What Three Days in Denver Taught Me about Hope and Climate Change

I joined environmental advocates who came together at the Americas Latino Eco Festival to share their stories and unite against climate change.

October 15, 2015

It’s a chilly morning in Denver, with bright rays of sun just beginning to take the cold edge off the air. In the shadow of St. Cajetan Church, a crowd has assembled to join the abuelas’ blessing. Three women who call themselves Corn Mothers (harkening back to indigenous Pueblo traditions) lead the group in thanking the four directions and the elements. Musician Jesús Hidalgo, joined by accompanists on guitar and wooden flute, sings a song about love and respect for the Earth. The opening ceremony is welcoming, hopeful, and high-energy, setting the tone for the three days of the Americas Latino Eco Festival (ALEF). It’s just after 8 a.m. and I haven’t had any coffee yet, but already I feel excited and invigorated to be here. The event has brought together advocates for environmental justice and Latino leaders under the banner of “Climate of Hope” to forge connections, learn more about effective activism, and inspire action to fight climate change. 

Audubon Rockies is sponsoring the festival, now in its third year, alongside other groups such as Green Latinos, Earthjustice, The Nature Conservancy, Latino Outdoors, and the Climate Reality Project. Alison Holloran, executive director of Audubon Rockies, and several of her staff are on hand to participate in the festival, reach out to Latino groups, and talk with attendees and passersby on the Metropolitan State University campus about Audubon’s work.

On this first day we gather inside the church, where the colorful paintings of Arturo Garcia show migrations of bats, butterflies, sea turtles, and people. Activists share stories, and I notice that many of them focus on the disproportionate impact that climate change is having on urban and lower-income Latino communities.

One such story comes from Mark Magaña, founding president and CEO of Green Latinos, as he recalls growing up in Los Angeles and thinking it was normal that there were days when air pollution made it unsafe to play outside; that it was normal to have to carry an asthma inhaler everywhere. And while this is not uncommon in cities like L.A. with poor air quality, it’s a problem that disproportionately affects Latino kids. Magaña shares the sobering Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic: Latino children are about 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than non-Latino white children. Meanwhile, our changing climate (and air pollution such as ozone and particulates from the emissions driving climate change) aggravate respiratory problems like asthma

During another panel speakers display maps showing that U.S. cities with the largest Latino populations often overlap with the areas likely to be most affected by warming temperatures and rising sea levels. And climate change has a heavier impact on poorer people, who may not have the resources to cope with severe storms, for example. For these speakers, climate change isn’t just an environmental issue: it’s an issue of health, economic opportunity, and social justice. 

A hot topic of discussion is the misperception that Latinos don’t care about environmental issues. Panelists from Earthjustice, Green Latinos, and the League of Conservation Voters say that in fact, conservation is a core value for many Latinos. A 2015 survey found that 79 percent of Latinos in the United States said that global warming is an important issue for them personally (extremely, very, or somewhat important), compared to 63 percent of non-Latino whites. In a similar vein, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that 70 percent of Latinos polled attributed global warming to human activity, compared to an average of 50 percent among all respondents.

During the rest of the first day of ALEF, many other passionate advocates share their stories, including Crisanta Duran, majority leader of the Colorado House of Representatives; Vanessa Hauc, correspondent for Telemundo; and mountaineer Luis Benitez. Benitez talks about overcoming his childhood allergies and asthma to climb the world’s highest peaks. After one of his descents from Everest with a close friend, Benitez spoke with his friend’s grandfather who lived nearby. The man asked him, “What are you doing to make my great-grandchildren’s world better?” This question hit home for Benitez, and he has spoken out for environmental and social responsibility in the outdoor recreation and climbing industries. Overall, the messages I’ve heard today are about hope, but also about responsibility: our communal obligation to future generations, to protect the environment, and to make our voices heard. 

October 16, 2015

Audubon Rockies staff and I join about fifty environmental advocates at the Denver Art Museum for the Climate of Hope Leadership Training. This training is the creation of the festival’s producers, writer Irene Vilar and marine biologist Carlos Zegarra. Vilar founded the nonprofit Americas for Conservation and the Arts, while Zegarra is the founder of the nonprofit Sachamama (a Quechua word that means “jungle mother”). The daylong leadership training offers information about the latest climate science, exercises on communicating and networking more effectively, and breakout groups to forge partnerships around specific conservation issues.

To start off the training, Vilar and Zegarra gather the attendees into a circle around a mandala laid out on the wood floor of the museum hall. The mandala is made of dried beans, rice, lentils, chrysanthemums, and roses forming a colorful design. Each of us in the circle shares briefly what brought us to the festival and what motivates us to fight climate change. I listen to the cadences in Spanish and English of the assembled group—activists who hail from all over the United States and from Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Peru, El Salvador, Argentina, and other Latin American countries. When it’s Vilar’s turn to speak about why she’s here, she wraps her arms around her daughter Lolita and tells us that her dedication springs from her children.

During a storytelling exercise, Christina Gallegos, executive director of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area in Colorado, shares one reason why she’s fighting climate change. For years she worked as a naturalist in Seattle, and one day she took her young grandson for his first hike through the towering trees of an old-growth forest. He ran and ran, giddy with excitement, and then he stopped short, put his finger to his lips, and said to her, “Shhh.” Gallegos says she watched a look of wonder and joy spread across his face and wanted to make sure that forest was still there for him in the decades to come. As we continue to exchange stories, protecting the environment for the sake of future generations emerges as a recurring theme. 

October 17, 2015

I spend the last day of the festival at the art museum for Family Day, which brings in thousands of families for free museum admission, art workshops, music, games, dance, and the ever-popular balloon animal station. In the exhibit hall downstairs, an Audubon Rockies booth invites visitors to learn birdcalls and use binoculars to spot printed images of species such as a Golden Eagle and Northern Flicker that are put up nearby.

After wading through the chaos of crowds, balloons, and gift shops, I catch up with Alison Holloran and Jamie Weiss of Audubon Rockies in the Western Landscapes Gallery. There Audubon invites children (and adults) to draw pictures inspired by nature while flanked by majestic paintings of Estes Park, Yosemite National Park, and bison on the plains. Participants use colored pencils to draw birds, mountains, and trees. One enterprising five-year-old girl sketches earthworms and labels them “WRMS.” 

Holloran and Weiss say it’s crucial to connect young people with nature and educate them so that they can carry forward the ethic of environmental protection. “The younger generation really needs to understand what’s going on and how they’re part of the change we want to see,” Holloran says. 

Audubon Rockies first got involved with ALEF when Holloran met Vilar at a climate workshop in 2014. The two women recognized their shared passion for the environment, and Audubon Rockies was seeking to expand its educational outreach to more diverse communities across Colorado. In the months leading up to the festival, Audubon Rockies educators designed a special climate trunk full of materials and games that teach kids about climate change and birds. This trunk has already traveled to 21 schools and other education centers in eastern Colorado that serve predominantly Latino youth. Many of these materials and games are also on display at the museum today, and Audubon Rockies plans to continue its outreach with the trunk.

Holloran tells me the people she’s talked with at the festival have been excited to hear about the breadth of Audubon’s work and pursue future opportunities to collaborate. “Over and over I’ve heard, ‘We didn’t know Audubon did that.’”

As the last day of the festival winds down, we pack up our posters, binoculars, art supplies, and plush birds and head toward home. In addition to the events we’ve attended, there have been youth trainings, rallies, and other festival events spreading across downtown. People have been dancing on the plaza outside the museum; there have been film screenings and authors reading from their books; and printmaker Artemio Rodriguez has parked his Grafico Movil, an elaborately decorated 1948 delivery truck that serves as a “gallery, printmaking studio, and movie theater on wheels.” Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve encountered music, creativity, and a sense of community. 

When I ask Holloran and Weiss what they thought about ALEF and its theme, a “Climate of Hope,” they say it’s been inspiring and encouraging to see just how many dedicated people are working to fight climate change. Jamie Weiss sums it up succinctly: “Yes, there is trouble, but there is hope. And people are smart and can adapt, and I think we have the resources to confront it.”