Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s 36th annual awards
The Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s 36th annual awards ceremony took place on Sept. 7 at the Kennedy Center; Credit: Camila Bailey

The Kennedy Center hosted an especially glamorous crowd Thursday evening for the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s 36th annual awards ceremony, threatening to outpace even the Opera House’s production of Moulin Rouge! The Musical in terms of sequined gowns and colorful suits. 

“The Hispanic Heritage Foundation is thrilled to be back home at the Kennedy Center and come together to celebrate the Latino community’s accomplishments, cultural pride and our great promise,” Antonio Tijerino, HHF President and CEO, wrote in a press release announcing the ceremony.

The Sept. 7 awards honored some of the biggest changemakers in the Latin American community, while also celebrating the cultural diversity in the Americas. The 2023 honorees included multiple Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winning musical group Café Tacvba, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Omar Apollo, Mexican American food brand Siete Family Foods, and Latin Urban music icon WISIN, who unfortunately was grounded in Puerto Rico due to a health issue. 

Past honorees have included Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and singer-songwriter Daddy Yankee.

The White House established the Hispanic Heritage Foundation in 1988 to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month, which launched that same year under the Reagan administration. The awards were a means of further strengthening the significance of HHM, running Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, and earning the awards the name of “America’s Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration.”

The 2018 awardee Richard Crazy Legs Colón, an early pioneer of break dancing, spoke to reporters as guests arrived, explaining that the awards represent the heritage and legacy of Hispanic people in the U.S. “As a colonized people,” Colón said, “we’ve lost a lot of our history, and relics, and things we can learn about to be proud of, so this contributes to what was taken away from all of us.”

“It’s a way that we Latinos can connect with so many different cultures,” said Pati Jinich, a Mexican chef and host of Pati’s Mexican Table and a presenter at the awards. Speaking with City Paper in Spanish, Jinich said these connections happen by taking the time to learn about the different cultures. “Latinos know that there is such rich diversity within our community; you have to celebrate it.” 

The awards present the opportunity to celebrate that diversity as well as the different generations that the honorees span. Jinich noted how the event celebrates both rising artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs, and those that are more established. At the ceremony, she pointed out, “there are both those who are welcoming the newcomers, and the newcomers themselves; who are so full of respect for these individuals and the paths they have paved for themselves.” 

The awards may be the foundation’s biggest event, but HHF’s work goes far beyond this one night. The awards function as a launchpad for the foundation’s larger mission, which, the press release explains, is focused on “education, workforce, and social justice and impact through the lens of leadership and culture.” The organization achieves these goals via youth programming, workshops, career development and skill training, and creative initiatives. Within the foundation’s network, and externally, HHF works to promote cultural pride for Latine communities. These programs happen throughout the year, but especially during HHM.

The awards, Tijerino says in the press release, seeks to honor the Latine presence in the U.S., “past, present, and future—through dynamic performances, inspirational stories, and solidarity which we will need to continue to move our community and country forward.” The awards seek to spotlight exceptional Latines but the ceremony—and HHM—is for everyone.

“I feel like everyone will enrich themselves by celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” Jinich said. “Latinos and Hispanics because we can begin to understand all that we contribute to the country, but the rest of the country as well, because they can learn about new [cultures] to enrich their own lives. Everyone grows richer.”

The Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s 36th Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards airs at 9 p.m. on Sept. 29 on PBS. It will also be available to stream on PBS.org.