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. Continue reading

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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

Amidst drugs and violence, art turns lives around in PR housing project

Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales, protagonists in “For Love in the Caserío.” (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales, protagonists in “For Love in the Caserío.” (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

Antonio Morales was born in the second largest housing projects in the U.S. – the Residencial Luis Llorens Torres in San Juan, Puerto Rico – also known as el Caserío. His dad was a drug lord in their intimate, yet violent world consisting of 140 buildings and about 2,600 units, and his mom was one of its drug addicts.

As a boy, Morales would find guns in the closet and drugs under the mattresses, but at 15, he found the arts. Morales had passed a competitive audition to attend the Jose Julian Acosta Theatre Arts Middle and High School in Old San Juan, and that was his one-way ticket out of his violent past.

“I knew I didn’t want to end up like my father,” says Morales. “I found my passion in the arts, and I was convinced that the arts was going to be the most effective tool to get kids off the streets. Once the federal agents arrested my dad, I started Viviendo el Arte – in the housing project…I started to teach theater to other kids in the neighborhood as a way to help them.”

While studying theater at the University of Puerto Rico, Morales says he got the urge to write a play for the kids in el caserío to act out. It was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet’s” family feud. He wrote his own theatrical love story set in the housing project.

Instead of the Montagues and Capulets, the friction was between feuding gangs – Los Caliente and Trebol. In the play Cristal and Angelo meet and fall in love, but their families belong to the feuding gangs. The successful play, “For Love in the Caserío” then became a feature film, and it has had so much success in 16 movie theaters on the island it just started a three-day tour in New York this week through November 14.

“I found so many similarities to our reality,” says Morales about when he first read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school “I found it so amazing that I could include all our social problems in Shakespeare’s plot line…I used all my reality and joined it with a prohibited love story, and it was a success.”

But the success he is most proud is how his art has helped change many lives in a housing project known primarily for its drugs and violence.

“First it transformed the kids, and then it went on to transform the parents, and then the community,” says Morales. “Before I knew it, everyone wanted to come see the play. They knew it was about their lives. They felt I was exposing them, but I also offered different tools to better themselves.”

Since Antonio first wrote the play 12 years ago, it has been presented more than 500 times all over the island, and it has flourished with the involvement of members of el caserío  – from lighting to set design.

“For Love in the Caserío” writer and producer Antonio Morales. (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

“For Love in the Caserío” writer and producer Antonio Morales. (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

He explains that after each show he and the director, Luis Enrique Rodriguez, talk to the audience.

“People in the audience sometimes would confess the bad things they were doing, and with tears in their eyes, say they wanted to be rescued,” says Morales.

Now 31, Morales remembers back when he was 15, and the kids he recruited for his project were around 12.

“I had to be the most outstanding student, because I had the responsibility with other kids in the community,” he says. “I had to understand everything so I could have the answers.”

 He happily mentions that many are still active and teaching the next generation involved with Viviendo el Arte, or have careers in the arts themselves. Now in their late 20’s and early 30’s, they are also the actors he used in “For Love in the Caserío.”

“I was very convinced that it had to be done with our kids,” says Morales.  His 25-year-old brother Xavier, who started acting in the play at age eight, plays the lead in the movie. “They lived it, it’s their reality.”

When officials at the San Juan office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw the play, they got involved, and continue to meet regularly to provide support to the project. The New York Times reports that, so far, housing officials in Puerto Rico have given $2.8 million for a tour of the play and the production of the film.

After HUD Secretary Maurice Jones saw the play, he received a letter from Morales, which was posted in the HUD web site.

“In the late 1990′s, we learned an increase in prison sentencing and armed police officer presence made little difference in controlling drug crime in Puerto Rico,” wrote Morales. “Moreover, we learned punishment does not drive behavior. However, what has been proven successful and what drives public housing youth to modify behavior has been peer modeling. This is why I created the theater group which includes a group of talented individuals from the largest public housing project in Puerto Rico, Llorens Torres, to star in my play, ‘Por Amor en el Caserío.’”

Morales tells NBC Latino, “Now we’re in New York, and we want to continue to work hard and spread our message. What are the chances to succeed when nobody cares?”

Today, Morales lives with his brother Xavier in an apartment in Guaynabo, near San Juan and works full time in film production and with his theater group, San Juan Drama Company, which is volunteer run and involves more than 100 youth.

Xavier Morales says he had two older brothers to look up to, one was a drug dealer like his dad – both of whom ended up in federal prison – and his brother Antonio.

“Antonio inspires me,” Xavier told an audience after the film screening in John Jay College on Monday. “He changed my life.”

 The film’s producers say crime has significantly decreased in the housing project and the drug gangs support Morales’ work after seeing the positive effect it’s had on the youth.

“We want people to see our work because of the social transformation effect it causes,” says Morales. “It’s not just a movie.”

“The audience comes out different than when they entered – that’s how you know your art is working.”


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.

“Lemon”, the story of an ex-con who wins a Tony Award

Lemon Andersen (Courtesy Miami International Film Festival)

Lemon Andersen (Courtesy Miami International Film Festival)

Lemon Andersen is an accomplished spoken word artist, but he’s also a champion at hurdling obstacles. He went from growing up in a Brooklyn gang and being a thrice convicted felon, to a Tony-Award winner for “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.”

On March 3, he’s having his story be told in a documentary, “Lemon,” at the Miami International Film Festival.Laura Brownson saw Andersen perform for the first time a little more than three years ago. She was so moved by how he conveyed his painful past through his poetry, that she and her partner, Beth Levison, decided to follow him around with cameras to document his personal and professional life for the next three years.

“He won a Tony Award and then at the heels of that had a hard fall living with 13 people in the projects, and he said to me, ‘I’m going to write my life story and get out of here. I’m going to get out of here for good,’” says Brownson, the filmmaker of “Lemon.”

And he did.

The half-Puerto Rican, half-Norwegian Andersen, says he now lives in artist neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and three kids. He enjoys spending his days getting up early to do research on his newest play, reading “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and writing in his neighborhood cafe.

Andersen, whose birth name is really Andrew, got his nickname “Lemon,” because he was the whitest kid in his Sunset Park neighborhood. He grew up with drug-addicted parents who died by the time he reached 15 from AIDS. The only way he knew how to support himself was by stealing and selling drugs.

“I’ve come a long way. Today I feel, I am a working artist,” he says.

It all started when he got out of jail for the last time at 19. He says his life sucked as it was hard to get a job with a criminal record, and one day at barber shop someone handed him a flier about a poetry reading.

“I didn’t even have a poem,” says Andersen. “I wrote it right on the spot, and I got on stage. They asked me if I would be part of the theater troupe, and I said, ‘Yeah, I need a job. And I never stopped.”

Hungry to become better, Andersen started taking continuing education classes at New York University funded through AmeriCorps.

“I wanted to learn all styles,” he says. “I ended up in ‘Def Poetry Jam’.”

Andersen was featured as a regular on HBO’s “Def Poetry” presented by Russell Simmons and then was an original cast member and writer of Russell Simmons’ Tony Award winning “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway”.

“I was imprisoned four years before I was on Broadway,” says Andersen. “I was pinching myself every morning.”

He says he would tell people that he would go to Broadway before it happened.

“I had a dream I’d perform my poetry on big stage, he says. “I know the smell still. I relive it in my play ‘County of Kings’.”

Andersen tells his own story through his solo spoken word play “County of Kings,” which is produced by Spike Lee. He has been performing it in many New York theaters since 2010.

“It’s like outer space, because I’m really out of my space,” Andersen says, and adds that his own family has never seen him perform, even on Broadway.

“It wasn’t easy for people to take it when I was on the cover of TheNew York Times,” he says about the people from his childhood neighborhood. “It’s like putting a mirror on them. But hey, sometimes you gotta be ‘F… that’. Piri Thomas from ‘Down These Mean Streets’ taught me that.”

He hasn’t even seen “Lemon,” the documentary about him.

“I don’t think I will ever see it,” says Andersen. “This film is not my film, it’s about me. I’m a different kind of story teller, but I’m really rooting for them.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Red Hot Chili Peppers ex-drummer, Cliff Martinez, opens up

Cliff Martinez (Photo/Robert Charles Mann, 2011)

Cliff Martinez (Photo/Robert Charles Mann, 2011)

Cliff Martinez, one of the veteran drummers for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and an award-winning film composer, started off 2012 with a bang. He was a judge in last month’s Sundance Film Festival, and in April he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his formative three year stint with the Chili Peppers from 1983-86.

“I’m just worried about what I am going to wear,” says Martinez about as casually, but as humbly, as if he were a friendly, unimposing neighbor asking for advice. “My role is quite small in the span of 27 years. I’m honored that they made the decision to include me.”

Although Martinez calls himself an introvert, it’s not hard to knock down any walls he may have up. He rather welcomes you warmly into his world of hidden surprises – such as did you know that his first composing job was for Pee Wee’s Playhouse? And, can you believe he does not know how to compose music on staff paper?

“I never had training,” says Martinez. “I really learned as I went. I’m almost completely self-taught. In my film career, I tried to fill in some of the gaps in my background. But mostly I’m a musical Neanderthal.”

His grandfather immigrated from a small village in Spain to the U.S., but Martinez was raised in an English-speaking household in Ohio. After more than three decades of living in Los Angeles, Martinez, 58, now considers the City of Angels his home.

He says his favorite part of drumming for the Chili Peppers’ first two albums were making the records.

“I went through the lifestyle of smoke-filled vans and traveling,” says Martinez. “I didn’t enjoy that much, but I did enjoy the recording process and making music.”

He says he also learned during that time, while collaborating with George Clinton, that unintended accidents in music can result in unexpected gems.

“When we were overdubbing guitar parts, there was a mistake and George said play that back,” says Martinez. “It was definitely a mistake, and George says, ‘No that’s the funk, let’s cut it up and fly it around elsewhere in the track.”

Martinez says that although he enjoyed his time with the band, he felt he never fully fit in.

“For me it was a tough thing to fit into socially,” says Martinez. “We could never come to an agreement on our look…basic issues of band image.”

As he grew out of the band, Martinez says he became fascinated with music technology in the 1980’s.

“Music technology got me started,” says Martinez. “Pop music always felt very narrow to me. Film felt much broader. My taste in music was always left of center.”

He says his favorite album is “Trought Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart, which he had the honor of working with as well. Now, instead of traveling the country in smokey vans, Martinez happily spends a lot of his time waiting on his couch for inspiration.

“I usually lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling for a few weeks just thinking what general approach I would take,” says Martinez about what he does when a director approaches him to compose a score for a film. “I don’t know where the inspiration comes from, sometimes it comes in front of a keyboard, but sometimes washing the dishes or driving a car.”

He says the process for creating a score ranges from about one to three months, and the director is usually hands on as well. He is currently working on “Only God Forgives,” set in Thailand, with director Nicolas Winding Refn.

(Photo/Cliff Martinez)

(Photo/Cliff Martinez)

“I think the favorite spot I’ve ever composed in was in a hotel room in Thailand,” says Martinez. “I placed Singha beer cans to prop up my 15-inch laptop and miniature keyboard.”

He says nowadays you don’t really need a big studio to compose film scores.

“You don’t need a lot of equipment anymore,” says Martinez. “I met Nicholas Refn for dinner, and he said ‘I hate L.A. I’m going to Copenhagen,’ and so we spoke via Skype. In 2009-10, I did two French films, and I didn’t even meet the director. We just communicated telepathically.”

Martinez says the work he’s most proud of is the score for “Solaris” (2002), because it was the first time he used a 90-piece orchestra, and it is the only one he can still listen to and it still feels new and fresh.

“I’d like to think of myself as versatile, but I might fall on my face if I tried to do Broadway or a cereal commercial,” he says.

For now, he’s concentrating on speaking at SXSW (South by Southwest) in March – 10 days of conferences and festivals where filmmakers and musicians unite to discuss the most influential cultural happenings of the year. He says it seems most people want to know about the soundtrack he did for “Drive” (2011).

“Public speaking is one of my phobias, but I’ll make sure I dress for the occasion,” says Martinez.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com