Partying, Seriously

Hispanic Heritage honoree Rosario Dawson was praised for her work on voter registration.
Hispanic Heritage honoree Rosario Dawson was praised for her work on voter registration. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

Rosario Dawson's mother is directing photographers. Isabel Celeste is an avalanche of a woman, all spilling and tumbling out of her sequined top in a way that makes you want to say, Aye , Madre, and she sees that the red-carpet paparazzi, who have lined up to snap her actress daughter's photo at last night's Hispanic Heritage Awards, aren't getting the best shots. So Isabel Celeste slings an arm around Rosario and another around Rosario's grandma, Isabel Stokoli. "Look left," she says. "And center. And right. And again." Dawson rolls her eyes. Latina mamas. What are you going to do?

Dawson was one of the five honorees at these 21st annual awards, held at Washington's Renaissance Marriott. The purpose? To honor Big Names among Hispanics for work in education, sports, science, the arts and for the alluring-sounding "vision." Dawson is Vision (and a vision herself in slinky gray silk), recognized for founding Voto Latino, an organization dedicated to increasing voter registration among young Hispanics.

The night's other awards went to Cuban-born baseballer and Cincinnati Reds star Tony P¿rez; Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) for their commitment to building a Latino museum; seismologist In¿s Cifuentes, who works to improve science programs in public schools; and the entire (mostly Hispanic) cast of the upcoming "Love in the Time of Cholera," including Benjamin Bratt and Catalina Sandino Moreno.

Later in the evening that film's producer Scott Steindorff, who confesses sheepishly that he is a gringo, will declare the night "the best awards show I've ever been to."

On the red carpet, it's not hard to see why. Judy Reyes, the "Scrubs" actress and event host, is gamely demonstrating her favorite raspberry-blowing warm-up exercise in a plunging dress both flimsy and hot. Latino rap artist Pitbull is meandering through the crowd, occasionally pausing to bark or nip at a guest.

Inside the hotel, a mariachi band plays. And in a conference room nearby, a bland placard reads "Case-Oriented Symposium on Bleeding and Thrombosis," and a crowd of onlooking medical types have just realized they're totally at the wrong party.

The Hispanic community is very good at celebrating. Unlike the calendar-obedient black history and women's history months, neatly bound in February and March, the Hispanic heritage celebration lasts 30 days but cleverly spans two months. It begins Sept.15 (independence day for five Latin American countries) and goes through Oct. 15.

In a time when both conservatives and liberals question the PC-ness of such commemorative months ( Does that mean Hispanics don't deserve recognition the rest of the year?), and in a time when immigration's a fightin' word, some 700 Hispanics have gathered in a basement ballroom to honor their own and then party into the wee hours.

There's a serious side to the party, too. The night's theme is unity, and Reyes passionately declares it not just a word, but a call to action. "We proved we could come together quickly and powerfully" when the immigration issue arose again this year, she says, stressing the importance of "celebrating differences but bonding over similarities."

Artist Elizabeth Acevedo performs a spoken-word piece on preserving culture, prompting cheers when she says, "Our stories cannot be checked into boxes."

And when P¿rez, who played in five World Series, accepts his award, his deep rumbly voice catches a few times. "This is something special to me," he says. "I was a good ballplayer, but to be here and accept this award is . . . is . . . I don't know."

But for the most part, the night is about fun, most gamely demonstrated by the surprise stars of the evening: Pitbull and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), who together present the vision award to Dawson.

Sanchez cracks that she never expected to be giving out an award with a Pitbull, leading the rapper to mock-bite her before saying, "I heard that was your nickname in the Judiciary Committee."

She blushes, then offers a line that brings down the house: " Aye, Papi!" And then the luminous Rosario Dawson walks onstage to accept her award, and jokes, "I knew we were going to get an Aye, Papi sometime tonight."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company