Did you know that salsa has overtaken ketchup as the most used condiment in America? Esai Morales, a well-known Hollywood actor who celebrated Hispanic Heritage month with Penn State Abington students on Sept. 16, believes there should -- and can -- be much more to the Hispanic/Latino impact on social culture than just the spicy red stuff. A very passionate and inspiring speaker, Morales highlighted other ways that Hispanic and Latino culture impacts Hollywood, the arts, family and society in general. By covering topics from education to immigration, Morales had much to share with the student audience.
With regard to the arts and the Hollywood factor, Morales would like to see more Latinos playing lead rolls and being major contributors to the storyline.
"The arts are the best way to have human beings understand and communicate with each other through music, visual arts and new technologies. That's how we're really going to find out about who we are. As a Latino, we contribute one billion dollars into this industry and don't get that out. When are we going to be more than flavoring? When are we going to be more than spice? When are we going to be the center of the story?"
Morales has been making headway in his own Hollywood career since 1987, when he got a major career break as one of the leads in the hit movie "La Bamba." He's also played major rolls in several popular television series such as Lt. Tony Rodriguez in the acclaimed ABC series "NYPD Blue." Other television credits include "Caprica" on the Sci-Fi channel, PBS's "American Family," NBC's "Jericho," HBO's "The Burning Season" and "Resurrection Blvd." as well as "Vanished" on Fox.
He attributes much of his success, strong work ethic and involvement in advocacy work to the strength of his mother who raised him single handedly after his parents separated when he was two years old. Morales also gives credit to his education at New York's famed High School of the Performing Arts.
"My mother was the number one union organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union from 1967 to 1970. Barely knowing any English, she organized Latina, Italian, black women because she really knew unless we get together, we don't have a chance in negotiating fair wages and working conditions -- which is probably why I'm a national board member of the Screen Actors Guild for ten years. It's in my blood."
Taking advocacy work a step further, Morales challenged the audience to not only take care of themselves but to open up and care for others.
"There's an aspect of social justice you can't walk away from…we must care about each others concerns … make sure those around us are OK … We, as a people, have got to feel each other's pain and not just at election time."
When discussing the immigration issue currently dividing the country, Morales was impassioned about comprehensive immigration reform.
"That doesn't mean let everyone in. It means be humane in the process. These are human beings. Human beings are not illegal. These are human beings who are trying to feed their families, who are for the most part decent, hard working people that have good values -- that we can all benefit from."
And when the conversation moved to the topic of education, again Morales was dynamic and inspiring.
"Education is not education. It's indoctrination, unless you're taught critical thinking. Unless you're taught to think for yourself, you're just being indoctrinated [and] told what the facts are as opposed to being taught how to sift through the information and ask why is this being brought to you and by whom? They say history is written by the victors. That's history. You want the facts, you have to dig a little deeper."
Describing himself as an "actor-vist," Morales has combined art and activism to build bridges of understanding. In 1997, Morales, along with actors Jimmy Smits and Sonia Braga, co-founded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA), an organization created to advance the presence and quality of Latinos in media, telecommunications and entertainment.
Morales, 48, and about to be a first-time dad any minute, now plans to focus his advocacy issues on children and family matters.
"Impacting social change begins at home and spreads from home to home. That's the Latino way. Connect the change to family and watch it spread like fire," remarked Morales.
In the end, Morales touched many in the audience with his charm, wit and stellar communication skills, evident by the long line of hopefuls waiting to get pictures with the handsome actor.
To see a video of Morales as he spoke at Penn State Abington, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWEDNkpy60U online.