This article by David Montgomery appeared in The Washington Post.
The operatic strains of Mexican mariachi ballads filled the Warner Theatre Thursday afternoon, quickly followed by the winsome abandon of Colombian vallenato-pop. It was a truncated tour of the music department of that mansion of many rooms known as “Hispanic heritage.” The mariachi singer and the pop star felt a little bashful at being called to represent so much.
“I was in disbelief, then I was jumping for joy,” said Los Angeles-based Pepe Aguilar, who grew up immersed in mariachis and rancheras around Mexico City, then explored contemporary styles. He must be the only mariachi ever to appear (next month) on MTV Unplugged. “I don’t feel I’m the ‘master’ of anything yet,” he said, referring to the “master of arts” award he was set to receive at the 2014 Hispanic Heritage Awards Thursday night.
Carlos Vives, the Colombian megastar who soaked up the indigenous and African grooves of vallenato and cumbia in his native Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, mimed his reaction to being cited for the “legend” award: wide-eyed, speechless and overwhelmed.
“There’s a gratefulness in the Latino community that this country has opened its doors,” Vives said. “But I think we have to work so that the American community knows all the support that Latinos have given to this country, in all fields….When North Americans learn more of this story, the love that Latinos have sown in this country, there will be less discrimination, and new generations of Latinos will feel even more proud.”
That’s also a premise of the annual awards gala, presented by the Washington-based Hispanic Heritage Foundation. Music is but a facet of the achievements being celebrated Thursday night. The hosts are actors Edward James Olmos and Judy Reyes. All 1,862 seats in the theater have been spoken for — by politicians, business people, activists, community leaders and a huge contingent of teens and young adults — and the waiting list stretched to 200 more. The show will be broadcast on PBS Sept. 29.
Actor Zoe Saldña (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Avatar” and a featured voice in the upcoming animated “The Book of Life”) will receive a “vision” award. The “education” award goes to the fabled student robotics team from Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, whose homemade underwater robot bested robots from M.I.T. and elsewhere in a contest in 2004, as told in the recent documentary, “Underwater Dreams.”
The Puerto Rican veterans of the 65th Infantry Regiment — known as the “Borinqueneers,” from the indigenous name for the island — will be saluted for special recognition, fresh off a summer that saw them receive a Congressional Gold Medal.
Also being honored:
- Bernie Williams, former New York Yankees All-Star centerfielder, now a musician and hunger activist;
- Henry R. Muñoz III, an entrepreneur, cultural activist and Democratic fundraiser who joined former Washington Post publisher Don Graham and others to found a scholarship fund for undocumented students;
- Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), who supports minority education in technology fields.
There’s a more than a dash of glitz and community self-congratulation at the awards, to be sure — the evening is supposed to be fun and uplifting, after all. But the endeavor is focused on future blooms, not musty old laurels, and the unglamorous work of obscure determination is honored.
“We try to make the celebrities feel like the community leaders, and we want the community leaders to feel like celebrities,” says José Antonio Tijerino, president and chief executive of the foundation, who was born in Nicauragua and raised in the Washington area.
The stars are not recognized for their stardom, but for what they do with it. Vives took advantage of his trip to Washington to spend Wednesday meeting members of Congress, diplomats and officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development to talk about his work supporting Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in his country, where some 2 million have been displaced by violence. He recently assembled 60 Colombian musicians from all regions and practicing all musical styles to record a new song, “Un Paso Hacia la Paz” — “A Step Toward Peace.” The video was just released.
The foundation has its roots in 1988 when the Reagan administration inaugurated the heritage awards. The foundation took over the program as a private endeavor. Tijerino became president in 2001 and steered the foundation from focusing largely on the awards to adopting a year-round national mission to nurture young leaders.
“Right now is an amazing time to be Latino in our country,” Tijerino says.
Despite controversies over undocumented immigrants and refugee children, this burgeoning population is increasingly courted by marketers, businesses and politicians.
“Anyone who wants to grow a business…anything you want to do, you can’t ignore the Latino community,” Tijerino says. “It’s a growth field.”
And Latinos are happy to help.
“Historically, the Hispanic community has always answered the call, when America needed us,” says Tijerino. “Fight in wars? Look at the Borinqueneers. We’ll do that. Build buildings, we’ll do that. Serve food, we’ll do that. That is noble work.”
Now, as Baby Boomers age out of the workforce, and there is an increasing unmet demand for homegrown skills in science, technology, engineering and math, there’s a new vital role for Latinos, Tijerino says. The foundation boasts a network of about 50,000 plugged-in Latinos ages 15 to 35. They are learning computer code, designing scientific devices, incubating ideas.
The day after the awards, after the celebrities and VIPs have caught their planes, the future stars will shine. There will be a “charla” — a “chat” forum — where young Latinos from around the country will present their ideas and experiences.
That high school robotics team that won the heritage award would have fit right in. But their triumph in the robot contest came 10 years ago. Some members of the group were undocumented. They were unable to pursue dreams of high-skilled careers. Tijerino invites anyone who will listen to reconsider the immigration debate with those young people in mind.
“To me, it’s a huge lost opportunity,” Tijerino says. “Our job, for me and a lot of other people, is closing that gap.”