The evening was a mix of glitz and grit, rags-to-riches stories over wine and steak, the fundamentally American fables of a minority group that now has a whole lot to show for generations of effort.
Raising $3 million for youth scholarship programs never looked like so much fun, as when the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute did it last night at its black-tie gala at the Washington Convention Center.
Here was the chanteuse Sissi -- just Sissi -- in the green room backstage, signing CDs and posing for pictures with the banquet staff after doing the same out front with the Capitol Hill swells in black tie. She told how she, her mother, her grandmother and her two dogs fled Cuba and arrived in Miami eight years ago "with nothing but what we had in our bags."
Then she had to practice her lines for the program, which included: "Ford Motor Company . . . Comcast . . . Anheuser-Busch . . . Fannie Mae," major sponsors of the event.
This little scene neatly summed up the gala and the status many Latinos have achieved in America: from nothing but what they had in their bags to a powerhouse market, the largest minority in the country, courted by corporate America.
"It's been a long, hard way, but it's a country that makes your dreams come true," said Sissi, whose mother is the noted Cuban opera singer Dinorah Arguelles.
Now hurrying into the party with his entourage was recently elected Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the first Latino mayor of that half-Latino city since 1872. Well-wishers and reporters clustered around and he answered in English and Spanish. He received an excellence-in-leadership medallion from the institute last night.
Villaraigosa told of his life's journey from a tough neighborhood called City Terrace to City Hall. Just three miles but so far in other ways.
"To be the mayor of a city that gave me more than I ever imagined is a real honor," he said. "Es como un sueno realizado."
There was that phrase again that Sissi had used, too: It's like a dream come true.
Too bad Rita Moreno couldn't come last night. She was scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award but was called away at the last minute for an acting job, according to an institute spokeswoman. Willie Colon, the salsa bandleader, was to accept the award in her stead.
After all, it was Moreno, working her way up from almost nothing, like Sissi, to become a star, one of the few to bag an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy. She had her breakthrough in the 1961 film "West Side Story," playing Anita and singing "America," with its lyrical mix of immigrant euphoria shadowed by immigrant realities.
Everything free in America.
For a small fee in America. . . .
Life can be bright in America.
If you can fight in America.
But Benito Martinez, who plays David Aceveda on the television police drama "The Shield," was there, sharing master-of-ceremonies duties with Sissi. During the cocktail reception, he recalled growing up in Albuquerque in the early '70s, when there were Latino stars to look up to: Moreno, Freddie Prinze, Ricardo Montalban and more. "These were guys I felt I already knew," Martinez said, because they looked like him.
But then, he said, there was a dropoff in Latino faces on television. When they reappeared a few years later, they were playing gang members, he says. Now the situation is improving with more Latino role models. But he'd rather children didn't watch "The Shield."
"My show ain't for kids," he said.
But the Latino influence is breaking out all over, in music, politics and business, and events like the gala are opportunities to show a younger generation examples of successful Latinos in all those fields.
"Villaraigosa becoming mayor is one of the most powerful statements L.A. could make about its future," Martinez said.
About 2,500 people were scheduled to attend last night, the culmination of a big week when the caucus also hosted a comedy night and two-day policy conference as part of the fundraising effort. Topics at the policy conference included "the State of Hispanic America," and sessions on immigration, health care, labor, Latino business executives and civil rights.
Alonzo Cantu, a South Texas businessman and community organizer, received a medallion for excellence in community service.
The guests dined on a goat-cheese-and-artichoke frittata; smoked paprika-rubbed tenderloin and corn-crusted sea bass with plantain mash; and a triple-chocolate mousse cake with burnt orange sauce. They danced to the master salsa ensemble the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
Standing in the swirl of dinner jackets and ball gowns at the dinner reception, Abelardo Valdez couldn't quite believe how far things have come. A Texan of Mexican American descent, he came to Washington 40 years ago with the military. He became chief of protocol in the Carter White House and an assistant secretary of state.
"When I first came here you could put all the Hispanics in a little corner," he said. "This is a great gathering of the Hispanic family from all over the country."
They include Frank and Diana Martinez, who own a potato farm in Royal, Wash. "We're just glad that we're finally getting more representation and being recognized as Latinos," Frank Martinez said. "I believe we play a big part in the economy of this country."
"I think it's simply an America in progress," said Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who won his race by demonstrating broad appeal in a state where only about 8 percent of the voters are Latino.
Villaraigosa told reporters before the dinner that another reason for his trip to Washington was to secure homeland security funding for his city. He said he met Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the first Latino in that post.
They shared a moment appreciating their pioneering successes as Latinos, according to Villaraigosa. But they did not shy away from the shadowy side of the story, how Los Angeles is an exporter of Latino gangs.
The mayor switched to Spanish for a moment. He spoke humbly, saying he almost felt he didn't deserve such an award for his work
But his Spanish is a little rusty, apparently. He turned to a bilingual institute spokeswoman to check a point of Spanish grammar.
"Merezco?" he asked.
Yes, she said.
He deserves it.