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Monday night, I had the privilege of attending the annual HOLA Awards Ceremony. I was asked by the organization to present the inaugural HOLA Elizabeth Peña Breakthrough Award- an honor dedicated to my late aunt. Today marks exactly one year since Ñaña left us, and it was with a heavy heart that I agreed to join the festivities to speak about her. But I’m so glad I did. 

For starters, it was a very nostalgic experience for me. See, growing up in New York with my hugely artistic family meant that I spent a lot of time around some of the most influential names in Latino entertainment. To others, members of this community were seminal writers, producers, and perseverant creative talents. To me, these people were family. I was a kid, so to me they were like aunts and uncles. When I arrived at the venue Monday night, I saw so many of the faces that helped shape many of my childhood memories, and it made me feel a little more at ease; a little more at home. 

What was even cooler was that several important Latinos who came from this community were being honored. Andy Garcia was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Dascha Polanco (Orange Is The New Black)  and Selenis Levya were in attendance, and were receiving awards as well. I was presenting the award that carried my aunt’s name to the lovely and vivacious Andrea Navedo, one of the stars of the hit series “Jane The Virgin.” Then there was the “biggie.” The one that had everyone buzzing.

Have you seen him?

Should I go ask to take a picture with him?

Where’s he sitting?

Who was this man of mystery? None other than Benicio del Toro. The man has won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA. He’s played a wide range of characters, and has worked with the top artists in the world. He’s also Puerto Rican, and has managed to not just be known as “the Latino guy in this movie.” The man has reached the top of the mountain, and he’s done it his way. In our little community, that makes him a hero. And since we’re like one massive extended family, when he succeeds we feel like we all succeed. He’s our boy, and he did it. 

You could feel the infectious, giddy pride that one of our own- who has touched the sun- was there. I even managed to not roll my eyes when someone shouted “¡Boricua!” as he took the podium to accept his Raul Julia Founders Award. I understood it, and it didn’t surprise me.

What did surprise me was how fiery his speech was. Look, I’ve attended these kinds of things before. And, often, the big “celebrity guest” is just there to show face and coast through the festivities. But del Toro walked up there and, after nonchalantly telling the room of standing supporters to sit back down, he delivered an empowering and inspiring speech.

Benicio del Toro, flanked by Manolo Garcia-Oliva. Photo Credit: ARuiz Photography

Benicio del Toro, flanked by Manolo Garcia-Oliva. Photo Credit: ARuiz Photography

He used his time at the podium to talk about growth, and to share an important lesson imparted upon him as a young man. The actor is a firm believer that we, as human beings, should never consider ourselves a finished product. Perpetual growth is the purpose of life. Even at the age of 48, del Toro says he’s always searching; Always looking to learn more; Always trying to be better. Too often, people reach a certain age and go “Okay, that’s it. This is me now,” but the actor’s advice was to never give in to that idea. Press on. Grow, GROW, GROW!

His personal anecdote also drew a rousing response from the crowd. He recalled how, as a young man, he used to love this one piece of advice he was given: “It’s better to be the head of the rat than the tail of the lion.” To him, it meant that he may not always be right or going about things the best way but- like a rat- he keeps moving, keeps digging, keeps searching for what he wants. That was more appealing to him than being the tail, the backside of a lion. That idea worked for him for a while. But then that idea was turned on its head by his godmother, when he was around 18, who gave him a wake up call. She told him he had it all wrong. Being the head ofthe rat shouldn’t be his goal. Starting as the tail of the lion and, through hard work and perseverance becoming the head of the lion one day was the true mission of a life well-lived. 

It all tied in to his message of never giving up, never giving in, continuing to work at your dreams and goals, and being open to the lessons that life throws your way. He concluded his speech with these final words:

“Si se puede. Think big. Take advice. Thank you.” 

He then quietly stepped away as the crowd erupted.  

His words hit me right where I live. As is often the case with most inspirational quotes and philosophies, it’s nothing revolutionary. It’s nothing you haven’t heard in one form or another many times before. But it’s about who is imparting the advice, and when you hear it. Del Toro spoke to me that night, and to everyone in that room- I suspect, who has ever felt like throwing in the towel.

Another highlight for me was Alexander Dinelaris, who accepted an honor that congratulated him for his Academy Award-winning work on the script for last year’s Birdman. After having a friend- a high school english teacher- present the award by talking about his selflessness and how he takes such pride in being a mentor to younger artists, Dinelaris delivered a thoughtful speech. But what was amazing for me was what he did afterward: In a quiet, hubbub-free moment that I only witnessed because I was seated mere feet away, the Oscar winner walked over to two of the teenagers he’s mentored…and gave them his award, which was dubbed the “Dare To Go Beyond” Award.

Photo Credit: Um...me.

Photo Credit: Um…me.

When I had a moment to speak with him about the wonderful gesture, Dinelaris said something along the lines of “It’s their award. They deserve it.” Beautiful stuff.

Lastly, when I presented Navedo the Elizabeth Peña Breakthrough Award, I was gobsmacked as I stood beside her because she said some things that I think my aunt would’ve laughed and cheered for. She was humble. She was brutally honest. She was a firecracker. Those are all characteristics she shares with Elizabeth. She blew me away when she said, with no pretense, that the first twenty years of her career didn’t amount to much of a resumé but “you know what? I didn’t quit!” And now she’s on a hit series, being honored by the very New York Latino community that she came from.

Ñaña would’ve been proud. And that thought brings me a smile on this day where my family mourns her passing. 

It was a fantastic night and a celebration of hard work, and of community.

I’d like to thank the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) for having me. 

Remember: Si se puede. Think big. Take advice.

Thank you.