Interview: UI Alum Marcelo Mena-Carrasco discusses his Chilean cabinet position and IC roots

Marcelo -- photo via Marcelo
While in Iowa City, Mena-Carrasco dove head first into the music scene. — photo via Marcelo Mena-Carrasco

Earlier this month, Chile’s soon-to-be president, Michelle Bachelet, selected University of Iowa alum Marcelo Mena-Carrasco to serve as the country’s undersecretary of the environment. His recent efforts to improve the nation’s air quality played a major role in his selection for the post.

Mena-Carrasco’s term as a member of the Chilean cabinet begins when Bachelet takes office on March 11, but he was able to find time to call Little Village as he commuted through Santiago, riding on a bus before eventually taking advantage of the city’s extensive bicycle-lending system.

Long before he began his career as an environmental scientist, Mena-Carrasco was just a kid growing up in Chile listening to American rock music. He decided to pursue his master’s degree and doctorate in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa in large part because of its proximity to Chicago, a place he saw as the mecca of the indie-rock music he loved. When he got to the university, he quickly discovered KRUI, the college’s student-run radio station, and decided to become a DJ.

“I had maybe four or five different music shows, and in my time at KRUI I produced maybe 400 shows. We actually produced a show that was sent out to Chile and played at the local Chilean radio station. It was a lot of fun once I got in. I had a great time.”

As music director, Mena-Carrasco made it his goal to create a more diverse and accessible musical environment at the radio station. He was an indie-rock fan first, but he recognized that there were fans of other types of music that weren’t being given any air-time.

“When I got there, [KRUI] was hijacked by indie-music snobs,” Mena-Carrasco said. “I love indie rock, but I thought all types of diverse music deserved a chance. There were metal heads, so we supported metal shows. There were electronic guys who we supported as well. There was a big hip hop movement, so we supported hip hop shows. Even jam band dudes didn’t have a radio station that they were able to listen to, so we had a jam band show to support them too. “Basically, we opened up the radio station to more diverse appeal in music. I also extended that to our cultural shows and interviews. We had an Indian music show. I mean, we tried to spread things out as well as we could.”

During his time at KRUI, Mena-Carrasco was able to combine his interest in music with his growing desire to educate the public about environmental issues. Though he never had a radio show dedicated solely to dealing with environmental concerns, he did produce a number of interviews with major social and environmental thinkers like Howard Zinn and Salman Rushdie. In addition, he was able to organize events that encouraged students to become involved in the fight for a cleaner, more sustainable world.

“We did the Progressive Career Fair in 2004, which was the first ever career fair that was for corporate, socially-responsible companies — companies we hand-picked to work with us,” he said. “It was pretty cool to be able to make that happen. We also produced a concert that was solar powered in collaboration with what was our energy efficiency committee at the time. That committee was the preamble to the Sustainability Office the University has now. Then we got Mason Jennings to play at one of our global warming rallies. We were able to cross over a little bit.”

Mena-Carrasco discusses sustainability with WorldCanvass host Joan Kjaer. Mena-Carrasco accepted the 2013 International Impact Award earlier that day.
After accepting the 2013 International Impact Award, Mena-Carrasco discusses sustainability on WorldCanvass, hosted by Joan Kjaer. — photo by Matthew Steele

Mena-Carrasco’s work creating a more diverse KRUI taught him lessons that he applies to his present-day work with the Chilean government.

“If you believe in sustainability, if you believe in musical diversity, if you believe in cultural diversity, these things all go hand-in-hand,” Mena-Carrasco said. “It’s about tolerance and it’s about putting yourself in the shoes of somebody else. Look at musical diversity, the fact is I love indie rock but as music director [at KRUI] I supported music I hated because I believed it was necessary to have the jam bands be represented because there’s a lot of hippies that like a lot of jam bands. I thought that was important.

“The same goes with this issue of diversity. I think sustainability is about choosing whoever is weakest, the people who require an extra supportive push from you. In a very specific way we need to look for and support, for example, people who have less income. We need to support those who have less opportunity.

“This also goes along with bio-diversity. We have populations that overcome others, and so we protect those endangered species because we believe in their value, and the value of diversity. The value of diversity is a lesson I’ve learned throughout my life, both on the ecological aspect of the value of different species, the musical aspects, the racial and cultural aspects. We have a more resilient society if we value minorities. In that regard, the most important things I want to overcome are the discriminations we’ve had before based on political background.”

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Mena-Carrasco cites institutionalized classism as one of Chile’s most pressing concerns. Until very recently, there was little diversity within the government. High-level policy-makers were chosen largely because of their economic statuses, rather than through examinations of the innovations they’ve made in their respective fields.

“The government chose guys who they thought were the best, but they just turned out to be rich guys who went to Ivy League schools,” Mena-Carrasco said. “In Chile, we don’t really have racial differences, but we do have class differences, and I think we have to have, in a way, an affirmative action not to choose the rich people that went to the best schools. We need to have more inclusion, and I totally intend to do that.”

Environmentally, Mena-Carrasco wants Chile to continue to focus on cleaning up its air. By working to transform cities like Santiago into places where people can breathe the air without risking long-term health issues, he says the nation will be able to grow its economy.

“If you look at things like the burden of disease and the economic costs due to disease and other things related to pollution in Chile, you’re going to figure out that it’s the most important issue, by far,” Mena-Carrasco said. “I’m going to get right into air quality issues, but I also really look forward to mixing air quality and climate change issues, and being in the treaty talks that are going to be related to the new climate treaty that’s going to be approved in 2015. I’m excited to begin. I’m probably going to go to Paris in 2015 for that climate treaty, and maybe Lima in 2014.”

His new position within the Chilean government may be taking him to climate conferences in major cities worldwide, but he says Iowa City will always hold a special place in his heart.

“It’s my favorite town in the world,” Mena-Carrasco said. “I’ve lived there for longer than I’ve lived in any other town, a total of 11 years. I think it gets greater and greater every time I go there. More bikes, which looks great. The Englert looks much cooler now. The Mission Creek Festival is probably at its peak right now. I remember when it started out. I went to the first one, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger. I’m proud of the community there. You see the same guys that used to be at KRUI at the Englert and around town trying to make the community better. People want to make Iowa City a cooler place, and I think it’s cooler than ever right now. I go there every year, and unfortunately I’m not going to be able to go there for the next four years probably unless I can find a really good excuse, but I’ll definitely come back eventually. My dream would be to come back and maybe retire at the University of Iowa.”