- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

Latinos might be an underrepresented minority in Hollywood, but they were punching well above their weight Tuesday night in Washington.

The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts’ seventh annual gala at the Corcoran Gallery of Art was packed with TV stars, Inside-the-Beltway brass, top diplomats and major network executives who promised to help boost the profile of Latinos in popular culture.

“This is where Hollywood and Washington interface,” said Esai Morales, star of ABC’s “NYPD Blue” and co-founder of the NHFA, as actors and entertainment moguls mingled with Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Sens. Jon Corzine and Jeff Bingaman, Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Xavier Becerra and the ambassadors of Spain, Bolivia, Colombia, Honduras and Costa Rica.

“We can see steps being made in the right direction, but we’re still in the basement,” Mr. Morales said, noting that Hispanics account for a minuscule (3 percent to 5 percent) chunk of lead roles in prime-time TV, even though — at 13.5 percent of the population — they’re the largest ethnic minority in the United States.

Even that slice of the TV market is slightly misleading, Comedy Central comedian Mo Rocca cracked, because it includes stealth Hispanic Martin Sheen (ne Ramon Estevez).

“All we want is a level playing field,” Mr. Morales said, likening TV and movies to a national “family photo album” from which Latinos are glaringly absent.

When they’re shown at all, said NHFA chairman and co-founder Felix Sanchez, Latinos are the black sheep of that family photo album, all too often portrayed as gang members or criminals, as in “Spider-Man” and “Bruce Almighty.”

“We’re at a crossroads,” Mr. Sanchez said, noting that filmmaker Robert Rodriguez just saw two of his films, “Spy Kids 3D” and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” debut at No. 1 at the box office.

Several small-screen stars who have broken through the ethnic barrier hobnobbed Tuesday night, including “The Bold and the Beautiful’s” Marcio Rosario, Dahlia Waingort (and her husband, director Martin Guigui), and Paulo Benedeti.

Jimmy Smits was present at a dinner hosted by Spanish Ambassador Javier Ruperez the night before the event and was scheduled to emcee the gala, but Broadway beckoned, and he heeded the call. He sent congratulations via video from New Jersey, where he’s preparing his role in “Anna in the Tropics,” a play by Nilo Cruz, the first Hispanic playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The gala struck a positive note that things are changing slowly but surely in Latinos’ favor — although Mr. Benedeti, of “Guiding Light” fame as well as “The Bold and the Beautiful,” wasn’t so optimistic.

He said, “There’s not much we can do except produce our own product” — a la Mr. Rodriguez, who was honored, in absentia, with the NHFA’s Raul Julia Award for Excellence.

The director’s wife, a very pregnant Elizabeth Avellan, came to collect the award and encourage Latino artists with the message that hard work eventually will pay off.

Mr. Rodriguez came from nowhere with his independent, low-budget “El Mariachi” in 1992, and he’s on top of the industry today. “It wasn’t a fluke,” Miss Avellan said. “People didn’t realize that.”

The alternative for Latinos, Mr. Sanchez said, is to follow Mr. Rodriguez’s vision or to settle for “stereotypes that leave us flat and underrepresented.”

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