bilingual digital platform that gives investment advice and teaches and encourages individuals how to invest and save for retirement.

This, he explained, came from his realization that he grew up knowing very little about building wealth and saving, something he learned while working at his first job at Merrill Lynch in NYC.

“I never opened my 401K packet from H.R., and after three years, my colleague said, ‘I already have $30,000 saved for my retirement and the company matched it,’ and I said, ‘What?’ All these terms I didn’t know, and then I thought about all the people I know, and maybe their parents didn’t teach them either.”

García said that while his parents instilled in him an ethic of hard work, they were not familiar with long-term financial planning.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, this is indeed a common occurrence among Latinos. Only 26 percent of Hispanic families had retirement savings in 2013, compared to 41 percent of black families and 65 percent of white families.

“I got frustrated when I looked at my Merrill Lynch plan, but then I thought about the people who don’t work for a corporation and don’t have a pension,” said García. As fewer Americans work for big companies with 401Ks and pension plans, it’s even more imperative, say experts, that individuals know how to chart out their own savings.

Research by the National Institute on Retirement Security confirms that only 38 percent of Latinos, versus 62 percent of whites, have access to a retirement plan through their employer.

“Most people don’t contribute money to their retirement —what is going to happen when we reach 80? I thought to myself, “This is a Latino problem.”

García designed Finhabits as a platform that helps people who have never invested, develop the habit to do it. “If I can make saving for retirement more accessible and cheaper, it’s a winner — it’s just like going to the gym,” he said. “We text you to give you a nudge to contribute on a weekly basis.”

So far, Finhabits has been highly active in Texas, Florida and California. Most clients are new investors in their 30’s and saving for retirement using Roth IRA’s, contributing an average of $40 a week.

“We want to be in as many Hispanic-driven places as possible,” said García. “Any citizen or permanent resident can open an account. Eighty-five percent of our clients have never invested or had a retirement account before. Ninety-five percent of our users are mobile audience.”

What differentiates Finhabits from other digital financial apps, said García, is that it’s focused on long-term financial habits. The digital platform charges $1 per month for accounts under $2,500 and 0.5 percent per year for accounts that pass that amount.

“Many Latinos don’t retire and keep working, because they have to, but what happens if you get a health issue?” said García. “And there’s a difference between having a savings account and investing…Ideally, I want everyone to put 5 percent of their income away annually.”

García said that no matter how much one puts away, it’s best to just do it and not to put off saving.

García is no stranger to solving problems. He spent his formative years alternating between living in El Paso, Texas where he was born, and Juárez, Mexico, the birthplace of his parents —studying in both countries and speaking both languages. He left the U.S.-Mexico border when he got accepted into MIT, one of the world’s most prestigious universities —to study electrical engineering and computer science.

“I was an electrical engineer first, and electrical engineering teaches you how to solve problems,” said García. He later switched to a finance career in risk and asset management.

Though he has navigated in the high-stakes and lucrative world of finance, García sees his mission as helping support underserved communities, beginning with Latinos.

In 2010, after nearly a decade in Wall Street, García and a few friends from Mexico saw a need to help children affected by drug-related violence in Juarez. They formed Project Paz, a non-profit that partners with artists and socially-conscious brands to host fundraising events. The proceeds fund after-school art programs in Juarez. In the past seven years, more the 6,000 children have benefited from the program.

Apart from his philanthropic work, García is focused on helping propel what he thinks is a bright future for Hispanics.

“Latinos are the only group who has had income growth since 2008– so there is a huge potential that we are going to be the next wealthy class.”

However, García says saving money for retirement and building a nest egg has to be every individual’s own priority.

“It’s important that you take care of yourself, because the government is not and your employer is probably not,” said García. “If you spend an hour per year thinking about what you do with your money, you can double your wealth in retirement.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

A Stirring Tribute to Latin American Music Legends: Natalia Lafourcade’s ‘Musas’

Natalia Lafourcade (Courtesy Sony Music)

Physically, Mexican singer-songwriter Natalia Lafourcade is only 4 feet, 11 inches in height, but the soul she emanates with her ethereal music is fathomless. And audiences and critics agree – she won a Grammy last year for her album, “Hasta la Raiz,” in the Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album category – and this is in addition to the 8 Latin Grammys she has won.

In her newest album, “Musas” (“Muses”), she pays tribute to various musicians who have etched a musical memory in her heart at some point in her life and are beloved to many in Latin America and the U.S., such as, the late Chilean composer/songwriter Violeta Parra and Mexican dancer and actress Rocío Sagaón – well-known for appearing with actor Pedro Infante in the 1951 film, “Las Islas Marias.”

“I had many different teachers,” says Lafourcade. “I started writing songs at 14 about things I was living at school, and the things I felt at that age. In this album, I tried something different. I wanted to write about Veracruz, and my friend, Rocío Sagaón, who was like a grandmother to me and passed away two years ago. She was one of my inspirations.”

It was almost predestined that Lafourcade, 33, was to be a musician. She was born to two respected music educators in Mexico City, and spent a lot of her childhood in neighboring Coatepec, Veracruz amidst music and art. But the exact moment she herself was certain of her future, she remembers precisely.

“I knew that I wanted to be a singer when I was 10 years old,” Lafourcade tells NBC from Mexico City. “There was a party at school, and they invited me to sing for a play. I was really nervous, but when I was on the stage, I knew.”

And her feelings have never steered her wrong since. It is the profound way in which Lafourcade feels the experiences of life, which inspire her songs, that provide the magic touch to her compositions.

Her timeless, sweet and gentle sound is hard to fit in a specific box. She, herself, describes it as, “a mix of many genres. I would say maybe alt/pop, but now I’m trying to explore folk and traditional sounds of my country. Something that would include everyone.”

For the past decade, she says she’s been listening to a wide assortment of sounds, which cross countries, and genres, from Bob Dylan to Edith Piaf and La Lupe.

In her new album, she collaborates with the legendary Mexican guitar duo Los Macorinos.

“The idea to collaborate with Los Macorinos happened when we were having a concert as a tribute to Chavela Vargas four years ago,” said Lafourcade about Miguel Peña and Juan Carlos Allende, famous for accompanying the late legendary singer, Chavela Vargas. “That’s when I heard them on stage. I knew of them because of Chavela, but when I saw them on the stage, I thought it would be a great idea to work on a project with them.”

Last year, while on vacation in Brazil, the memory returned.

“When I got back to Mexico, I reached out to them,” says Lafourcade about how she got Los Macorinos to be her guitar and chorus accompaniment throughout the “Musas” album.

“It has given me so many things. It’s a very magical project. We decided to record the album live, and I never did that before,” she says. “I believe that’s why this album has this incredible spirit. Now I don’t want to record any other way.”

This all happened in a moment in her life that she needed music in a different way, “more ‘cotidiano’ (‘simple’ or ‘everyday’),” says Lafourcade. “I say that because working with Los Macorinos wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be. I would do everything faster. I had to go very deep, and I had to connect my heart and my soul in a very deep way – pay attention to the meaning of the songs and the energy. It made me more awake. That growth made me change the way I make my music now.”

She now adds Los Macorinos, who are in their 70’s, to her long list of teachers.

“It was very beautiful to share these moments. It was different for them, and for me,” says Lafourcade. “Before, I was working with artists who were my same age. Spending time with Los Macarinos was beautiful – to hear the music they were bringing to the table. There was a moment we had 200 songs we all loved, and we tried to decide which songs to include, so we were hanging out a lot and they told me a lot of stories.”

Her favorite musician to work with, however, she says was Cuban legend Omara Portuondo (from “Buena Vista Social Club”). They sing a duet on the track, “Tu me acostumbraste” (“I Got Used to You”).

“She is so amazing with powerful energy,” says Lafourcade of her 86-year-old mentor. “We get along very well.”

Although she’s going on a U.S. and Mexico tour, starting next month through October, Lafourcade says she will make a second volume of “Musas” later this year.

“I am 15 years into my career, and I want to go back to the piano and take the time to learn more,” she says. “I have many projects in mind like this one. By collaborating, you can do very interesting things. And it’s not just about me…We will see…”

For now, she just seems grateful for her experiences, and in love with life – as well as the person who inspired her original track, “Tú sí sabes quererme” (“You Know How to Love Me”).

“My mother always said I was singing before I was speaking,” laughs Lafourcade. “I came to this world to sing, and I feel very fortunate, because I am able to do that.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Just Food Conference Brings Latinos to the Table on Food Activism

Yadira Garcia of Happy Healthy Latina conducting a cooking workshop in El Barrio, NYC in 2016 (Photo/Walter Roeder)

Yadira Garcia’s close relationship with food began when she fell down a flight of stairs in her junior year of college, leaving her unable to walk and in enduring pain.

The disability caused sudden spikes in her cholesterol and blood pressure, and she ended up with prescriptions for Oxycontin, Vextra and Lipitor. She said she suddenly had found herself, “a prisoner in her own body,” and at 20, was told this is what her life would be. Then she lost her health insurance.

“When you’re not handed the right road map, you can’t get to your destination,” Garcia said. “So, I went back to my elders. I thought, ‘What did my grandmother eat?’ I went finding these foods. I started to eat well and started to see how my health was improving and changed. I went from a walker to a cane. It was a three to four year process – very incremental. Eventually, I got off my cholesterol medication.”

Garcia told her story to open the 2017 Just Food Conference held this week at Columbia University’s Teacher College in New York City where nearly 800 food workers, farmers, scientists, activists and citizens gathered to collaborate on creating and advocating for an economically equitable, environmentally sustainable and healthy food system for all.

Now 33, Garcia is a food educator, community chef, and has her own blog, Happy. Healthy. Latina., where she posts her latest healthy recipes and answers readers’ questions. You can also check out her latest project there – a new cooking show, called “Healthy Cocina,” which is produced by actress Zoe Saldana, and also features Saldana’s sister Cisely.

Garcia, who was raised in New York City but whose family hails from the Dominican Republic, said our ancestral knowledge is our power. She decided she wanted to give away the knowledge she had, and she also put herself through culinary school – the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York.

“I learned how to activate Latino foods,” she said. “I make medicinal sofrito.”

In addition to hosting cooking workshops with seniors and ex-offenders in the community, teaching them how to use food in a healthy manner, Garcia is also on mission to get nutritional education to youth by spearheading wellness classes in schools.

“I am extremely concerned about H.R. 610 – the (proposed U.S. House) bill that will affect snacks and meals in schools,” said Garcia. “I feel an urgency now to tap the community … We train parents how to make demands. If we don’t know what’s happening, we’re silent. I talk with them to add their voice. We the people are the only ones who can make a change. We the people have to use our voice. Instead of being scared, we can talk … There is power in numbers.”

“I think this is why I was given my ability to walk again, to be able to share my testimony,” she adds.

While eating healthy foods is a challenge for some, for others, it is getting sufficient food at all, along with getting food that is nutritionally beneficial.

JoseChapa

Jose Chapa, farmworkers legislative campaign coordinator at Rural & Migrant Ministry at the 2017 Just Food Conference in NYC. (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Jose Chapa, 32, justice for farmworkers legislative campaign coordinator at Rural & Migrant Ministry, said food and restaurant workers are the most food insecure population – many can’t afford to feed themselves, and injury and illness rates at work are also high.

“Part of what I do is try to get the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act passed,” said Chapa, a panelist at the conference. “In the 1930’s, when the New Deal was passed, farmworkers were excluded from many rights like overtime pay, or a day of rest. The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act would enact a 40-hour work week and an option for a day of rest. A lot of the time, the standard of living is so low, there are no sanitary requirements, no protections for farmworkers. Only recently, they were given minimum wage and access to drinking water in the fields.”

Rural & Migrant Ministry, a non-profit located in Poughkeepsie, New York, aims to change unjust working conditions for farmworkers, and will be a part of the Cesar Chavez Rally for New York State Farmworker Rights on March 30.

Chapa, born in China, Nuevo León, Mexico, feels close to this cause, because he grew up as a migrant farmworker. He migrated with his family to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas when he was 4.

“My parents wanted a better education and future for me and my brother,” said Chapa, who came to New York three years ago to fight for farmworker rights, while the rest of his family is still in Texas. “Every summer, my family would go to Iowa and Minnesota to work the fields. My family worked picking corn and cotton every summer from when I was 4.”

He said he personally worked in the fields from age 15 through 16.

“I remember conversations of my dad talking to farmers in broken English. I heard racial epithets. That impacted me,” said Chapa. “The first time I went out in the fields to work, I had a heat stroke because it was so hot. Those two things drew me to this work.”

In addition to educating the community about the bill he wishes to see passed, he also reaches out to similar organizations to collaborate. He said he tries to create a sense of community where farmworkers can gather and talk about issues they are facing – especially with the increasing fear of immigration enforcement.

“I’ve heard of more activity of border control by Buffalo,” said Chapa. “We refer folks who are fearful to other organizations depending where they are in the state. What would help a lot is the passage of this bill. We have very good speakers on our side, and we are hoping these voices can give farmworkers a voice.”

RicardoSalvador

Ricardo Salvador uses chart to show how poverty intersects with race and ethnicity during keynote address at “The Future of Food Justice” session on March 13. (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Dr. Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Washington, D.C., delivered the conference’s final keynote address, “The Future of Food Justice.”

“The footprint of inequity is something I want to talk about,” said Salvador, 59. “Without a just food system, we can’t have a just nation.”

He explains that a just food system is one that doesn’t exploit food workers, and the current model is based on production for as much profit as possible. The fundamental purpose of the food system, he said, should not be one which enables us to solely survive, but one which also nourishes us.

“Profits should not the primary goal, but healthy people and animals,” said Salvador. “But this is not feasible because most people are not informed. We need to point people to places where it’s working – that is concrete and real.”

One of the ways the Union of Concerned Scientists has taken action to coordinate and align leadership is by forming The HEAL Food Alliance. The national organization was founded in 2015 to bring together farmers, food service laborers, scientists, policy experts, and community activists in order to achieve effective policy change in our nation’s food system. It does this by empowering local leadership, training future politicians in policy issues and working against monopoly power structures.

This topic is close to Salvador’s heart, because like Chapa, he comes from a Mexican farm-working family. After the 1942 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, also called the Bracero Program, his uncle and hundreds of thousands of mostly indigenous people migrated to join the agricultural labor force in various parts of the U.S.

“This set the pattern for decades of subsequent migration and exploitation,” Salvador writes in his blog.

“I have family farming in California and in Mexico, and they were all exploited,” he said. “I felt they were discriminated against – no matter how hard they worked. That’s why my work has turned into social justice work.”

Salvador’s research suggests that the U.S. has one of the highest rates of income inequity in the world. Other studies also have documented this.

“This is what needs to be undone…You deprive people of their land, and you will create impoverished people,” said Salvador, noting the income equity found in some Native American reservations. “There is an exploitation of human beings for the creation of wealth.”

Salvador continues to say, if we want a society where we all thrive, we need to invest in each other.

“If we are all one race, we really need to believe it,” he said. “All of us here now are making the future. We need to be careful not to commit the same errors … You have to believe things will get better, because you fight for them. I came from people who took big risks.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

‘Lucha Mexico’ Filmmaker Honors Lucha Libre’s Proud Tradition

DOC NYC 2015 Premiere Of "Lucha Mexico"Left to right: Filmmaker Alex Hammond, professional wrestlers Jose Luis Jair Soria, aka Shocker, and Jon “Strongman” Andersen, and filmmaker Ian Markiewicz attend the DOC NYC 2015 premiere of “Lucha Mexico” at SVA Theater on November 13, 2015 in New York City. (Photo/Monica Schipper / Getty Images)

For the longest time, documentary filmmaker Alex Hammond had wanted to work on a film which shed light on her Mexican heritage. The director of “Children of Haiti” and “Better Than Something,” which explored the punk underground, grew up in Connecticut but spent nearly every summer in Mexico visiting family; her mother had immigrated to the U.S. from San Luis Potosí.

The result is “Lucha Mexico,” her new film created with longtime co-director Ian Markiewicz, which explores the dynamic subculture of Lucha libre, the beloved and more than century-old Mexican professional wrestling sport.

After four years of shooting in mostly Mexico, “Lucha Mexico,” is being released in theaters and on iTunes on Friday, July 15, playing in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, among others.

Lucha libre literally means “free fight,” and dates back to the Franco-Mexican War in 1863. The wrestlers are known to wear colorful masks, which hide their true identities, and some are known for their aerial maneuvers. They also characterize themselves as “good guys” (called “técnicos”) vs. the “bad guys” (called “rudos”).

“I knew the moment I saw Lucha, that this is what I wanted to make a film about,” said Hammond, 35, to NBC Latino. “The idea that these athletes put themselves in the ring and put their lives on the line is where the interest started. When we got in there, we realized this world was so big.”

Hammond said it’s a good time to shine a spotlight on this sport, since it has been growing in popularity in the U.S. as well. Lucha Underground,” a weekly hour-long TV series which premiered in the U.S. on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey Network in 2014, is still going strong in 2016.

“Because it’s taken us five years to make the film from start to finish, we’ve seen lots of changes,” said Hammond about the growth of Lucha libre. “‘Lucha Underground’ is getting a lot attention now —you’re starting to find them happening more often, I think because WWE is so big. They helped introduce the Mexican wrestlers. More people are exposed to it.”

Film poster for "Lucha Mexico" by Alex Hammond.
Film poster for “Lucha Mexico” by Alex Hammond. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

One of the film’s protagonists is American Lucha wrestler John Andersen, who goes by the wrestling name, “John Strongman.”

“He came down to Mexico from San Francisco as a pro-wrestler, and we got to document his first time going to Mexico,” says Hammond. “He would live in Mexico for a month at a time — now there are more Americans moving down there to wrestle.”

Hammond says the “luchadores” (wrestlers) are like superheroes for Mexicans.

“They are very real for the people,” says Hammond. “When you go to any show, you’ll see a grandmother and a baby – it’s a family affair.”

The “luchadores” themselves also take their careers very seriously. They go to Lucha school, starting sometimes as young as 15, to learn the proper fighting techniques.

Sexy Star (left), Faby Apache (right)
Sexy Star (left), Faby Apache (right) (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

“These men and women are really athletes, and you see how hard they work,” says Hammond. “For a lot of them, their parents were wrestlers…It’s like a whole close-knit family. When you retire, you work as a wrestling coach.”

The film shows how fans idolize their superheroes, but it’s not so glamorous for the wrestlers themselves. Blue Demon, Jr., the son of the legendary Blue Demon — who was also an actor in many movies, as his wrestling persona, in the 1960’s and 1970’s — describes the way of life as “lonely.”

“Out of 24 hours, I wear my mask for 18,” says Blue Demon, Jr. in the film. “You have to be a loner and not go out too much, eat cold meals in the hotel. You can’t go out at night, or you might be recognized.”

Photo of the late Perro Aguayo Jr.
Photo of the late Perro Aguayo Jr. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

It’s also a dangerous sport. Hammond says the famous El Hijo de Perro Aguarro died in the ring last year.

“We had to recut the movie,” said Hammond, because he was supposed to be one of the main characters. “It was a freak accident. He died wrestling.”

Hammond said that throughout the making of the film, several wrestlers died from various causes.

But ultimately, the luchadores think it’s worth the risks and the sacrifices. One of the trainers told Hammond that ‘in order to be a wrestler, you have to be hungry and want to have that triumph.’

“That’s essentially what we wanted to capture,” she said, “what drives them to constantly get back in that ring.”

Hammond doesn’t know yet where her next project will bring her, but she says she’s always been interested in exploring different environments.

“I like getting people to feel like they are there,” she says. “For ‘Lucha Mexico,’ I wanted to show also how beautiful Mexico is – not just what you see in the news — it’s not just drugs.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Ecuador Photographer Brings Food and Hope to Earthquake Victims

manuelaviles

Ever since Manuel Avilés was a teenager in his native Guayaquil, Ecuador, he was known in his high school as the one to help out whenever there was a need. By 17, he was committed to the idea of becoming a Catholic priest, but after volunteering one and a half years as a missionary in the Amazon rain forest and seeing how lonely the way of life can be, he opted to pursue another new found passion – photography.

Avilés had gone on his high school senior class trip to the Galápagos Islands with the new camera his aunt had gifted him. He immediately fell in love with capturing images of the lush landscapes of his beloved country. At 41, he is now a renowned professional photographer in Ecuador – spending his days touring the country for various projects.

Although many years have passed since his time as a missionary, Avilés’ innate desire to help people never left him. Ever since the devastating 7.8 magnitude Ecuador earthquake on April 16, which killed more than 650 and displaced nearly 73,000, he has devoted all of his waking hours traveling city to city along his country’s coast – from Manta to Portoviejo – bringing food, supplies and good cheer to the devastated people there.

Avilés says many of the victims are still sleeping outside where their houses once stood to take care of their belongings.

His photos, which you can find on his Facebook page, pretty much speak for themselves, and they have garnered supporters all the way from the U.S., such as this guy – Oakley Walker (featured below, left, with Avilés, right) who found out about Avilés’ cause and flew down from Florida to the small town of Canoa, Manabi to volunteer for three days.

Originally published on The Huffington Post – where you can see more photos.

Film Score Composer Carlos José Alvarez ‘Breathes Life’ Into Movies

Carlos José Alvarez (Photo: CJA Publicity)

Carlos José Alvarez (Photo: CJA Publicity)

The sweeping or exhilarating music you hear as you are watching a favorite scene is a big part of the magic of movies. This is what Carlos José Alvarez does, and at 36, he’s a prolific young composer in what is usually considered a more mature field.

Alvarez has already composed and arranged the scores for Hollywood films such as “Deadline,” “One for the Money,” the documentary “Cubamerican,” and contributed to the Oscar-winning “Still Alice.” He arranged and wrote the music for the Lionsgate thriller, “Exposed,” starring Keanu Reeves and Ana de Armas, which recently opened in theaters.

Alvarez, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past decade and now considers it home, says his career as a film score composer chose him. He also gives his two grandmothers credit.

“My mother’s mother was bed-ridden, and I used to watch films with her,” Alvarez says. “That’s where my fascination with films began. My father’s mother, who is still alive, is an incredible musician. She was a musical voice in our family.”

Alvarez was raised in West Palm Beach, Florida to a music-loving Cuban family. Sounds of classical scores, Cuban folkloric and Beatles tunes often emanated from his house. By 12 years old, he started playing the congas and the piano.

He explains he always knew he wanted to compose music for films, because he had always been in love with cinema, as well as music, and it was a perfect marriage of both of his passions.

“I was always into music, the story, the characters, the setting,” says Alvarez. “The music is there to tell us what’s happening when nothing is happening on the screen. It’s like the poetry behind it all for me.”

His most influential moment in confirming his career choice, he says, was meeting Michael Kamen – the composer for films such as, “Lethal Weapon,” “X-Men,” Die Hard” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” while Alvarez was in high school.

“One of the things he did was come to West Palm Beach to give a concert, and I heard about it and I wanted to be a part of it,” remembers Alvarez vividly. “I auditioned for the timpani part, and I got the job… It was such a big deal for me.”

After the concert, Alvarez says he went up to him afterwards, and said, ‘You know I’m going to be in LA one day doing what you’re doing?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I believe you.’ He really knew I meant what I said, and I think that was a turning point for me.”

So after excelling in his high school orchestra, Alvarez received a scholarship to attend Florida State University. Not knowing anything about writing music for films then, he would put up flyers all over campus offering to score student films for practice.

“I’d pull all-nighters trying to make it work,” says Alvarez, who upon graduating, was honored with a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in film scoring.

Today, a typical day for him still involves up to 14 hours a day when working on a film.

“I cannot wait to be inspired, there’s no time for that,” says Alvarez, who works from a studio in his house. He was given six weeks to work on the score of “Exposed.” “I have to sit down and go. I have to shut out the world to get in the zone.”

Usually, Alvarez says his work starts when the film is at the end of the editing process.

“Once the film is close to being completed, I sit with the filmmaker and we go through the entire movie. We decide where the music should start, stop – there’s a lot of problem solving,” he explains.

Then, he begins writing the music by himself. He uses computer technology to create demos for the filmmakers to listen to, which ultimately are replaced by live musicians. Once the score is approved, then comes the recording process, and getting the sheet music ready for the musicians. Once it is recorded, it is time to edit the music, mix it then deliver it.

“‘Exposed’ takes place in Washington Heights [in NYC], which is very Dominican world,” says Alvarez about his latest film project, which he adds, has a large amount of Spanish in the script. “They wanted someone to be sensitive to that…Isabel [the main character who is of ambiguous Hispanic ethnicity] is surrounded by crime and corruption, and the score needed to pull us in there. The music that pulls us into Isabel’s world had to have mystery and playful innocence.”

He says he had this idea of using a female voice, so he sought out the Cuban-American award-winning Broadway star from “In the Heights” – Janet Dacal – for her very strong vocals, and gave her a scene.

“It was the most exciting part, because I knew I had found the heart of the score through her voice,” says the composer. “We really explored the mysterious, almost haunting, side of her voice. It really pulled us into Isabel’s reality and perspective…When I played it for everyone, we all thought this is it.”

Through the orchestral score, which was made up of 34 string players and piano, Alvarez says the main challenge was to connect the two worlds of Isabel and Keanu Reeve’s character, and express to the audience what the characters are feeling and experiencing.

“That’s what so magical about this job,” says Alvarez. “I wake up everyday hoping to create great music. I feel like I’m the first person that hears the film really come to life. If I do my job correctly, I’m breathing life into the film.”

(You can listen to compositions from Carlos José Alvarez here on his website.)

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

The Lives of Migrant Farmerworkers’ Children Focus of ‘East of Salinas’

When we think about where our food comes from, we don’t often think about what our farm workers go through on a daily basis, let alone their children.

Award-winning filmmaker Laura Pacheco thought about it for the first time after reading a New York Times article in 2011. The story was about Oscar Ramos, a third grade teacher in Salinas, California, who came from a migrant family. Ramos teaches in Sherwood Elementary School, where half of his class is made up of children of migrant farmworker families. Often these children have to move several times a year to follow the harvest and have to wake up at 3am to go to a babysitter, before school, so their parents can go work in the fields.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” said Pacheco. “He knows what’s missing in these kids’ lives,” said Pacheco about Ramos.

There are more than 2 million farmworkers in the U.S., and their median wage is a little over $9 an hour. Immigrant farmworkers (approximately 75 percent are coming from Mexico) often leave their home countries to seek a better life for their families. However, the average migrant child may attend as many as three different schools in one year, often making it difficult for a child to advance to the next grade level.

'East of Salinas' producer/director Laura Pacheco  (Courtesy ITVS)

‘East of Salinas’ producer/director Laura Pacheco (Courtesy ITVS)

Pacheco was so intrigued by these figures that she wrote Mr. Ramos and told him she’d like to meet and talk to him about making a film. Together with co-director Jackie Mow, they decided to focus on one family, and one boy in particular, José Anzaldo.

“We decided to follow one to get an intimate look of what a migrant family is like in America,” says Pacheco.

After three years of filming, their film, “East of Salinas” will be premiering on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, December 28th. (10pET, see PBS for local listings).

Jose’s mother, Maria, is from Mexicali. She used to work in a clothing factory, but she couldn’t support herself and her children. Jose’s stepfather is from El Salvador, where he also did agricultural work, but he says, “You can live there, but you were always hungry.”

Coming to the U.S., the family still often goes to bed hungry, but not as much. José loves school, especially math, but he is one of two million undocumented children living in the U.S. today. He is María’s only son who was not born in the U.S. – so she worries about his undocumented status and what that portends for his future.

Pacheco and Mow were able to follow José around since the 3rd grade. He’s already attended more than five schools and is now in 7th grade. He’s continuing to do really well in school, said Pacheco.

“In the beginning, he’s a little naive about his situation, and at the end he becomes more aware,” said Pacheco. “It’s really hard to see someone’s potential, and then leave and not know if he’s going to have food the next day – Oscar (his teacher) still goes to see them and takes the boys to the movies.”

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the 'East of Salinas' documentary.  (Courtesy ITVS)

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the ‘East of Salinas’ documentary. (Courtesy ITVS)

His teacher Oscar Ramos sees the little boy’s promise and wants to help him get ahead. The question is, what opportunities will be available for children like José, a bright student who is undocumented?

Pacheco hopes viewers take away certain things from watching the film such as what education is like for farmworker children and where our food is coming from.

“But if I had to say one thing, I hope José lives in people’s hearts,” says Pacheco. “Immigration is a hot topic right now. It gets so polarized. People feel so righteous on both sides of the debate, but you can see who the kids are that are going to make America great and should be given an opportunity.”

“These are the families who are picking food for America,” says Pacheco. “We should know what their lives are like.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

This Latino Music Exec Works with Pitbull But Composes Classical Piano

(Photo: Laura Coppelman)

(Photo: Laura Coppelman)

Wherever Jorge Mejía goes, he says he makes sure that a piano is never too far away; his life revolves around music. As the executive vice president of Latin America and U.S. Latin for Sony/ATV, he oversees the world’s largest Latin music publishing house – home to artists like Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias. But he is also an accomplished classical music composer. His debut album, “Preludes,” was released earlier this year with rave reviews.

It took Mejía at least 10 years to finish “Preludes,” which he describes as “biographical tidbits of his life.” As someone might turn to their best friend, he often turned to the piano as if to document each of his life’s moments, one note at a time.

“I have a piano inside my office…I play it every morning when I come in,” says Mejia, 43, who wakes up every morning at 4:30am to walk his dogs with his wife and write music before he starts his full-time job at Sony.

He still occasionally sings and plays guitar in the indie rock band The Green Room, which he started after attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and the University of Miami, where he graduated cum laude in piano performance. But Mejía says classical music has been the most constant beat in his heart.

“My first love with music has always been classical music,” Mejía says. “I think music is the closest thing to magic there is. It’s the closest we come to being connected to whatever it is that is beyond us that we cannot see. Classical music, for me, is one of the best expressions of our spirituality and our connection to the world. No language can affect us the way music does.”

Mejía was born in Bogotá, Colombia, where he lived until he was 12, and then his family moved to Spain for a year. However, for the last three decades, he’s called Miami home.

“I like to say that I got my creative side from my mom and my business sense from my dad,” says Mejia.

His mother was a singer-songwriter as well as a TV presenter, and was also the Colombian consul general in Chicago until 2010. His late father was a banker who served as Finance Minister for Colombia, and later at the World Bank.

Mejía says he knew he wanted to be a musician as a young boy.

“I remember sitting with my dad…The Rolling Stones was on TV, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ and he said, ‘You better be the best one then,'” remembers Mejia vividly. “The movie, ‘Amadeus’ also made me think ‘I have to do music.’ I consider those moments turning points.”

After getting his degree in piano performance, he taught piano for a while, but found out that wasn’t the vocation for him. Instead, he sought out an internship at Sony music; 18 years later that landed him where he is today – overseeing Latin American and U.S. Latin music.

“Whether it’s dealing with opportunities in Brazil or Mexico, or meeting with songwriters and managers, it’s a very varied day – and that’s not when I’m not in a plane, which happens quite often,” says Mejia. “My favorite part of my job is building relationships with people who are as equally passionate about music and living a creative life. I also love the business aspect of it.”

He adds that the music industry is currently adapting itself to a new world.

“Within the Latin industry in the U.S., we’re adapting to changing demographics,” says Mejia. “We have assimilation happening. Finding the true voice of the Latin generation is more of a hybrid thing these days. It’s a great opportunity, and a great challenge.”

Right now, he says the U.S. Latin sound is regional Mexican or Latin urban, like reggaeton. The Latin American sound is more locally driven.

“Brazil [for example] is its own island, planet…Argentina, too,” says Mejia. “There’s a lot of music coming out of Colombia and Mexico, which is breaking out into the other territories. There is definitely crossover success, but a lot of the territories stick to their own local music and identity.”

He does predict that the Latin music sound will become more homogenized – maybe sounding more electronic. However, he says he also sees a possible resurgence to more traditional songs.

“As people become more and more Americanized, they’ll have more nostalgia for the traditional.” Mejia, himself, is all about celebrating nostalgia.

He’s now working on an orchestral version of “Preludes,” as well as an interactive book set to hit shelves in 2016, which is meant to accompany his album.

“The book tells of the biographical tidbits of my life,” explains Mejia. “You read each chapter, and then you play the music – that’s what I do when I do my shows.”

Mejía loves when people gather together to enjoy classical music, an activity he sees growing in Miami.

“I’ve always said that if Latin America came together, what a powerful force we would be,” says Mejia. “However, it is very ironic, because we also pride ourselves in our differences. I wonder if we’ll ever be able to do that?”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Antonia Pantoja, A Pillar Of the Puerto Rican Community, Remembered

From the film "Antonia Pantoja" by Lillian Jiménez

From the film “Antonia Pantoja” by Lillian Jiménez

The life of a Puerto Rican New Yorker who transformed the lives of so many Puerto Rican and Latino youth was honored and celebrated with the unveiling of a mural at the heart of the city’s “El Barrio.”

In her 80 years, Dr. Antonia Pantoja founded organizations that have helped educate and give opportunities to many. The educator and community activist, who identified herself as a “Nuyorican,” accomplished much more than most in one lifetime.

Perhaps best known as the founder of ASPIRA – a non-profit organization which to this day encourages positive self-image, commitment to community, and education to Puerto Rican, and other Latino youth; she also founded the National Puerto Rican Forum, which promotes economic self-sufficiency; and Universidad Boricua, the precursor to Boricua College; among many other organizations dedicated to community empowerment and education in New York City and beyond.

In 1996, Pantoja became the first Latina recipient of the prestigious U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom Award for her role in the education and leadership development of Puerto Rican Youth in the United States and Puerto Rico.

On Saturday, Nov. 20, after three years in the making by renowned artist Manny Vega, a mosaic mural of Dr. Pantoja was unveiled which will allow her live on forever in “El Barrio” – a predominantly Puerto Rican community in New York City, which was very close to her heart.

A mural for the late Antonia Pantoja, founder of Aspira and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was unveiled Saturday, November 21, 2015 in New York City's El Barrio. (Photo: Kristina Puga)

A mural for the late Antonia Pantoja, founder of Aspira and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was unveiled Saturday, November 21, 2015 in New York City’s El Barrio. (Photo: Kristina Puga)

The event, attended by 100 plus people of all ages, began with the screening of “Antonia Pantoja ¡Presente!,” a 2009 documentary of the activist’s life by Lillian Jiménez. Afterwards, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito – a Puerto Rican woman who is the first Latina in this position- gave a few words.

“The emotion in this room is intense,” Mark-Viverito said after watching the film. “When you think about the contributions she made, and the logros(achievements) we’ve made, we can trace them all the way back to her.”

Mark-Viverito went on to say that she had the privilege of meeting Pantoja in the late ’90’s. Together, they would take Puerto Rican students to the island to learn about their culture.

“She had a very infectious spirit,” said the New York City Council Speaker. “Everybody that worked with her would be inspired by her. She was a believer in young people and the concept of paying it forward. That’s what we need to continue to do. The importance of putting these mosaics up is a way of making sure our contributions will never be erased.”

Pantoja moved to New York City, from San Juan, Puerto Rico at the age of 22. The year was 1944, right before the end of World War II, and just preceding the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland.

Although she arrived with a teaching certificate from Puerto Rico, Pantoja’s first job in NYC was as a welder in a wartime factory. However, since Pantoja was born with aspiration, she went to school right away – ultimately, graduating from Hunter College and then Columbia University’s School of Social work.

In the documentary, Pantoja said, “[Puerto Ricans] were coming to work in factories, and the children didn’t know what the teachers were saying.”

As was her character, as soon as she saw injustices, Pantoja would waste no time to take action.

“ASPIRA was absolutely the project that drove her – she loved the kids,” Jiménez, director of the film, told NBC Latino. “She had been thinking about the position of the Puerto Rican community in the ’50s, and the lack of leadership. She wanted to develop an organization that developed leaders.”

To this day, Jiménez says she is always meeting people that say “I was an Aspirante.” She says there are thousands of them – from actors Jimmy Smits and Luis Guzmán, to Angelo Falcón, political scientist and president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

Jiménez told NBC Latino that the mosaic was a collective experience of all the people who were impacted by Pantoja’s life.

“We were about 12-13 on the committee – we had a lot of conversations. I gave [Manny] the film, photos of her, and he would always show us renderings. Finally we settled on this one design. Everyone on the committee laid tiles – [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor even came to lay tiles,” said Jiménez.

To many, Pantoja was a life-changing role model. But to Dr. Wilhemina Perry, her partner of 30 years, Pantoja was the love of her life. They met when Pantoja joined the faculty of the San Diego State University’s School of Social Work in 1978.

“A couple of people had gathered to greet her in San Diego – I was teaching there at that time,” Perry, now 81, remembers about the first time they met. “She and I had started talking – we talked about social work – our professions. I remember thinking this is the most interesting person I ever met…She was like dazzling!”

Together, they co-founded the Graduate School for Community Development in San Diego, where they lived at least 15 years, and then moved to Puerto Rico for 13 years. There, they co-founded Producir – a community organization that has helped a rural community create its own cottage industries to generate employment -before they both decided to move back to her beloved NYC. Unfortunately, they only had two years there, as Pantoja was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

“They predicted she would have four months to live, and she only had three months,” Perry told NBC Latino. “No one wants to lose a loved one, but I felt a little relieved because she had no pain – it was so quick.”

What Perry says she remembers most of Pantoja was that she was, “a very powerful, tiny and intense person, but she could also be funny and have this smile come on her face. She was very intense, but had this light side of her…”

“I’m thinking what would make her most happy about the mural, is the fact that who she was, and what she was trying to teach, will live now publicly. Not so much for her, the person, but she would see it as a way of extending her legacy and encouraging people to use her work as an opportunity to do their own work. She felt very strongly about that. She would say it’s not about me, but what are you going to do to make society a better place?”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Mexican-American Monk Shares His Faith Through Chart-Topping Album

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Basil Nixen, center, a native of Arizona, is the choir master of the Monks of Norcia, who have a chart-topping album of Gregorian chants. (Photo/De Montfort Music/ Universal Music)

Basil Nixen always felt a special closeness to God and now the Arizona native who became a monk is sharing that closeness with the rest of the world through a top-selling album of Gregorian chants.

Nixen took an eternal vow to live in a 10th century monastery in Norcia, Italy. At 35, he is one of the 18 monks at the monastery who live relatively solitary and secluded lives, devoted to prayer and music.

But the monks of Norcia (with an average age of 33) also have found a personal connection with the secular world. In 2012, they started a craft brewery at the monastery, Birra Nursia, which has gained worldwide fame and is their primary source of income.

They have also made their debut album of Gregorian chants called “Benedicta,” which has topped Billboard’s Classical Album list for the past nine weeks.

Nixen is the choir master of The Monks of Norcia. He was also musical director for their album and wrote the one original composition on the album, “Nos qui Christi iugum” (We who have received Christ’s yoke).

Before entering the monastery, Nixen spent two years studying music at Arizona State University’s School of Music. He was only 20 when he chose the monastic route.

“I had already wanted to become a priest, but while I was studying for the priesthood, I wanted to understand more about the liturgy of the Church,” he says. “I grew to learn the chants, and this had to be the most important moment of my life. I found a community in Norcia where they lived this daily form of prayer, and this was a very big moment for me where I learned I could live my life through Gregorian chants.”

He believes his Mexican heritage played a key role for him wanting to go into the priesthood from a very young age.

“Both of my parents come from Mexico – they came from traditional Mexican families,” says Nixen. “Being Catholic was part of their heritage and identity – they passed that down to me.”

The life of a monk is no easy task. Nixen says a typical day begins at 3:30 a.m. and ends around 9 pm.

“Some might wake up earlier,” he says. “Our first prayer is at 4 o’clock … It’s the longest and most difficult prayer of the day, but it really gets the body and the mind flowing.”

He adds that it’s a crucial element in monastic life to gather throughout the day. Including the Mass, they gather eight times to pray through chanting.

“In between those prayers, we work,” says Nixen. “In addition to the brewery, a lot of work goes into receiving guests and pilgrims. We also have a monastic store that we operate, and the normal runnings of the monastery – cooking – which I oversee as cooking master, liturgical work goes into prayer service, and then the managing finances and communications – our lives our very full.”

As far as diet, he says they follow the rule of St. Benedict who asked that they abstain from eating meat. Additionally, for half of the year (from September until Easter) they have only one primary meal in the afternoon, instead of two, as the rest of the year.

“This small expression of discipline helps us devote ourselves to God,” explains Nixen. “Our diet consists of fish, eggs, legumes, beans. We are living in Italy, so we have pasta almost every day. We are also an international community, so we might have a strong Asian meal. I come from a Mexican family, so we might have a Mexican meal.”

Nixen, who just celebrated his seventh year of perpetual vows, says he’s noticed quite a few changes since he’s joined the monastery.

“Before, the distance from your family was a much bigger sacrifice,” he says. “Now I can have Skype contact … However, it’s still important that you have separation from the world and separation of family and friends … It’s arranged by our superiors how often [you can contact the outside world].”

Additionally, the number of Latino Catholics have decreased. According to the latest Pew Research Center report, 55 percent of Latinos are Catholic in the U.S., down from 67 percent in 2010. However, Nixen does not show concern.

“I think the best thing that the church can do is be herself and be the living truth as given to us by Christ,” says Nixen. “The more authentically she does this, the more people will be drawn to it. Authenticity is key.”

It was authenticity after all which led to the success of “Benedicta.”

“These chants were written in a climate of prayer – an expression of somebody’s prayer and relationship with God – that’s the reason for its beauty,” he says. “You perceive some of the peace that was part of the experience. The music itself is written through an authentic experience with God.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.