So some of the guests got stranded in Florida, thanks to Hurricane Wilma. And the usual venue -- the Eisenhower Theater -- was exchanged for the smaller, less formal Terrace Level of the Kennedy Center. And Soledad O'Brien almost had a wardrobe malfunction.
But there was a mariachi band.
"Yes, yes, we love salsa and dancing," volunteered Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation President Jose Antonio Tijerino with a laugh, about an hour before his organization held its 19th annual awards ceremony last night. "But we also love ballet. We also love the orchestra and the symphony. And we also have the Tejano Divas performing with the mariachis."
What else would one expect on a night themed "Embracing Diversity"?
This year's five honorees ranged from a soccer star to a leader in the health care field to a guy who got his start selling cereal out of the back of a van in Mexico. Tab Ramos, Hall of Fame soccer star, was honored with the sports award. Jane L. Delgado of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health received with the education award. The vision award went to CNN anchor O'Brien for her activism in the Hispanic community. James Brooks-Bruzzese, artistic director of the South Florida-based Symphony of the Americas, was given the award for the arts.
That guy with the van and the cereal? He's the leadership award winner, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, who used to peddle breakfast food out of a van with a big rooster on the side; he rose to be the youngest-ever head of the Kellogg Corp.
"My wife," he said, "always says she drove a better car when we met."
And that was just the grown-ups. Also honored were six recent high school graduates, all of whom earned those inexplicable 4.9 or 6.4 or 5.2 grade point averages, all the while helping save the world -- or, in the case of Kara Ashley Culligan, all the while inventing a revolutionary new breathing machine for small children with asthma.
"We're trying to redefine the image of Hispanic Americans," Tijerino said. "These kids are peer role models."
The mistress of ceremonies was Miss USA 2003, Susie Castillo (who, we must point out, also gushed over mariachi bands). Among the presenters were a host of Spanish-language television performers, including Carlos Calderon from Univision, Ana Marie Montero from CNN en Espanol and Telemundo soap-opera star Mauricio Ochmann.
O'Brien -- who usually gets up at 3 a.m. to be at the CNN studios in New York for her weekday program -- took the week off so she wouldn't be dragging herself home after the festivities. A presenter at previous dinners, she was originally peeved to discover that she hadn't been invited to do the same this year.
"Then they called me up two days later and told me I was being honored," she said. "I was completely shocked."
O'Brien's dress, a lettuce-green Carmen Marc Volvo, got stepped on about a half-dozen times, and she nearly tripped, before she made it onto the stage. "I'm a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen," she said, laughing, "but not intentionally."
Brooks-Bruzzese worked for his dinner: the first hour of entertainment featured the conductor leading musicians from the Symphony of the Americas and the National Symphony Orchestra in everything from Vivaldi to a trio of Argentine tangos, complete with dancers. Ballet came in the form of Cuban star Lorena Feijoo, now with the San Francisco Ballet.
But never fear, there was still plenty of time for the mariachis -- specifically, Campanas de Americas. They had to play backup to three women in slinky black pants and low-cut blouses (those would be the Tejano Divas whom Tijerino mentioned), but they still got one of the biggest ovations of the night.