Female “Carlos Santana” rocks out for clean water, civil rights

Cecilia Villar Eljuri (©Manovill Records)

Cecilia Villar Eljuri (©Manovill Records)

To Guayaquil-born Cecilia Villar Eljuri – better known as just Eljuri – music is as integral to her life as water.

Her mother was a pianist and composer so Eljuri was exposed to boleros, tango and flamenco when she was five. When she was 12, she says she became addicted to guitar and rock.  She started playing her own music at 17 in clubs in New York City, where she still resides.

“I write from the heart, but it’s mostly from experiences and people I meet when traveling – about empowerment and fighting for change and rights and everything else,” says the eclectic musician often called “Carlita” for her resemblance to classic rock guitarist, Carlos Santana.

After playing an active role trying to get Latinas to vote in the last U.S. presidential election, via Voto Latino, the latest change Eljuri is fighting for is clean water in her native Ecuador. A luxury not all citizens of the world have.

“I met the president of Water Ecuador at an Ecuadorian festival in Washington DC in 2008 – I was performing and he had a booth,” says Eljuri who had also just released her first solo CD.

“He wanted to help treat people as a med student and found a lot of people had stomach issues and it came from the water being infected. Instead of curing people after they get sick, he thought, ‘let me prevent it.’”

Over the years, they stayed in touch, and chose Isla Puna – a small island four hours from Guayaquil, with little access to the mainland and extremely contaminated drinking water, for their next clean water project. It will begin construction on January 6.

“We provide them education and then connect with communities to teach them how to maintain a water center – we make it self-sustainable,” says the singer, who had a benefit concert this past October. “We raised tons of money, and we did a hot-a-thon releasing a single for the concert to raise more money…The money goes right to the project.”

She explains that Water Ecuador is mostly run by volunteers.

“There were 20 last summer – many were students from Harvard and Yale,” says Eljuri.

While Eljuri continues to raise money for clean water, she is also working on a music video for one of her latest songs, “Ya es hora,” and an educational guitar series for beginning and accomplished guitarists to find their “voice.” This year, she plans on touring the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

New global lingerie company employs single mothers in Medellín

Naja founder, Catalina Girald (Photo/Camilo Echeverri)

Naja founder, Catalina Girald (Photo/Camilo Echeverri)

Colombian-born Catalina Girald was a mergers and acquisitions attorney at a prestigious law firm for four years when she left to get an MBA from Stanford University in 2006. Little did she know, however, that the sewing and design classes she took for fun while an attorney at NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology would actually lead to her next career.

In 2007, Girald founded one of the first venture-funded fashion sites for independent designers – Moxsie – which was sold to Fab.com two years later. And this year, she began an international web-driven lingerie brand called Naja.

It all started when one of her undergarments was “falling apart,” explains Girald, saying she thought to herself, ‘Why can’t they be the same quality as in Colombia?’

Apart from the quality, the Latina entrepreneur says she was also concerned about the cost of lingerie. “I wanted to found a brand that had an accessible price for consumers.”

So Girald, based in San Francisco, created a business plan – but with a deeper mission. Her goal included making sure her brand empowered women – something she feels was currently missing from stores.

“They use a hypersexualized type of photography, and when I look at that, it doesn’t look like me,” says Girald about other mainstream lingerie brands.

So she set out to create a line that makes women feel good about both wearing the lingerie – and about the company itself.

“We train and employ single mothers in Medellín,” Girald says about Naja. “Every purchase you make is a contribution to the employment to a single mother in a poor area. If you buy lingerie, you’re helping women in need.”

From Medellín herself, Girald explains that Naja partnered with the Golondrinas Foundation – an organization that educates children of poor families by also educating their parents.

“We partnered with them on their sewing program,” says Girald. “When you order lingerie, you get a free wash bag and half of that amount goes to the training program, and the other half goes directly to the women we employ.”

Meticulous thought went into the crafting of Naja, from its humanitarian concept to using quality materials and designs from local artists, explains Girald.

“We spent a lot of time interviewing women to find out what they wanted,” says Girald, who is in her mid-30’s. “On May 3, an engineer and I moved to Colombia, to my parents’ house, because we didn’t have any money to start the company.”

After working on the concept, Girald says Naja ended up as a brand which primarily flatters women over the age of 28.

“That’s when women’s bodies start changing,” she explains. “Our cuts are designed to cover up bellies. There’s a double layer in the front – it is comfortable and beautiful.”

Some of the articles of clothing have [motivational] quotes – “so you can feel a little bit better about day.”

Girald also gushes about the texture of the cotton used for Naja garments – the samples of which she cuts herself.

“In order to be designated Pima cotton, it comes from a part region in Peru that has a particular soil that makes the cotton feel creamy,” says Girald. “We spent four months researching our (bra) cups which are 70 percent memory foam and 30 percent polyurethane. You can put them in a suitcase or washing machine, and they won’t break.”

As far as the future goes, Girald says she hopes Naja grows into a really large brand that’s accessible to most people, and also employs lots of people.

“My ultimate dream is to help women in the U.S. with employment,” says the businesswoman.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Latina veteran honored as “Champion of Change” for work on clean energy

Elizabeth Perez Halperin while serving in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy Elizabeth Perez Halperin)

Elizabeth Perez Halperin while serving in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy Elizabeth Perez Halperin)

After being in charge of refueling aircraft in the U.S. Navy for eight years, Elizabeth “Liz” Perez-Halperin says she got interested in reducing the nation’s dependency on oil as well as its energy consumption. In 2010, the Wounded Warrior veteran founded GC Green Incorporated — a company providing job training to veterans in the renewable energy industry, teaching them entrepreneurship skills, and providing clean technology industry job placement assistance.

On Tuesday, Perez-Halperin was one of 12 national heroes honored at The White House as “Champions of Change.” The event celebrated veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are doing extraordinary work to advance clean energy and increase climate resilience and preparedness in their communities. The U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz, thanked the honorees for their service — past and present.

 “I got a call in September from a gentlemen from The White House letting me know I was selected. It was just that ‘wow’ feeling,” she says, upon hearing of the award. “It’s a time of reflection for me for my time of service and to my dad’s time in the military – all of my hard work and my dad coming to the States for a better life – it’s all happening right now.”

Perez-Halperin explains that her dad, who passed away in 1995, joined the military as a young man after immigrating from Mexico to seek a better life for his family.

“My dad is a huge influence in my life — he taught me not to complain — instead to find a solution,” she explains. “Even in the government today you see a lot of complaining, but I want to find solutions and find people to collaborate.”

RELATED: Hiring Our Heroes: An entrepreneur strives to hire veterans

The 34-year-old says – her voice shaky with emotion – that losing a close friend was one of the inspirations for building a training facility to support veterans on their own clean technology ventures. Her friend Nicole Palmer died during an attack on a Navy vessel in 2000.

“I’d like to name it after her,” says Perez-Halperin about the new center, which is located in San Diego, California, 20 minutes from Camp Pendleton. The facility will help keep veterans employed with salaries starting at $25 to 50 per hour.

“That’s our goal…I’d like to continue working on projects that will protect our nation.”

Perez-Halperin says clean energy is important to her, because people don’t realize is there is national security at stake as well, as groups and countries will increasingly fight for their share of scarce resources.

“Water conservation is huge,” says Perez-Halperin, who has been teaching about this topic at San Diego State University for the past three years.

“I strongly feel there’s evidence that our sources for water are depleting. It’s going to be our next oil. Once our water’s polluted, it’s gone.”

Perez-Halperin says she’d like to continue to grow GC Green by collaborating with the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs on specialized programs.

“I’d like to open a holistic center for veterans returning from war,” says Perez-Halperin, who is also a fan of meditation as opposed to medication. “I’m also a wounded warrior, and it’s something that I do personally — it keeps me grounded.”

Perez-Halperin has accomplished much on the battlefield and now on the home front, but she says her biggest accomplishment is being able to bring her 12-year-old daughter to The White House.

“Now she has the opportunity to see why I am working so hard. That means a lot to me —  to be an example for her, like my dad was for me,” says Perez. “I want to be that example too for other veteran women.”

“Outside of the uniform, there’s so much more work we can do.”

Originally published in NBCLatino.com.

Who is the artist behind Mexican skeletons and “La Catrina”?

José Guadalupe Posada’s “La Catrina.” (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

José Guadalupe Posada’s “La Catrina.” (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

Ever wonder who was responsible for “La Catrina” and the skeleton figures which are a part of traditional Mexican culture, and are growing more popular worldwide?

The man behind the famous bony cadavers and skulls is Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada.

As part of the 22nd Annual San José Mexican Heritage and Mariachi Festival, San José’s Mexican Consulate is celebrating Posada’s legacy with “El Centenario Posada 2013.”  The free exhibition, which also features the work of artists from the U.S. and Mexico who have been influenced by Posada’s work, opens September 13 and will last through December 30.  More importantly, it marks the 100-year anniversary of his death.

José Guadalupe Posada (right) with his son (left). (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

José Guadalupe Posada (right) with his son (left). (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

Known as the “printmaker to the Mexican people,” Posada’s thousands of illustrations ranged from political cartoons to religious art that captured the time in which he lived. Posada’s influence can now be seen internationally, especially in the Day of the Dead imagery he popularized after his death, as well as in illustrations for liberation during World War II, Lucha Libre, and the Grateful Dead.

Sadly, Posada died without an awareness of the influence he would have in the modern art world. He died in obscurity and in poverty and left no descendants.

“‘La Catrina’ we think was created in 1912 — the year before he died,” says curator Jim Nikas, who 70 selected works of 2,300 from the New World Prints Collection for the exhibition. “He would be a graphic artist today — somebody available for hire — that’s what he was in those days.”

Nikas explains that most of Posada’s illustrations were published by the Mexico City press of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. As a lithographer, Posada made stone and lead engravings which he sketched first.  He then used a chemical process for his final touch.

“Arroyo could use the printing blocks over and over for different stories that he wanted to write or poems of people they knew who had died,” says Nikas.

Nikas likens Posada to icons like Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.

“The more we look at the work of Posada, we feel the energy of his genius and the collective total of his work gets magnified over time,” he says. “He used the power of the image to change public opinion and to be used in social movements, be it for human rights, or to expose corruption…That’s something that Posada has given to us.”

Nikas and his wife, Maryanne Brady, are also working on a documentary about the artist which is expected to be completed in time for Day of the Dead.

“Skeletons soften the pain of death — people get used to the idea we’re all going into a whole pile of bones and maybe it’s not so terrible after a while,” says Nikas about how he got interested in researching the Mexican artist. “It’s crept into the culture of the U.S. and in Europe.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Lucha Libre celebrates its 80th anniversary taking a bite of the Big Apple

Luchadores in New York City on August 21, 2013. Pequeño Pierroth (left), Caveman (center) and Mascara Celestial (right). (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Luchadores in New York City on August 21, 2013. Pequeño Pierroth (left), Caveman (center) and Mascara Celestial (right). (Photo/Kristina Puga)

You may or may not know that the traditional masked Mexican wrestling sport, Lucha Libre, has had a long-time presence in the U.S. in its nearly 80-year existence. It became more mainstream in the U.S. after the 2006 comedy “Nacho Libre,” starring Jack Black, and its presence is only growing. This year, a partnership was announced that will promote Lucha Libre AAA – Mexico‘s largest wrestling league – to the U.S. audience and possibly get a spot on El Rey, a new English-language Latino channel set to launch in January 2014.

This Saturday and Sunday, Javier Clorio, a Mexican-American communications professional originally from California, says he is excited to bring Lucha Libre to New York City in honor of the sport’s 80th anniversary. He raised $5,000 to bring 26 wrestlers from the U.S. and abroad – with secret identities behind their masks – to battle each other (“technicos”/good guys vs. “rudos”/bad guys) to become the star luchador of the Big Apple.

“People around the world recognize Lucha Libre — they go to stadiums, concerts and other events wearing Lucha Libre masks,” says Clorio. “I am also excited, because this event will benefit the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation — they help people accomplish their dream of having their own business by helping them with their business plan…I know currentHispanic business owners who have capitalized from the EHBCC, and I am glad that by doing this event we are raising funds so more people can accomplish their dreams.”

Máscara Celestial (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Máscara Celestial (Photo/Kristina Puga)

The 23-year-old luchador who goes by the name Máscara Celestial is accomplishing his childhood dream of becoming a professional luchador. Originally from Mexico City, he says his parents didn’t believe him when he would tell them he wanted to be a luchador when he grew up, but he’s been practicing since he was 15. Two years ago, he moved to New York to challenge himself to a higher level.

“Life in the U.S. is not easy,” says Máscara Celestial, who works 12 hours per day at Kennedy Fried Chicken and trains in the gym for three to four hours every morning, with only one day off from work to compete. “I haven’t slept for the past three days, but I don’t want to remain stagnant. I want to excel as a luchador.”

He explains he wants his good guy character, Máscara Celestial (“heavenly mask”), to develop a great story line, until his body can’t take it anymore.

“I love my character — a good character in a very difficult world,” he says.

Pequeño Pierroth (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Pequeño Pierroth (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Pequeño Pierroth says when a luchador puts on his mask, he is also putting on his alter ego identity. He was born and still lives in Mexico City, but in Lucha Libre world, he plays a Puerto Rican. His job as a “rudo” is to get the audience riled up.

“I tell them, ‘Why are you proud to be Mexican if you are dying of hunger?” says Pequeño Pierroth, named the diminutive form of a famous Mexican luchador – Pierroth. “Some people really get angry for real.”

He has 21 years of experience in the ring — a few months of which were with the WWE.

“When I was a boy, I was the little one and other kids would bully me,” says Pequeño Pierroth, who was also poor as a kid, selling candy and singing on corners to help support his family. “Now I travel to Madrid, London, Denver, Chicago and Philadelphia…I’m not rich, but I’m stable and happy. I love Lucha Libre — maybe more than my wife.”

Caveman (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Caveman (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Caveman is a 20-year-old Puerto Rican from New York. He trains with a Dominican coach at the Bronx Wrestling Federation.

“When I was growing up, my brother and family watched wrestling faithfully,” he says. “Going into high school, I met a girl and she broke my heart. I went through a depressed phase and almost committed suicide.”

His low self-esteem at the time transformed the shy and timid youth into the Caveman today. He says he let his beard and hair grow, forming his version of a mask. He had the urge to become a hermit, but his wrestling coach made him a Caveman outfit and urged him to keep wrestling as the Caveman persona. Today, he says he easily transforms into his character, pretending to pick bugs out of people’s hair and acting surprised whenever he sees a modern object — the most important thing to him he says is to make his fans happy.

“Now professional wrestling is my life,” he says, although he still doesn’t get paid for it. That’s a privilege that comes once your name becomes known in the Lucha Libre world. “I’ve dropped a lot of things because of wrestling, because it saved my life…I’m actually living my dream.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

10 immigrant entrepreneurs in the US

Jordi Muñoz with one of his drones. (Courtesy 3D Robotics)

Jordi Muñoz with one of his drones. (Courtesy 3D Robotics)

According to a new report, the Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity released by the Kaufman Foundation, immigrants were twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans in 2012. The number of new Latino entrepreneurs has also nearly doubled, from 10.5 percent to 19.5 percent since 1996. Here is just a sampling of some immigrant pioneers in various fields:

1. In 2012, Sofia Vergara became the highest-paid female actress on television at $19 million. But few may know that besides being a two-time Emmy-nominated actress, the immigrant from Colombia is also a very successful entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of a 16-year-old talent management company, Latin We, which made an estimated $27 million two years ago. She has a clothes line with Kmart, and just last month, she also launched The Nuevo Worldsocial network, which connects Spanish-speaking celebrities with their fans on social media. So far there are only seven celebrities hosting pages on the site, sharing personal blogs, videos and photos, but Vergara herself is enjoying the personal connection with her fans.

“I love keeping my fans up to date with everything I’m doing on Twitter,” Vergara, who hasmore than 4 million followers on Twitter, told Forbes. “I’ve been desperate for a social way get to know them better and to share with them in more detail what I’m interested in, and what I think they would be interested in – and to hear what they think!”

2. Cesar Millan, self-taught dog expert originally from Mexico, became a household name with his television series, “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan,” which was broadcast in more than 80 countries worldwide. Millan immigrated to the U.S. at 21 to train dogs. “I didn’t know I had something to offer…where I grew up, you grew up thinking that Americans knew everything,”he told NBC Latino. He says he jumped the border and was homeless for two months. That’s when he realized Americans were not connected to their dogs. He now has a new series, Leader of the Pack on Nat Geo Wild, and a new book, the “Short Guide to a Happy Dog.”

3. Beto Perez is the Chief Creative Officer and co-creator of Zumba back in the 1990s, and today has one the largest fitness empires in the world. When he was an aerobics instructor in his native Colombia, he forgot his usual exercise tapes, so he improvised with some salsa and merengue music he was carrying in his bag. And that’s how the exercise phenomenon was born, which incorporates hip-hop, soca, samba, salsa, merengue, mambo, martial arts, and some Bollywood and belly dance moves into a fitness routine. He moved to Miami, not knowing a word of English, and today Zumba Fitness, an organization that sells Zumba videos and products, has approximately 12 million followers taking weekly classes in at least 125 countries.

“Over the years, fitness became too complicated and difficult,” Perez told Reuters. “They forgot about normal people — mothers, grandmothers and the housewives who want to stay in shape and have some fun. That’s the essence of Zumba.”

4. Maria De Lourdes Sobrino is the woman behind the multi-award-winning, 31-year-old brand brand Lulu’s Desserts, which manufactures more than 45 ready-to-eat Mexican-inspired desserts, including rice pudding, gelatin and flan. It all started because she missed the ready-to-eat gelatin snack from her native Mexico. So in 1982, she founded her company, based on her mother’s recipe. Today, she says she has about 30 employees and sells her products in Walmart and grocery stores throughout California and Texas. She’s in the process of expanding her market to include the East Coast, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.

“I am proud to continue our service to our consumers — especially the Hispanic market,” says Sobrino, who was 29 when she started her business. “The contribution of Latinas is very important to the economy of our country. I wrote  “Thriving Latina Entrepreneurs in America”because a lot of people don’t understand we bring talent and ideas. We take a lot of risk. I brought capital from Mexico from selling property and savings.”

5. Marcelo Claure is the founder of Brightstar, a specialized wireless distributor and a leading global services company serving mobile device manufacturers, wireless operators and retailers. It is the largest Hispanic-owned business in the U.S., with a presence in approximately 40 countries, and was ranked #58 on Forbes 2012 List of America’s Largest Private Companies. Claure was born in Guatemala, moved to Morocco as an infant and spent his early youth in the Dominican Republic and his high school years in Bolivia. According to The Miami Herald, while passing through Boston in 1995, Claure went into a cellphone store to buy a phone, and by the time he walked out, he owned the store.

“The owner hated owning a retail store, was looking to get out, and said to me, ‘If I could find someone who wanted this store, I’d hand them the keys right now for nothing,’” Claure told The Miami Herald. “I told him I’d take it, and if the store made money, he’d get 49 percent of the profit.”

Within two years, Claure owned 150 stores in the Northeast and had set up a network of drivers who carried phones in their car trunks and delivered them to customers to make the purchase hassle-free. In 1997, he moved to Miami to launch Brightstar.

6. Jordi Muñoz is a 26-year-old immigrant from Tijuana who never finished his degree at the University of Mexico, but is now the president of a drone-making company called 3D Robotics Inc. He says he loved building things ever since he was a boy, and he learned to program micro-controllers by ripping off the sensors from his Wii and then programming the code to work with the sensors to make his toy helicopter fly. Then, he discovered a blog called DIY Drones, founded by former editor-in-chief of Wired, Chris Anderson, where he started posting his ideas in a forum on the blog. Anderson believed in his idea, loaned him $500, and soon after, 3D Robotics became a million-dollar company selling up to 80 to 200 packages a day at $500 to $2,000 each. Anderson even left his job to run the company with Muñoz.

““It’s amazing what you can do with $500,” says Muñoz who after three years, has approximately 70 employees in San Diego, Tijuana, and San Francisco. “The support here is incredible. In Mexico, nobody would send me a check like that. There are good people here who trust. You can start a business in your garage, a big corporation like Apple. You can really do it…The U.S. has a flexible mentality…There is no way you cannot be successful in the U.S. You only need to work hard.”

7. Carmen Castillo came to the U.S. from her native Spain with a student visa, and 20 years later she is the founder and owner of SDI International Corp. — a global technology services corporation which serves many Fortune 500 companies. Castillo wanted to own her own business ever since she was 6 years old and believes her success comes from her proactiveness. “We really have to figure out what’s going to be next,” she says in her bio. “The difference between us and most of our competitors is that we are truly global suppliers. You have to be a true global player to be able to hold and sustain a contract with a Fortune 100 company.”

8. Dr. Rafael Yuste immigrated to New York City from Madrid, Spain, 26 years ago, with two suitcases, a medical degree, and not knowing a single person. Today, the neuroscientist is not only a professor at Columbia University, where he leads a laboratory, he is also one of the six researchers to help launch the new decade-long scientific effort to examine the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity — a multi-billion-dollar project the Obamaadministration announced earlier this month.

“For me, one of the best things in my life was to come here,” says Dr. Yuste about the opportunity he’s had to develop his career as an American citizen. “I think the Brain Activity Map has been the demonstration that the U.S. is a beautiful country, because an idea that came out of a brainstorming session, in a year, makes it all the way to the State of the Union address of the president…it goes all the way up to transform the country — in this case, in science.”

9. Maria Contreras-Sweet, founder of PROAMÉRICA Bank in Los Angeles, came to the U.S. from Mexico with her mother and siblings at the young age of 5. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, while she was still a high school student and working in a jewelry store, she was approached to work for the speaker of the California Assembly. That opportunity broadened her horizons, and after getting her degree in political science, she opened the Contreras-Sweet Company, an international management consulting firm for Disney, Coca Cola, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, before she founded PROAMÉRICA Bank, a 7-year-old financial services provider for Latino entrepreneurs.

10. Adriana Ocampo was born in Colombia and raised in Argentina. She moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was a teenager, and she says the first words out of her mouth (in her native Spanish) when she got off the plane was, “Where’s NASA?” Today, she lives inWashington, D.C., where she is the Director of the New Frontiers Program at NASA, managing three new missions, including one exploring the planet Venus.

“My parents always taught us to never give up, and your dreams will come true,” says Ocampo about what led to her success. “And coming to this country — the country of dream makers.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

First-time filmmaker devotes herself to Puerto Rican veterans, “The Borinqueneers”

Documentary filmmaker, Noemi Figueroa. (Courtesy El Pozo Productions)

Documentary filmmaker, Noemi Figueroa. (Courtesy El Pozo Productions)

Noemi Figueroa Soulet had a background in Hispanic commercials and acting and was planning on becoming a dance therapist, but somehow the story of the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment, the only Hispanic-segregated unit in Army history during World Wars I and II and the Korean War, lured all of her attention. So much so, that the Nuyorican, without any filmmaking experience, dedicated nearly a decade of her life to creating her first and only documentary, “The Borinqueneers,” in order to tell their story.

“The Borinqueneers” is the first major documentary to chronicle the story of these forgotten soldiers. The one-hour version premiered nationally for the first time on PBS in 2007, and the Armed Forces Network aired the film to more than 850,000 U.S. troops overseas. Having won many awards in the past five years, throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico, it’s screening again on Saturday, November 17, at the 2012 International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival in New York City.

“I’ve always been interested in Latino issues and trying to show positive role models and show that we are the fabric of society,” says Soulet, producer, director and writer of “The Borinqueneers.” “If anything proves that, it is the service of our soldiers – that’s the ultimate sacrifice.”

Throughout the nine years it took Soulet to make the film, she interviewed approximately 275 Puerto Rican veterans over the phone and in person. Soulet says the majority of the 65th veterans live in Puerto Rico and Florida, but she has even interviewed a Mormon in Utah.

“The hardest part was selecting them…24 appear in the film,” says Soulet, who explains the most time- consuming part was the fundraising needed to fund the film and do the research. “There was very little information out there…I remember contacting the Center for Military History inWashington DC…I began forming relationships with people through the internet.”

The more she talked with veterans, the more committed to the project she got.

“There was a point that I had gone in so deep there was a point of no return,” says Soulet, who says she bonded deeply with the “viejitos,” as Soulet calls them, and found the subject matter of a lifetime. “They’re dying — you then feel, ‘If I give up, and all these years are wasted for nothing and their stories don’t get out,’ I would feel a tremendous guilt.”

Soulet, now 55, slowly had become the voice of the Puerto Rican soldiers that no one ever heard about.

“In my film a veteran says at the end, ‘I just want the American people to know we did our share,’” says the filmmaker, adding,  “They would ask me, ‘Noemi, when are you going to finish?’ They wanted their story told.”

And she says years after the film has been completed, the veterans continue to call her.

Soulet recalls a story of a veteran who was wearing one of the 65th Regiment caps, which she sells on her Web site. “He went to pay for the meal, and the cashier recognized the cap and said, ‘Are you a Borinqueneer? I can’t charge you. You’re one of our heros.’ He called me, so proud, and I thought, ‘That’s why I did this.’”

Soulet says by taking nine years to complete her film, she’s formed relationships so strong that some of the men are like adoptive fathers to her.

“It really affects me and breaks my heart, because now they are going fast,” says Soulet about the passing of many of the veterans year by year. “I’ll get an e-mail from the veteran’s family saying they passed away, and that I meant so much to him.”

Soulet says in some cases, she only spoke to a veteran only one or two hours, but they never forgot those few minutes in which someone was truly listening.

“When they’re gone, and when I’m gone, this film will always be there,” says Soulet, who dedicates her days now doing national presentations about the 65th Regiment. “That’s my legacy, because I don’t have children…This is my baby.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.