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Mr. Smits Goes to Washington

Jimmy Smits talks softly and without a big shtick about the education of Hollywood, his love of cigars and a possible (scripted) move to the West Wing.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 5)

And the compliment is well deserved. If the food at the restaurant is passable, the music—and subsequent dancing—at the club is fabulous. The place is loud with laughter, there's always music playing, both live and recorded, and the mojitos and "congapolitans" flow. It is, Smits says, "one of our favorite places in Los Angeles…and not just because we're investors."

The "we" refers to him and actor Wanda De Jesus, his girlfriend and partner of 15 years. Tiny, she barely reaches Smits's chest, but it's obvious in the way that Smits's voice softens and his face warms when he talks about her that he's still, well, smitten. "We've been together fifteen years. We're more married than most people that we know that have been married…and divorced," he says simply.

"I'm very lucky to have her in my life. I don't know if it works the other way around," he says, laughing. "I lack a lot of communicative skills and I constantly have to work on that. I'm glad that she's been around to help nurture that and to put up with me."

The two met while both were doing stage work in New York. "We traveled in the same circles," Smits explains. "Being Latino actors in New York, you kind of see the same group of people around all the time. They lump everybody [Latino] together. We had [mutual] actor friends, so we knew each other as casual acquaintances before ever working together."

Being in the same industry, Smits says, is a positive. "It's great in the sense that you really have somebody to bounce off of in terms of creativity, who knows the 'creative speak' that a layman might not know when you're researching a character or when you have to make a choice on [a part]. There's a real beauty in that. Although I might be more in the public eye right now, we've both worked pretty consistently, and I think there's a piece of both of us in each other's characters. There's a real kindred thing about the process, in what we both feel about the art and, both being Latinos, how we feel about the community."

The "community" to which Smits refers is the Latino community and, specifically, the tiny community of Latinos in the entertainment industry. If there is, Smits says, the appearance of closed doors and glass ceilings to all those brave enough to try entering the entertainment industry, for Latinos the door is padlocked and the ceiling crafted from safety glass.

This is a hot, hot topic for Smits and one where he's put his money—and his name—where his mouth is.

In 1996, while in San Antonio, Texas, on a swing tour for the Clinton re-election campaign, Smits and fellow actor Esai Morales began to question whether, aside from photo opportunities, their participation in the campaign event made any real difference to the Latino community that they were hoping to reach. Also on that campaign tour was Felix Sanchez, a Washington, D.C., attorney and political consultant.

"We were on our way to the Alamo, I think, for a rally," Smits remembers. "And we began talking about voter registration and young people. We shared stories about education, and the topic [turned to] 'How are we going to get to the next level and get more Latinos into the arts, into media and into positions of power?' We were talking about studio executives, scriptwriting, people behind the camera, and the [subject] kept going back to education [and] young people moving on to the next level.

"There's this whole validation and confirmation," Smits continues, "that comes with an MFA, a degree from Yale or USC film school or UCLA. There's a certain cache. So if there are [Latino] college students already interested in the arts that have demonstrated skill, and if we could help facilitate them getting into these schools, help provide funds to those that are already there to continue, we could tangibly effect change."

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