Proud & Powerful Rub Elbows, Kudos at Hispanic Caucus Gala

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ah, the power and the glitz. All the pieces were in place Wednesday night for a perfect Washington party -- luminaries from the three branches of government gathering at the Washington Convention Center, a red carpet for them to walk on and J-Lo to join them.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's black-tie gala comes around yearly at this time, but rarely with this kind of political and celebrity wattage. President Obama, who escorted first lady Michelle Obama, delivered the keynote remarks. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who smiled and kissed her way up the red carpet, was greeted with the passion and cellphone paparazzi usually reserved for, well, such divine beings as Jennifer Lopez, who accompanied her husband, Marc Anthony. He was there to pick up a lifetime achievement award -- on his 41st birthday.

"I'm telling you, J-Lo, watch out," Obama said from the lectern, teasing her about the Latina members of Congress who have a crush on her husband. Lopez cracked up and patted Anthony.

Turning serious, Obama said: "Our destiny is shared. . . . Todos somos Americanos. We are all Americans."

That Spanish phrase became the refrain for his pre-dinner remarks to the 2,200 guests. He said "probably the proudest moment" of his presidency was the day Sotomayor ascended to the Supreme Court. He renewed his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, while repeating his vow that illegal immigrants would not be eligible for proposed health-care reform.

Obama -- wearing a dinner jacket, while Michelle Obama wore a shiny black sleeveless dress -- is the first president to address the gala since Bill Clinton was a regular. No surprise, perhaps. The caucus institute is the nonpartisan charitable arm of the Hispanic caucus, which consists of two dozen Democratic Latinos in the Congress. Obama bragged about hiring two former caucus members -- Ken Salazar and Hilda Solis -- for his Cabinet and nominating more Latinos to senior positions than any president at this point in a term.

Earlier in the day, Anthony and Lopez visited Obama in the Oval Office, where they talked children and education, Anthony said. The couple brought their twins with them.

"Max was tearing up the White House," Anthony said.

The Obamas skipped the red carpet -- and the banquet of sea bass and beef short-ribs -- and departed after the remarks.

The red carpet led from K Street NW up to a pre-gala VIP reception in the Carnegie Library, next door to the convention center.

Anthony (in black tux and shades) and Lopez (in a long black gown) stopped to chat amiably in Spanish and English. Lopez let Anthony be the star, rubbing his back affectionately as he did most of the talking.

The well-wishers kept coming forth: "¡Feliz cumpleaños, Marc!"

Isn't he too young to be getting a lifetime prize?

"It's like his second one," Lopez giggled.

"The good news is, I know I have so much more to do," Anthony said. "It normally comes around when you're sort of done."

Power and glitz don't always go together, Anthony had to admit. But on this night, he said he felt right at home in Washington.

"You know what the common denominator is?" he asked. "I'm going to be in a room with fellow dreamers. I'm going to be in a room full of people with their own stories, whether it's getting out of the neighborhood, or 'I want to be a Supreme Court justice,' or 'I want to be president.' I understand that.

"So this town, even though it's a political town, and we're entertainers, we're all cut from the same cloth."

At the other end of the red carpet, actor John Leguizamo and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) were complimenting each other profusely.

You're doing a great job, said Reid.

You're not doing such a bad job yourself, said Leguizamo.

And here was Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), pointing out that he has something in common with J-Lo and Sotomayor: powerful Bronx roots.

Also tarrying on the red carpet was Gregory Nava, who directed Lopez in three films, including "Selena." He might be best known for his seminal film about immigration, "El Norte," which after a quarter-century is "still relevant," he said. "I'm overjoyed about that. But it also saddens me because it means the issues the film is about are still right there."

The political attendees also included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Amid all the power and glitz was a dash of ultra-hipness: The entertainment was provided by the L.A. Latino-urban-funk-fusion band Ozomatli, a departure from the old-school salseros of past years. The lads blinked on the red carpet. They broke into an a cappella version of one of their songs. They might be at home at the 9:30 club, but they looked comfortable once they got to the stage, throwing their drums in the air as usual. During dinner, the band provided its trademark bilingual musical collision of hip-hop, salsa, funk and cumbia. Some of the diners left their plates to dance up front.

Ozomatli? Providing dinner music? It was a first, the band members confirmed.

Receiving "medallion of excellence" awards were TV journalist Soledad O'Brien and the late Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero, the father of Chicano music.

The gala was just one highlight that kicks off the annual fall social-and-policy season tied to Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15), when Latinos attend plenary sessions by day and party by night. The institute held two days of symposiums this week at the convention center focused on the theme, "Latinos Leading in a Global Society."

Tuesday evening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts held its Noche Musicál, co-hosted by actors Jimmy Smits and Esai Morales. Writer and producer Roberto Orci ("Transformers," "Star Trek" and "Fringe") received an award for excellence, while Bobby Sanabria and La India performed.

Sotomayor made that party, too. When Sanabria launched into a tune he calls "Sotomayor Mambo" in her honor, Morales invited her to dance -- and she did, to the delight of all. (For Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman's "review" of Sotomayor's moves, read today's Reliable Source.)

On Sept. 29, during yet another celebration, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation will present heritage awards to notable Latinos, including the children's cartoon character Dora the Explorer.

All the major events double as fundraisers to support nurturing future generations of Latino leaders.

As Wednesday night's event pressed on, Ozomatli returned to the stage, providing a raucous soundtrack to the conclusion.

A little earlier, Anthony had accepted his award by saying, "I could not have thought of a better way to spend my birthday."

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