From Cuba to Hollywood

Humans can do no great things, only small things with great love.

That is the philosophy award-winning actor, director and activist Tony Plana, the 2011 keynote speaker for the GW Multicultural Student Services Center’s month-long celebration of Latino heritage, shared Monday.

Plana told of his personal experiences as a Cuban-American, from his childhood in government-issued housing in Miami to his eventual rise to fame as a professional actor.

The playful speaker peppered his serious message with witty humor, airing a video depicting his most significant theatrical roles to show the challenges of racial typecasting and the progression of his roles over time.

Plana has gradually gone from playing roles as nameless gang members to parts on “The West Wing,” “CSI” and “Ugly Betty.”

“The kinds of characters you see me play in this demo reel really reflect how history has changed, and yet how history has not changed very much,” Plana said.

Plana emphasized that dedication to his craft and the development of his communication skills allowed him to break barriers as a minority in the entertainment industry.

Beyond the world of acting, Plana is an outspoken activist for education. He pushes for the integration of arts into minority communities in East Los Angeles.

Arts education, he said, helps English-learning minorities develop their language skills and gain a sense of community in their schools.

“That’s why an organization like the [Multicultural Student Services Center] is so essential to being the filter that connects Latino students to the college experience,” Plana said.

Plana co-founded the East L.A. Classic Theatre, a theatrical group comprised mostly of Hispanic-American actors who serve the Latino community through education and artistic outreach. Through the support of this group, Plana helped establish “Beyond Borders,” a program facilitating performing arts in academically at-risk and bilingual communities. The program has collaborated with the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the county Sheriffs Department to provide performance opportunities and after-school theatrical programs to under-served areas.

“We always want a keynote who is active in the Latino community and who draws attention to national and international issues. Tony Plana highlights the diversity in the community and the strengths we all have,” senior Ericka Miranda, a representative of the Multicultural Student Services Center said.

Other upcoming events include dance demonstrations, open mic events, film screenings, comedy celebrations and open discussions on current issues – like graduation rates and immigration – facing the Latin American community.

The Latino Heritage Celebration month continues through Oct. 15.

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