There was a red carpet at the Kennedy Center last night. Okay, so there's always red carpet aplenty at the Kennedy Center, but at last night's Hispanic Heritage Awards, the red carpet was roped off, with TV cameras on the sides and pretty, pancaked people holding on to their mikes and smiles, and celebrities in free designer duds strolling down the aisle.

But there were no screaming fans next to this red carpet. Most of the celebrities just slid by unrecognized as reporters scrambled to check their crib sheets for a list of the presenters. Paulina Rubio, pop diva and arguably Mexico's biggest export, drew barely a notice. Nor at first did Gael Garcia Bernal ("Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "The Motorcycle Diaries"), he of the soulful eyes and the scuffed hiking boots, though reporters rallied and fired off some questions for him. English? Spanish? Whichever -- he's an amenable sort of guy. And yes, this is his first time in Washington and he likes it very much. It's, it's . . . peaceful.

Lacey Chabert, one of the Mean Girls from the Lindsay Lohan movie "Mean Girls," meandered down the aisle in a gown that plunged, provoking the question, are they or aren't they?

"Does she speak Spanish?" the ink-stained ones asked Chabert's publicist.

"No, everyone thinks she's Latin, but she's from Missouri," the publicist said.

"That's okay," the ink-stained ones said. "We're bilingual."

But when Chabert passed through, there was an awkward silence. "That's okay," she said, looking like it wasn't.

"Spanish," her publicist muttered.

Notwithstanding the red carpet and the general Oscars vibe, this wasn't about the glitz and glam of Hollywood. It was about honoring Latinos for their achievement across a variety of disciplines: Gloria Rodriguez, president and CEO of Avance, for education; journalist and civil rights activist Juan D. Gonzalez, for leadership; soccer sportscaster Andres Cantor, for sports; novelist and Washington native Sandra Benitez, for literature; fashionista Narciso Rodriguez, for vision; and actor John Leguizamo, for arts.

Once the show got started -- nearly 30 minutes late, "Latin time," as someone cracked -- there were corny jokes. ("Of course God's Latino. He named his son Jesus.") And conspicuous plugs for the sponsors, Coors beer, Dr Pepper, Subway and American Airlines. This being an election year, and this being Washington, there were lots of pleas to get out the vote. (And Leguizamo gave probably the first shout-out ever to John Kerry.)

Whoopi Goldberg, who'd managed to avoid the red carpet, stepped onstage in a "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" outfit to present the arts award to her buddy, Leguizamo.

"I've seen this man go from the movies to television to the stage," Goldberg said. And then she said something in Spanish that most people didn't get but everyone clapped because, well, she's Whoopi, and they really, really, really appreciate the effort.

"Whoopi, you praised me so nicely that I thought I was dead for a minute," Leguizamo joked as he accepted his award, all suited up, hair spiked. He loves being in the business, he said, because "where else can you see beautiful women naked, killed without remorse . . . and they call it art?" Indeed.

In the past, he said, there was a dearth of roles for Latinos, but that's changing. And then we started noticing that Leguizamo's acceptance speech was sounding eerily like something he'd said to us earlier in the evening, at the preshow cocktail party.

"This happens in the sunset of your life," Leguizamo said then. "I'm still young at heart. [He's 40.] Well, some of my parts are older."

Of the awards, he said, "It's flashy, and you've got really well-deserving people being honored from all facets of life. It shows America how diverse we are -- and upwardly mobile."

Having Goldberg present him with the arts award was a matter of making "things come full circle," Leguizamo said. Back in the day, he'd gone to see her one-woman Broadway show over and over again at a time when he was broker than broke and couldn't afford a ticket. So he'd "second act" her show, as in: sneak in during the second act and pretend that he had a ticket.

"What I saw was religion," he recalls. "She's not only funny, she elevates."

He began as a fan, and became a friend. Tonight, his friend, who rather famously does not fly, drove all the way down from Boston to present his award.

Since the show (produced by Emilio Estefan, husband of Gloria) was being taped for a later broadcast on NBC and its sister Spanish-language network, Telemundo, things began a little on the rough side. Well, a lot on the rough side, with many starts and stops because everything had to be ready for prime time. And so, everything started up, with the mariachi band pumping up the volume as the musicians strolled through the audience while a singer wailed away and the curtain lifted to reveal dancers decked out in "street wear" and affecting a studied nonchalance. And . . . cut.

The mariachis went back, and singer went back. The mariachis came back out, to enthusiastic applause, and a singer was wailing away and the dancers were affecting their pose and . . . cut.

And . . . cut. And . . . cut.

Then pop diva Rubio was onstage, her latest music video playing on the big screen while the dancers did back flips. She wore a bikini top, hot pants and a hot pink sweatband on her ankle. For modesty, we presume.

Because it's an awards show, there's a certain amount of cheese. Cheese is to be expected when directors try to make the show appear hip! And fun! Which explains why dancers decked out in once-hip clothes were bouncing around with beach balls.

Narciso Rodriguez, the New Jersey-born Cubano who made a name for himself as the designer of Caroline Bessette Kennedy's wedding gown, stood on the sidelines, tucked near the bar next to Rachel Weisz and looking a little overwhelmed -- or maybe it was jet lag -- by all the attention.

"It's an amazing thing to have so many people say to one person, 'We're proud of you,' " Rodriguez said. "To feel that much love from the Latin community -- "

He stopped, looked at Weisz and grinned. She looked back, grinning, until we couldn't help ourselves and stood there grinning, too.

"I'm just so proud of him," she said, adding that they've been friends from way back. "Sometimes you meet people who are each other's . . . peeps. We're each other's peeps."

Being peeps with Rodriguez has its benefits. Take Weisz, for example, stunning and sexy, yet simple and elegant and all the things that a woman wearing Narciso Rodriguez is supposed to look, leaving us to contemplate the fab wardrobe that we would have if we were only peeps with him, too.

At the Hispanic Heritage Awards, Mabel Hidalgo fusses with Raoul Mateo's tie as John Leguizamo, recipient of the award for arts, looks on. Other winners included fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez and novelist Sandra Benitez. Guests are greeted by a mariachi band before the Hispanic Heritage Awards at the Kennedy Center last night.