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At inaugural gala, Latinos celebrate their culture and growing clout

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It was only the red-carpet prelude — actually held on a black, carpetless stage — and the legendary Latina divas Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno looked as though they were already having a blast before the glittering Latino inaugural gala got underway Sunday night at the Kennedy Center.

Rivera reminisced about growing up in Washington and studying ballet here. She said she was going to visit her old house, at 2134 Flagler Pl. NW, in the LeDroit Park neighborhood near Howard University. “I love that house — and the pear tree in the back!” she said.

Moreno was effusing about all the Latino talents she found herself among on this night.

“I almost climbed all over Raul Esparza,” Moreno confided. “I told him, ‘You make me feel like a dirty old lady when you sing like that!’ ”

For the record, Moreno made a point of saying she is 81, and she looked stunning in a white gown and feathery black shawl. Rivera, who turns 80 this week, looked wonderful, too, in her black gown. And when the two ladies joined later on stage for a rousing version of the song “Old Friends” from the musical “Merrily We Roll Along” — backed up by male dancers in straw hats and accompanied by the Pan American Symphony Orchestra in the pit — they infected all 2,100 souls filling the Opera House with their pure joy.

A few lyrics from the showstopper seemed to sum up the spirit of the evening:

“Here’s to us!” Moreno sang.

“Who’s like us?” Rivera replied.

“Damn few!” they sang.

“Us,” in this case, would be the Latino community, growing in demographic might; Latino voters, who turned out in decisive numbers for President Obama; and Latino artists, who are demanding new levels of recognition for their range of excellence.

They aren’t “few,” however, as Vice President Biden reminded everyone when he and his family turned up as surprise guests.

“This is your moment,” Biden said. “America owes you. You are about to have an impact that is consistent with who you represent and the number of people you represent.”

Actress Eva Longoria hosted the evening, which was a highlight of three days of symposiums, cultural gatherings and parties themed by organizers as “Latino Inaugural 2013.” The Sunday night gala was called “In Performance at the Kennedy Center.”

In addition to Rivera, Moreno and Esparza, performers included Jose Feliciano, tenor Juan Diego Florez, R&B star Prince Royce, Ballet Hispanico and teenage piano prodigy Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner.

The evening was laced with politics, arts — and arts politics. That it was at the Kennedy Center was a strong signal that, after a fall season of tension between members of the Latino community and the center, all is forgiven, for now.

The nub of the controversy was the fact that only two Hispanics have received coveted Kennedy Center Honors, out of 186 honorees since the Honors were created in 1978. Those two were Rivera, in 2002, and Placido Domingo, in 2000. The Kennedy Center has instituted a formal review to alter the honors selections process.

“How’s that for the best in American performing arts?” San Antonio philanthropist Henry Munoz III asked from the stage near the conclusion of the evening. He had organized the program, along with Longoria and Andres Lopez, an attorney and activist from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Tickets were $300. Those in attendance included Latino leaders, fundraisers, Obama supporters of all backgrounds and, of course, fans of one star or another on the program.

“We stand tonight, center stage in America’s theater,” Munoz proclaimed.

Longoria went out of her way to thank Kennedy Center leaders by name and to say that the evening meant all the more for taking place “on America’s stage.”

Rivera proudly wore her Kennedy Center Honors ribbon pinned to her gown.

If the center needs suggestions for future honorees, some seemingly worthy ones were in the house. First, Feliciano sat on a stool with an acoustic guitar and sang his famous, soulful rendering of the national anthem. Esparza delivered a powerful rendering of “Begin the Beguine,” including one stanza in Spanish.

Actor Wilmer Valderrama pretended to give salsa lessons, joking that the main thing is to “produce the most unnecessarily huge smile.” He also read a poem by Richard Blanco, who will be the first Latino to deliver a poem at an inaugural ceremony. The poem, called “When I Was a Little Cuban Boy,” is a wistful homage to American culture.

Prince Royce, backed by a nine-piece band, sang his bilingual bachata hit version of “Stand by Me.”

The emotional highlight was the finale, which picked up the patriotic theme that had run through several of the performances.

First, a chorus of young people from Puerto Rico and elsewhere sang “This Land Is Your Land.”

Then about two dozen Latinos serving in the armed forces joined the young people on stage. The audience rose to its feet, and some joined in as beautifully harmonized voices came together on “America the Beautiful.”

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