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Americas Latino Eco-Festival leader is on a mission to brown the green movement

The woman behind Americas Latino Eco-Festival isn’t your typical environmentalist. Irene Vilar is not rallying citizens with battle cries over a megaphone or leading large-scale petition initiatives. The Puerto Rican-born writer and publisher’s environmentalism comes from a different place — a “quiet activism,” she calls it, “always searching for meaning regarding identities and the fluidity of identities.”

But it’s difficult to look at Vilar’s career and describe it as “quiet.” In fact, simply meeting Vilar is a flurry of warm greetings, hugs and candid conversation. Her life, quite literally, is an open book.

Her two memoirs — The Ladies’ Gallery and Impossible Motherhood — have received domestic and international attention for their critical look at social and political history. Her work examines how self-destructive patterns get transmitted from generation to generation.

“I look at everything from the perspective of psychohistory … it puts the ball back on people — it says it’s not history that makes us, but that we make history, and what particularly of us makes history are our group fantasies, our delusional fantasies, our childhood dramas. It is from that intimate place that we create history,” Vilar says.

And the Americas Latino Eco- Festival is Vilar’s answer to what she calls a “campaign of disinformation” about the history, the very perception of Latino Americans and their place in the U.S. environmental movement.

“The festival was born last year as the first multicultural environmental festival hosted by Latino Americans. This is a Latino festival, but it’s not just for Latinos,” Vilar clarifies. “Why hosted by us? Because the call to action for the future in terms of the environment resides in [Latino Americans]. We are the shifting majority. In six years, 52 percent of high schoolers in Colorado will be Hispanic. We cannot be the problem — we are the solution. And the U.S., it has for long been brown. That’s why we call it a new shade of green. But the media keeps telling people that [the environmental movement] is not brown, it is not multicultural. [The U.S.], from its origins, is a multicultural society, but we have been brainwashed that it is not” 

Vilar points to a perfectly timed illustration of her frustrations, a report by the University of Michigan-based Dorceta Taylor. Taylor’s “Green 2.0” report examines why, despite decades of promises to diversify, mainstream environmental organizations are still white. Vilar says that many environmental organizations claim that the problem lies in a lack of nonwhite leaders.

“Total fallacy,” says Vilar. “The leaders are there. There’s something to be said about all these big conservation organizations, billionaire organizations, and they have no line in their budget dedicated to outreach and inclusion.”

But Vilar says that things are changing with some key environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Resource Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters. 

“It’s finally happening because all these polls are coming out and proving that Latino Americans are not only the fastest growing consumer group, but also the greenest.” She points to a National Resource Defense Council study showing 93 percent of Latinos believe in global warming while only 60 percent of surveyed whites said they believe.

Vilar is also the founder of The Americas for Conservation and the Arts, a nonprofit group that promotes educational initiatives for Latinos. The Americas Latino-Eco Festival is one such initiative, and to Vilar, the festival’s mission is far larger than simply discussing environmental issues.

“We suffer the most from climate change. Most of our constituencies are migrant workers, they work outdoors in construction and agriculture,” she says. “They disproportionally suffer from poor air quality. Our children suffer from asthma and are hospitalized 50 percent more than white children.”

But culturally, says Vilar, Latino Americans are poised to make a change.

“Culturally we have values that are attached to ‘madre teirre,’ Mother Earth. ‘Pachamama’ is a part of our mythology. When you have societies where Mother Earth is still very central, that impacts the overall trends of how people perceive their own responsibility towards sustainability,” says Vilar. “So the invisibility [of nonwhites in the environmental movement] … the [message that the] problem is that we’re not environmentally aware or don’t care, that’s all a lie. So instead of saying, ‘You know we have to teach you, all Latin Americans being born with this culture,’ it’s more, ‘We have to remind you of your legacy.’ Empower them. Validate them. You empower communities here, but you reconnect them with cultural origins by telling them there’s a long legacy to tap from.”


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