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Washington Post

An Evening of Familia Fun

By Don Oldenburg

August 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

The private party following the Hispanic Heritage Awards gala Saturday night in the Kennedy Center's Roof Terrace Restaurant seemed uncharacteristically sedate. But that didn't last long.

Gloria Estefan sat talking with husband and manager Emilio and a few friends. Across the crowded room, past the Spanish-inspired buffet, one of the honorees, ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez, the former women's tennis sensation, huddled with her husband. In patterned leather pants and matching shirt, pop heartthrob Carlos Ponce whispered confidentially with two promoters. Mixing and mingling elsewhere in the crowded room was a Latino name-dropper's fiesta: actress Constance Marie in a lower-than-low-cut dark emerald gown; actor Wilmer Valderrama, who plays Fez on "That '70s Show"; and stunning Venezuelan-born model Patricia Velasquez, among others.

Suddenly, a voice stirred the crowd like the margaritas at the bar. The strolling mariachi band had met its match in actress, singer and comedian Liz Torres, who was unabashedly belting out the traditional Mexican song "Volver Volver" -- and drowning out the admiring mariachi singers.

"Oh, look, they're going to play for Gloria now," the spirited Torres said a few minutes later, explaining then that Estefan was the reason she didn't sling tortillas frisbeelike into the black-tie audience from the stage of the Eisenhower Theater as she did four years earlier. She didn't want to steal the show.

But let's begin at the beguine-ing.

An annual invitation-only event, the Hispanic Heritage Awards ceremonies are considered the most prestigious honors in the Latino community.

This year's awards honored five Hispanic Americans for their contributions in the fields of literature, sports, education, the arts and leadership: Liz Balmaseda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist; Mary Joe Fernandez, the tennis star and now an ESPN commentator; Judith Baca, a UCLA professor who teaches Latino and other communities to paint murals about themselves; Hollywood film writer and director Gregory Nava; and Emmy-winning TV talk show host Cristina Saralegui, who is viewed in the United States and 18 other countries.

But this year's ceremonies struck a different, more self-assured chord than in the past -- perhaps because "Latino Boom" now means something more than the home-run-hammering Sammy Sosa, an honoree last year. It means the emergence of Latinos as one of the country's primary forces -- and not in Census Bureau statistics alone (up 58 percent in the 2000 census), but as a cultural and economic engine. The confidence about the place of Latino culture was evident throughout the awards.

At the pre-show reception, Jack Kilduff, president of Dr Pepper, a corporate sponsor of the Hispanic Heritage Awards from its beginnings, said the Latino boom makes sponsoring the award program a no-brainer today, though he said it was risky business 15 years ago when his company first decided to embrace it.

Nearby, with sons Chris and Teddy, arts honoree Nava mentioned the special meaning the award had for him coming from the Hispanic community and honoring his award-winning films, among them the Academy Award-nominated "El Norte" and the generational saga "My Family/Mi Familia." But the bigger picture, said the film writer and director, was the meaning these awards had for all Americans.

"I didn't set out to be a pioneer, you know," says Nava, who grew up in "a border family" in San Diego. "I just wanted to make these movies. They were Latino stories because that's who I was. But I really believe in the universality of the human experience. So the stories I tell are for everybody."

Saralegui, a Havana-born journalist who is considered the Oprah Winfrey of Latino television, offered an interpretation of the controversy over moving the venue of another Hispanic awards ceremony, the Latin Grammys, from Miami to Los Angeles earlier in the week. "I don't see why we need a Hispanic Grammys. We don't have Hispanic Oscars, we don't have the Hispanic Nobel Prizes," said the Miami-based Saralegui. "I would love to have it in Miami because it would help my city. But hey, listen, if you are doing Miss Universe, does it matter if it's from Thailand or Puerto Rico or Miami Beach? It's an institution."

The show? In a mostly filled Eisenhower Theater, the "evening of fun, family and fiesta" abruptly lost much of its spontaneity and became an applause-prompted and directed TV program. It's scheduled to air as a one-hour NBC special on Sept. 22.

Warming the audience were the hosts -- Velasquez and dashing actor Francesco Quinn, son of last year's arts honoree, actor Anthony Quinn, who died in June.

"The title of this show might imply that this celebration is for Latinos only. Believe me, this party is for everyone," said Quinn, who immediately switched into staccato Spanish for a laugh.

With the house band keeping things lively with a merengue and salsa beat between presentations, the awards kicked off with the first surprise of the evening. NBC's "Today Weekend Edition" co-anchor Soledad O'Brien shared the podium with an unannounced presenter, NBA Coach Pat Riley of the Miami Heat, to present the literature award to his friend Balmaseda, a Cuban immigrant whose passionate Miami Herald columns on social injustice and the Latino community won the Pulitzer in 1993.

"I think it is really a wonderful acknowledgment," said education honoree Baca, who 25 years ago founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Los Angeles to work with Latinos to create public murals about their lives and communities.

Best gown: Actress Roselyn Sanchez, who presented the Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards to seven national winners selected from 12 U.S. cities, wore a knockout back-baring black dress made by Cuban designer Eduardo Lucero. Her look led to the evening's best unrehearsed moment: When accepting his youth award for sports, Emanuel Pleitez from El Sereno, Calif., announced, "I'm only going to get to do this once on national TV, so hold on." He embraced and kissed the cheek of the startled Sanchez.

Headlining the planned entertainment for the evening was Estefan, who performed a calming "Por un Beso," and Ponce, who sang a melodic "Escuchame." But the surprise finale raised the audience to its feet for the biggest applause of the evening. Joining Estefan onstage was Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa, to sing "Tres Gotas de Agua Bendita," a song they perform together on their 2000 recording of the same name.

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