WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 2: Salma Hayek, flanked by her father Sami Hayek (left) and brother Sami Hayek Jr., on the red carpet before the annual awards gala of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute at the Washington Convention Center. She is to receive a Medallion for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment. (Photo by David Montgomery/ The Washington Post) (David Montgomery/TWP)

A hazard of the red-carpet stroll in Washington during a political crisis is that the reporters’ questions go straight from make of dress to who’s to blame. Faced with such a prospect Wednesday evening at the Washington Convention Center, actress Salma Hayek considered her words carefully.

“Every time you come to D.C., it’s intense,” she said with sweet, lightly accented diplomacy before a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala. “If you come during a government shutdown, it’s a little more intense.”

The past Oscar nominee felt a little more free to talk about immigration reform.

“If I could change one thing, it’s for people not to look at us as if we have come to this country to take, because we have come to this country and built this country in many ways,” she said of Latino immigrants. “I wonder if [critics of reform efforts] would be willing to pay for the price of what the food would cost if we all left.”

It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, so the multiple awards galas must go on. But the government shutdown thinned the very top of the VIP guest list for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s celebration, where Hayek was awarded a Medallion of Excellence in the Arts and Entertainment.

The White House sent regrets on behalf of President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who had said they would attend. The president has shown up for the annual affair four of the past five years (including once as a presidential candidate). At least two Cabinet members also bailed, including Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, according to an institute spokesman.

Nevertheless, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a long list of other members of Congress joined the audience of more than 2,000 for an event that was a party with a purpose.

“This is about Latino youth,” said Scott Gunderson Rosa, a spokesman for the institute. “We’re investing in the future. We can’t stop what we’re doing because of a government shutdown.”

The institute is the nonprofit arm of the Hispanic Caucus, and the awards ceremony is a fundraiser for leadership programs designed for young people.

“Here in Washington, the government may be shut down, but our concerns and our issues are not shut down,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said.

Speaking to the packed ballroom, Hayek dedicated her award to immigrants who have “risked their lives in order to search for a brighter future,” to Hispanic women, “especially single mothers,” and to the young, undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” who are brought to the United States as children — who, she said, “are the true inspiration for all of us.”

She was accompanied by her father, Sami Hayek, and brother Sami Jr. She was cited for her work as an actress (“Frida,” “Desperado”), a producer (TV’s “Ugly Betty”) and a director (“The Maldonado Miracle”), as well as for her many social crusades — so many that in an earlier interview, she had difficulty deciding which to elaborate on.

“I never thought that you need to pick [just] one cause,” she said. “I have always thought that you had to do all you can.”

But forgive her. She was jet-lagged after a flight from Paris, and perhaps fatigued a day after pitching a television project to CBS. (“We don’t know if they’re going to pick it up. I shouldn’t be talking about it.”)

So let’s jog her memory about her off-screen causes: fighting domestic violence; fighting for the vanished women of Juarez in her native Mexico; seeking vaccines for pregnant women — plus raising AIDS awareness, protecting dolphins and expanding opportunities for Latino talent in the entertainment industry.

“Maybe you can have more efficiency if you focus only on one thing,” said Hayek, 47. “But at the same time, how can you, if you care? You cannot only care about one thing. Maybe I’m not that organized.”

Ask Hayek where she is focusing her professional energies — acting, directing, producing? — and she has the same chuckling answer: “Again, I’m not that structured!”

She just finished acting in an upcoming thriller called “Everly,” and she is about to start acting in a movie co-starring Pierce Brosnan that she’s also not supposed to talk about.

Her production company, Ventanarosa Productions — which she created in 1999 to open opportunities for Latinos in front of and behind the camera — is engaged in an upcoming animated film called “The Prophet,” based on Kahlil Gibran’s writings, for which she also will voice a leading character.

What does provide structure to her life is what she calls “my mommy schedule.” Her daughter, Valentina, just turned 6. The Brosnan film production conformed with that schedule, not the other way around.

“That is number one,” she said. “My husband [French businessman François-Henri Pinault] happens to be coming to L.A. for one week. We were able to put all my scenes together in three weeks. And Valentina has holidays for two weeks. So it’s a dream.”

Juan Andrade Jr., founder of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, and Francisco Cigarroa, the first Latino to become chancellor of the University of Texas system, also were honored Wednesday.