To say that GALA Hispanic Theatre’s annual gala, “Noche de Estrellas,” is not a typical fundraising event would be an understatement, as members of the Latino community and other theater patrons came together last week at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in northwest D.C.
Honorees for the evening of music, performances and graciously short speeches were Marvin Weissberg, who was recognized for Philanthropy in the Arts and Social Justice; Sonia Guitiérrez, President Emeritus and Founder of the renowned Carlos Rosario Public Charter School, recognized with the Community and Education Leadership Award; and the star of the evening, Diane Guerrero, known best for her roles in the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and CW’s “Jane the Virgin.”
The petite actress, dressed in a tailored black suit with short, glossy hair brushed back, came across as extremely mature for her age, although she certainly does not look like the 33-year-old that she is.
But life made her grow up fast. Born in New Jersey to Colombian parents, Guerrero grew up in some of the tougher parts of Boston —Roxbury and Dorchester — before her parents and older brother were deported to Colombia when she was just 14, leaving her alone in the United States to be raised by friends and neighbors.
The recipient of the Artistic Excellence and Activism Award credits the arts with saving her when she was at her lowest point.
“The arts have always been such a huge part of my life,” Guerrero said. “Especially as a child. It really helped me to survive in many respects, growing up the way that I did. In a neighborhood that lacked certain resources, I was able to latch on to the arts as a kid. Through that, I learned about history and politics, and what was going on around me. For me, it has always been important for me to be affiliated with organizations that care about this.”
GALA has made a mark in its 43 years of operation. Starting in a small house in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of northwest D.C., where the Latino population has always had a stronghold, husband-and-wife team Hugo and Rebecca Medrano made a place for the youth to have a positive space to exist.
Paso Nuevo, the theater’s youth organization, trains youth not only to act, but also to serve the theater in general as stage managers, back stage crew and more.
For the “Noche de Estrellas,” two current members of the youth group performed a piece to the sound of a beating drum, telling the stories of children separated from their parents at the border — an obvious flashpoint for the Hispanic community in D.C. and beyond.
Guerrero was recognized as an advocate for her work with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Mi Familia Vota, an organization that promotes citizenship and voter registration. In 2015, she was named White House Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization.
“As a woman of color, and a person who knows the impact of the arts, especially as a child, I would like to further this message,” Guerrero said. “Representation was slim, and when I was a young girl, I was looking to escape, to learn. I said ‘I’m here! Talk to me!’
“I just wanted to be one of the players, one of the actors,” she said. “I never saw people who looked like me, but I never thought this would be my career. I thought I had to blend in, and that meant denying who you are. I had to seek real help to realize that my truth is the arts, unapologetically.”
Such sentiments were echoed when Mario Acosta-Vélez introduced Sonia Gutiérrez, who faced insurmountable odds sustaining the Carlos Rosario Public School, which also took the lead in adult education, teaching many immigrants basic English so they could become employed.
“When the school lost its funding and had to shut down, she rebuilt the school for it to become one of the most celebrated charter schools in the country,” he said.
While the premise for “Noche de Estrellas” was a serious one, the patrons and enthusiastic supporters enjoyed the tropical-themed menu serving mango shrimp ceviche, smoked chicken and Cabernet truffle beef medallion with lemon polenta cake, finished off with a Chocolate Praline Dome nestled in a Grand Marnier reduction.
While wine flowed freely, Venezuelan guitarist Jonathan Acosta serenaded the audience following a rousing number by the cast of “Fame: The Bilingual Musical” now playing at GALA Hispanic Theater in Columbia Heights.
“When I was in acting school, we had to perform ‘Fame,’” Guerrero said after singing the opening lines to the title song. “To receive an award for artistic excellence is humbling, and it makes me very happy. For me to be recognized by my community means a lot. We are about something, we mean a lot. We are all stars.”
“Noche de Estrellas” benefits Paso Nuevo and other youth activities administered by GALA Hispanic Theatre, and while the night of stars only happens once a year, giving can happen at any time by contacting the GALA Hispanic Theatre office (2437 15th Street NW, Washington DC 20009).
“Fame: The Bilingual Musical” runs through June 9 at GALA Hispanic Theatre (3333 14th Street NW).