Before the cameras started rolling last night, it was all goose bumps and pomp and circumstance: a military band marching in with a drumroll and a blare of trumpets. Another band, Campanas de America, wailing through the national anthem, mariachi style, with harps and violins and overwrought emotion.

It was Latin. It was American. It was both at once.

Which, at the Hispanic Heritage Awards, is exactly the point.

Of course, once the cameras got going at the Kennedy Center, it was all glitz and glam: Daisy Fuentes dazzling in a shimmering gown. The Miami Sound Machine pounding out the rhythms of Latin jazz while dancers of all hues, shapes and ages from Ballet Hispanico strutted and leapt, serving up a carnival of drama and dance.

Which was also exactly the point. After all, it was TV. But never mind the cameras, never mind the celebs and the other requisite trappings of an awards show. Here you won't find goofy acceptance speeches and fashion faux pas. This is not about anointing the latest royalty into the annals of pop culture.

It's about orgullo, the kind of pride that comes from beaming family members who pat you on the back and tell you, "You done good."

Like "New York Undercover" actor Michael DeLorenzo handing over the award for education to his childhood teacher Tina Ramirez and telling her, "I went through puberty with you." And honoree Antonia Hernandez telling the audience as she accepted her award for leadership: "I am a product of all of you. And it is an honor to represent all of you. Muchisimas gracias."

Approval from family matters much if you consider that when it comes to being Latin, the hipness factor comes in cycles: "Begin the Beguine." Mambo mania. Ricky Ricardo. The Buena Vista Social Club . . .

Anyone possessing a remote control can tell you: It's that time again. This is the year of all things Latin, when suddenly it's hipper than hip to be of Hispanic descent--especially if you're young, gorgeous, look good in leather and have a phat recording contract under your belt.

But before MTV, Time and Newsweek discovered la vida latina, the Hispanic Heritage Awards were quietly--or as quietly as one can while hosting a black-tie gala at the Kennedy Center that will be broadcast on NBC--honoring those in the Latino community who've achieved much while never forgetting to look back and give back.

Last night, the Hispanic Heritage Awards honored Placido Domingo, king of opera and artistic director of the Washington Opera, for arts; Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, for leadership; Anthony Munoz, the first Latino to be inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame, for sports; Tina Ramirez, founder of the Ballet Hispanico dance company and school, for education; and Gary Soto, an award-winning poet, children's author, essayist and novelist, for literature.

"It would be so easy to honor actors and actresses," Soto said. "But to honor literature and leadership and put that on TV [last night's show will be broadcast on Oct. 2] and try to make it exciting is really difficult. This is wonderful. When is a writer going to get this kind of gala--the Kennedy Center, NBC? Never."

The event was studded with stars: Fuentes and Bobby Cannavale, the evening's emcees; NBC and MSNBC anchor Soledad O'Brien; writer Isabel Allende; WNBA star Rebecca Lobo; actor Edward James Olmos; talk show host Giselle Fernandez; Grammy winner Jon Secada; Latin jazz super-percussionist Tito Puente; newsman Geraldo Rivera; and Domingo--who had to dash back and forth between the gala and the Latino Film Festival, where his son was debuting a film.

"It's a wonderful coincidence, to have this and my son's film," Domingo said. "This is a great thing. We are very proud, my wife and I."

Earlier, at the pre-gala reception, the atmosphere was strictly black-tie. Restrained. Double air kisses were floated over cheeks, along with murmurs of Ay! Mi amor! Como estas? and No hay Coca-Cola, mami, porque Dr Pepper is the sponsor.

Puente stood in a corner, listening to the mariachi band and clowning. Mariachi music wasn't exactly his cup of tea. Too, too . . . sleepy.

"When I perform, I give good vibrations," he said, breaking into a little wiggle. "I always say, 'Do you feeeeeel it?' But tonight, I gotta wear my tuxedo. And maybe give a little speech."

Dance impresario Ramirez held court, silver-haired and elegant in a burgundy chiffon number. She gazed around the room, taking in the tuxes and gowns, "That's my student!" erupting from her lips every few minutes.

"My award is a very special one," said Ramirez, who has won several Hispanic Heritage Awards in past years. "Because it's for education. People think when you teach singing and dancing, that's all you can learn. But you can learn so much more through them. It's something that stays with you. It's in your body."

CAPTION: Award winners Anthony Munoz, Tina Ramirez, Placido Domingo, Antonia Hernandez and Gary Soto at the Kennedy Center ceremony.