Arts and activism

At Americas Latino Festival, arts play key role in promoting environmental message

Train to Girlhood by Alfredo Benavidez

Arts and media unite communities, says Irene Vilar, the creator and driving force behind the Americas Latino Festival. By harnessing the mainstream appeal and draw of prominent Latino creators, she hopes to brighten the main environmental mission of the festival as well as showcase Latino culture to a broad audience — positioning Latinos not just as spectators to the environmental movement but as leaders.

“It can bring the community together. That’s the role of the arts,” she says. “The arts are already in the mainstream, accepted in these communities. We use them to bring them into the heart and the mission of the festival, which is the environmental agenda.”

So in addition to prominent journalists and speakers on the environment, the festival is bringing together an impressive selection of creative Latinos — artists, novelists, poets, filmmakers and musicians. Gracing the festival will be names such as Laura Esquivel, the magical surrealist author who penned Like Water for Chocolate; novelist Junot Diaz, MacArthur Fellow and writer of This is How You Lose Her and the Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; poet/environmental activist Homero Aridjis; and more. There is a film festival featuring 17 films that revolve around Latino and/or environmental subjects. At least 11 directors will be present to talk about their films during the weekend. There is an art component, featuring Pablo Bernasconi (Denver International Airport Gallery and Boulder Public Library, 1001 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder), Artemio Rodriguez (McNichols Civic Center Building, Denver), Jose Guadalupe Posada (McNichols Civic Center Building), Lorenzo Duran (CU-Boulder Musuem of Natural History) and Fidel Sclavo (Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art). Finally, there will be musical performances as well, by Cuban drums virtuoso Dafnis Prieto, Victor Mestas, Sandra Wong, Heatherlyn and others.

It’s a lot to take in. But the integration of the arts with the environmental mission of the festival is key, Vilar says. For many of the featured artists, the environmental message rings true. Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer-winning novelist, grew up in an impoverished neighborhood next to what would become a Superfund site.

“I know that my sense of having grown up in a Latino community in New Jersey that dealt with an enormous amount of environmental racism certainly changed the viewpoint of me and my neighbors around environmental questions,” Diaz says. “I grew up next to one of the largest active landfills in the United States.

“Perhaps from the world I came from, you grow up with a lot of environmental degradation, and it’s kind of easy to see how quickly destabilization of the environment can affect you, how quickly contamination of the environment can affect you. We were on the front lines of pollution and the front lines of waste, and we saw very clearly and very forcefully what that does to one’s living standard.”

Diaz will be speaking at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 16 at the Boulder Public Library and giving a keynote at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17 at the McNichols Civic Center Building (144 W. Colfax Ave., Denver).

The Mexican poet Homero Aridjis has dedicated a large part of his life to environmental activism. He grew up in a part of Mexico where Monarch butterflies would migrate to during the winter, and when their habitat became threatened, he emerged as arguably their biggest advocate.

“You have to see the planet as a unique ecosystem, coming in all directions, land, earth, sea, the ocean,” he says. “It’s not a static environment; it’s also a dynamic environment that touches everybody and concerns everybody in this world.”

In 1985, Aridjis founded the environmental advocacy organization Grupo 100 (the Group of 100), composed of 100 public intellectuals and artists, including Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rufino Tamayo and others. He says the alliance of environmentalism and the arts was a natural one.

“Well, I am a writer and a poet, and I have to move in my profession, no? … In Mexico and many Spanish-speaking countries, the writers are public figures,” says Aridjis, who will speak at the McNichols Civic Center Building on Saturday, Nov. 16, at 1:45 p.m., and at the Boulder Public Library on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 2 p.m. “And many people pay attention to what they say. They have credibility. Many people respect writers and artists, etc. That is very important, because of public figures. The Grupo 100 was working with all these people, musicians, and it had a lot of impact in the political world.”

See for the full schedule.