The plug was hours away from being pulled on the U.S. government, but the hot new Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia was just plugging in, and actor Jimmy Smits figured that the Latino arts partyers at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel could set an example for political stalematers on Capitol Hill.
“We decided we’re not going to shut this down,” Smits told the crowd of nearly 300 Monday night at the annual National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts Noche de Gala. “We think Washington should be thinking outside the box.”
The event raises money for scholarships and advocacy, and the themes of the 17th edition could be summarized as: 1. We love Rita Moreno! 2. Are members of Congress children or what? 3. Ha, Kennedy Center! and 4. Rita, Rita!
Not necessarily in that order.
“I’m appalled,” said Moreno, 81, elegant in black on the red carpet, referring to the looming shutdown. “A-P-P-A-L-L-E-D.”
The health-care law “already did go into law,” said the star of screen, stage and television. “That’s what’s so bizarre. . . . The other side is just so bizarre.”
Moreno was here to receive a Raul Julia Award for Excellence from the foundation. It will go nicely with her Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmys. She’s one of the few artists to have captured the show-business grand slam.
“This is an honor from mi gente, my people,” Moreno said. “That’s always very, very special.”
Julia’s widow, Merel, presented the award to Moreno. The organization was co-founded by Smits, actors Esai Morales and Sonia Braga and advocate Felix Sanchez in an effort to foster a greater Latino presence in the arts.
The guests and organizers took due note of that other great Washington awards fiesta, the Kennedy Center Honors, coming in December. Thanks in part to a public campaign by foundation chairman Sanchez and allies, objecting to the historic lack of Latino honorees, the Kennedy Center changed its selection process. This year, two Latinos will be honored: opera singer Martina Arroyo and musician Carlos Santana.
“Everybody here knows Felix had a lot to do with stirring that pot,” Smits said, asking the guests to raise their wine glasses. “A toast to the squeaky wheel!”
Moreno herself is on many shortlists to be honored by the Kennedy Center someday.
“Rita, you set the bar high,” Morales said. “Emmy, Oscar, Tony, Grammy. Kennedy Center, come on! Guys, figure it out soon!”
Moreno herself demurred.
“It’s not my business to tell people to honor anybody,” she said. “Let’s just say our voice has been heard. . . . Martina Arroyo is a spectacular opera singer. And, of course, Santana is only one of my favorites.”
Between speeches, La Santa Cecilia performed short sets, including its immigration anthem, “El Hielo,” or “Ice,” which the accordion player, Jose “Pepe” Carlos, who was brought from Mexico as a child without papers, dedicated to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.
The emotional core of the evening was the tributes from younger artists to Moreno for paving the way for them.
“When I saw Rita in ‘West Side Story’ as well, I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” said actress Aimee Garcia, who has appeared in television series such as “Dexter,” “Trauma” and “George Lopez,” as well as the upcoming film remake of “RoboCop.”
“You can only dream sometimes as far as what you can see,” Garcia said, referring to the power of visible role models for young people entering any field. Now, it’s her turn to be a role model: “The decisions I make are not just for my career but for my community.”
Garcia received a Horizon Award for up-and-coming excellence, as did actor Nicholas Gonzalez, seen in television series such as “Resurrection Blvd.,” “American Family” and “Sleepy Hollow.” Gonzalez said he grew up on the work of not just of Moreno but others in the room, including Smits and Morales.
The loving homages to Moreno were spiced with banter.
“I don’t know if this is polite to say,” Morales said. “Rita, you are hot!”
Moreno laughed and shouted “Sucio!” — “Dirty!” — then sassed back:
“I may be 81 but my ovaries have not turned to dust,” she said.
Turning serious in her remarks to the audience, Moreno recalled a recent visit to Puerto Rico, the island she left for New York when she was 5. The transition to the mainland was tough, she recalled. She was called slurs in kindergarten. She overcame a language barrier and battled cultural stereotypes. There were no Latino role models for the kind of career she embarked on, she said.
On that recent trip to Puerto Rico, she quelled her fear and braced herself to take a ride on a zip line in a tree canopy. The sensation was terrifying, yet somehow familiar.
“My life and my career for the most part have been lived and built that way,” she said. “The main ingredients have been desire, determination and the will to hang on.”