Shutdown doesn’t stop Rita Moreno or National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts gala

October 1, 2013

They may have been about to pull the plug on the United States government in few hours, but the hot new Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia was just plugging in, and actor Jimmy Smits figured the Latino arts partiers at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel could set an example for political stalematers up on Capitol Hill.

“We decided we’re not going to shut this down,” Smits told the crowd of nearly 300 at the annual National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts Noche de Gala. “We think Washington should be thinking outside the box.”

The event raises money for scholarships and advocacy, and the themes of the 17th edition could be summarized as: 1) We love Rita Moreno! 2) Are members of Congress children or what? 3) Ha, Kennedy Center! and 4) Rita, Rita!

Not necessarily in that order.

“I’m appalled,” said Moreno, 81, elegant in black on the red carpet, referring to the looming shutdown. “A-P-P-A-L-L-E-D.”

The health care law “already did go into law,” said the star of screen, stage and television. “That’s what’s so bizarre….The other side is just so bizarre.”

Moreno was here to receive a Raul Julia Award for excellence from the foundation. It would go nicely with her Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmys. She’s one of the few artists to have captured the so-called show-business grand slam.

“This is an honor from mi gente, my people,” Moreno said. “That’s always very, very special.”

Julia’s widow, Merel, presented the award to Moreno. The foundation was co-founded by Smits, actors Esai Morales and Sonia Braga and advocate Felix Sanchez, in order to foster a greater Latino presence in the arts.

The guests and organizers took due note of that other great Washington awards fiesta, the Kennedy Center Honors, coming in December. Thanks in part to a public campaign by foundation chairman Sanchez and allies, objecting to the historic lack of Latino honorees, the Kennedy Center changed its selection process. This year, two Latinos will be honored – opera singer Martina Arroyo and musician Carlos Santana.

“Everybody here knows Felix had a lot to do with stirring that pot,” Smits said, asking the guests to raise their wine glasses. “A toast to the squeaky wheel!”

Moreno herself is on many short lists to be honored by the Kennedy Center some day.

“Rita, you set the bar high,” Morales said. “Emmy, Oscar, Tony, Grammy. Kennedy Center, come on! Guys, figure it out soon!

Moreno herself demurred.

“It’s not my business to tell people to honor anybody,” she said. “Let’s just say, our voice has been heard….Martina Arroyo is a spectacular opera singer. And of course Santana is only one of my favorites.”

Between speeches, La Santa Cecilia performed short sets, including their immigration anthem, “El Hielo,” or “Ice,” which the accordion player, Jose “Pepe” Carlos, who was brought from Mexico as a child without papers, dedicated to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

The emotional core of the evening were the tributes from younger artists to Moreno for paving the way for them.

“When I saw Rita in ‘West Side Story’ as well, I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” said actress Aimee Garcia, who has appeared in television series such as “Dexter,” “Trauma,” and the George Lopez show, as well as the upcoming film remake of “RoboCop.”

“You can only dream sometimes as far as what you can see,” Garcia said, referring to the power of visible role models for young people entering any field. Now it’s her turn to be a role model: “The decisions I make are not just for my career but for my community.”

Garcia received a Horizons award for up-and-coming excellence, as did actor Nicholas Gonzalez, seen in television series such as “Resurrection Blvd.,” “American Family” and “Sleepy Hollow.” Gonzalez said he grew up on the work not just of Moreno, but of others in the room, including Smits and Morales.

The loving homages to Moreno were spiced with banter.

“I don’t know if this is polite to say,” Morales said. “Rita, you are hot!”

Moreno laughed and shouted “Sucio!” – “Dirty!” – then sassed back:

“I may be 81 but my ovaries have not turned to dust,” she said.

Turning serious, in her remarks to the audience, Moreno recalled a recent visit to Puerto Rico, the island she left for New York when she was 5. The transition to the mainland had been tough, she recalled. She was called slurs in kindergarten. She overcame a language barrier and battled cultural stereotypes. There had been no Latino role models for the kind of career she embarked on, she said.

On that recent trip to Puerto Rico, she quelled her fear and braced herself to take a ride on a zip line in the tree canopy. The sensation was terrifying, yet somehow familiar.

“My life and my career for the most part have been lived and built that way,” she said. “The main ingredients have been desire, determination and the will to hang on.”

READ MORE:

Reliable Source: Hey, isn’t that…? Rita Moreno

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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