By Kellie Ell
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON - Take an underprivileged upbringing, a voyage to the land of the free, mix with exceptionally good looks, celebrity girlfriends and a starring role on a TV show and you have the American dream. Or, at least you do in the case of Wilmer Valderrama, most recognizable for his role on “That ‘70s Show” as Fez, the Foreign Exchange student.
The 27-year-old actor and producer was the key speaker at the Latino Leaders Network luncheon Thursday at the Capitol Hilton. The banquet honored exceptional Latin American high school students from across the country with the gold medallion from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.
Valderrama spoke of how proud he is to be part of the Latino culture.
“We are a driven force who know what we are worth,” Valderrama said. “We now have a voice. As a fellow Latino, and a fellow citizen, it is up to us to rewrite the theoretical rule book of how things are done.”
Valderrama, born in Miami, spent 10 years in Venezuela, where his parents were born, before returning to the U.S. at age 13 to live in Los Angeles. No one in the family spoke English.
“My parents made a huge sacrifice,” Valderrama said. “They sold everything they owned, just so we could get back to the U.S.”
The actor shared with the audience his experiences of living in a two-bedroom apartment with his family and eating dinner “every other night.” He began acting to learn English, by reading scripts.
“It was the reality,” Valderrama said. “It wasn’t sad, because we were working through it. I paid my dues and now I have a platform to tell you ... we are the face now.”
Making a surprise appearance and delighting fans, fellow Latina Rosario Dawson joined Valderrama on the platform for photos. She is the founder of Voto Latino, an organization that registers Latin American to vote.
Dawson was in town to accept a Hispanic Heritage Award that evening. The luncheon was the youth part of the awards celebration.
Voto Latino’s spokeswoman, Maria Teresa Petersen, said getting young Latin Americans to vote is an increasing problem, with more than 50,000 Latin Americans turning 18 every month. In the 2004 election, 17 million Latin Americans were eligible to vote, but only 2 million did so.
“The American dream is more than just a shiny car in the driveway,” Petersen said. “It’s about being accountable, holding our elected officials accountable. America will be richer for it.”
Hispanic Heritage President Antonio Tijerino was on hand to congratulate the recipients, along with Laura Nieto of Southwest Airlines. They handed iPod shuffles to the eight winners, recognized in such fields as business, sports and academic excellence.
Guests overlooked the decorative desserts in the center of the table in the midst of a great deal of hand-shaking, congratulating and friendly smooching, while the students took advantage of the photo op by posing with the celebrity role models.
“The American dream is not a myth,” Valderrama said. “If you dream it, you can do it.”