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November 27, 2013

The Sierra Club Sponsors and Participates in the Americas Latino Festival

The Boulder, CO, Event Attracted Artists and Activists from Throughout the US and Abroad

(Versión en español)

On a cool November morning in Boulder, CO, we all were seated on this packed shuttle bus and decided to start introducing ourselves to each other. Soon I realized I was surrounded by loads of talent from many parts of the US and the world.

And my realization was reinforced when a gentleman seated a couple of rows ahead of me said, “I am Homero Aridjis, pleased to meet you.” Aridjis is Mexico’s most relevant poet, author of more than 50 books, and leader of the Group of 100, perhaps Latin America’s most influential environmental organization.

I got up and introduced myself shaking his hand in admiration. After all, my first assignment for the Sierra Club back in 2001 was to write a column for don Homero about the terrible effects of NAFTA’s Chapter 11 in Mexico. Little did I know that the circle was going to be completed on a rocking bus on our way to Boulder’s Municipal Library.

We finally arrived at our destination to attend the kick-off ceremony of the event that had attracted us all, the Americas Latino Festival, the first Latino arts and cultural event inspired by social and environmental justice and by everyone’s right to enjoy a healthy environment.

I attended representing the Sierra Club, one of the main sponsors, to make two presentations: the first one regarding climate change and environmental justice in the Latino community, and the second about the strengthening of democracy, and voter participation and protection.

I first shared the stage with Adrianna Quintero, founder and executive director of NRDC’s Latino Outreach Program, and Paty Romero Lankao, a sociologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

From left to right, organizer Irene Vilar, presenters Adrianna Quintero, Pati Romero Lankao and Javier Sierra (Photo: ALF)

My presentation dealt with the environmental paradox facing Latinos. On one hand, we Latinos are much more aware than the population in general of the dangers of the climate crisis and the need to open the gates to a prosperous, clean energy economy; and on the other, we disproportionally suffer the consequences of environmental degradation and pollution.

I made extensive use of the findings of the landmark National Survey on Latinos and the Environment conducted last year by the Sierra Club and NCLR. The study revealed that 92 percent of Latinos believe climate change is either taking place (77%) or will happen in the near future (15%). The same percentage believes we all have the responsibility to take care of God’s creation on earth.

Latinos, however, do suffer a daily, toxic bombardment with devastating consequences. Forty-three percent of us live or work dangerously close to a toxic site, such as a coal-burning plant, a refinery, an incinerator or an agricultural field. Almost half said at least one member of their family suffers from asthma and more than 40 percent said at least one family member has cancer. This happens among the community with the nation’s lowest healthcare insurance enrollment rates.

Then I indicated that without the Latino vote, which has proven to be crucial in the last two presidential elections, the progressive movement, including the environmental community, would fail to attain its lofty goals. And finally I explained how the Sierra Club has been reaching out to Latinos to be an integral part of the conservation movement and of the fight against pollution and polluters.

On my second presentation, I shared the panel with some very relevant Latino civil society leaders, such as María Echaveste, former presidential advisor to Bill Clinton and current policy and program development director at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, UC Berkeley; Héctor Sánchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement; Ben Monterroso, national executive director of Mi Familia Vota, and Marcos Vilar, national field director of Mi Familia Vota.

The panel’s main focus was continuing the national Latino organization’s efforts to promote voter participation among Latinos, especially in off-years, such as the upcoming 2014 campaign. The panelists also dealt with the dangers of voter ID laws, which are designed to suppress the minority vote, especially the Latino one.

Of special concern was the Supreme Court decision earlier in the year that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the most effective instrument to protect the franchise in the country’s history. I emphasized that in the months that followed the decision, many states across he country moved to restrict the minority vote.
In general, the festival succeeded in attracting personalities in the arts, political activism and the environmental movement to confront problems and challenges from a unique artistic and cultural point of view. The combination worked, thanks to participants like the ones mentioned above and many more, such as:
•    Writer Junot Díaz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and witness to the Caribbean diaspora to the US.
•    Writer Laura Esquivel, author of “Like Water for Chocolate.”
•    Journalist Ray Suarez, a 14-year PBS veteran and current anchor of Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story.”
•    Spanish artist Lorenzo Durán Silva, whose intricate leave cuttings depicting nature subjects has astonished art critics around the world.
•    Guillermo Gómez Peña, Chicano poet, actor and political activist.
•    Dafnis Prieto, percussionist, composer and current MacArthur Fellow, and many more.

The Americas Latino Festival has broken ground in the cultural, political and environmental arena, not only for Latinos but for the rest of the country as well. Let’s hope this is only the beginning.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist, @javier_SC

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