As James Edward Olmos walked onto The Greaves Concert Hall’s stage (which was appropriately adorned with a line of multicultural flags), he was met with a tumultuous wave of applause, calls and whistles amidst a standing ovation. The award-winning actor, producer and activist, who was recently named America’s most influential Hispanic American by “Hispanic Magazine,” had not yet spoken a word, but already had the crowd on its feet.
“It was captivating. He was able to grab the attention of the audience. There were times that if you were to drop a pin you could hear it,” said Leo Calderon, Coordinator of Latino Student Affairs.
Heather Flores, a sophomore Organizational Leadership major, agreed with Calderon, stating “He’s an important voice in the Latino community. He has a good message to say and he’s a good speaker for our people.”
Olmos made certain before he began to speak that everyone in the packed auditorium was seated (with a handful needing to sit on the stage itself while others standing outside the door) and that the lights were on in the audience. “If I can’t see you, then I have a problem connecting with you,” Olmos explained.
Olmos’ lecture was full of jokes and stories told in short passages of Spanish, a presentation within a presentation only a portion of his audience could fully understand. “For those of you that are Spanish impaired, don’t worry. You live in an English-only speaking country,” Olmos joked. He later noted, “I love English. I love it. It’s a very difficult language to speak, but I love it.”
“Those of us who can’t speak multiple languages were left out. We were left out in the presentation and we are left out throughout life,” said Danny Miller, chair of the Literature and Language Department.
Language and culture were a central part of Olmos’ message. “Everyone in this room has been raised and weaned on a one-vitamin diet,” he said. “That vitamin is European-American studies.”
Olmos was quick to note that he did not want to replace European-American curriculum, but rather supplement it. “We deserve the right to speak many languages,” Olmos said, going on to explain that Americans should embrace our differences, adding, “We treat language like we treat culture and it’s made us less than who we really are.”
Students enjoyed Olmos’ different take on controversial subjects.
“I like how he points out, for example, that Jesus wasn’t blonde haired and blue eyed – that what you’re taught isn’t the only possibility,” Flores said.
Olmos told the audience that after his initial time speaking to students who seemed to gain inspiration from his story, he returned to the stage with a renewed vigor for life, a feeling he gets every time he successfully speaks to a group of people. “This is what life gives you when you give your life to others.”
The education system’s lack of non-European descended American heroes disturbed Olmos, and he urged anyone in the audience who could think of a single American-born Chinese or Latino American or any non-European hero to speak up. The crowd was quiet.
Calderon agrees with Olmos’ view. “When you combine the African American and Latino community, that almost accounts for 30 percent of the population. So why is it that we don’t have any heroes?” he asked.
Olmos’ dedication to his message of diversity doesn’t stop at public speaking – he has extended his work as the U.S. Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and as a national spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and diversity, and has worked with the Rockefeller Foundation. On the struggle for social improvement through increased tolerance of diversity, Olmos noted, “We have a long way to go and we’re not getting there very fast.”
Olmos’ message of education to encourage diversity is held by NKU’s faculty as well. “It is through education that we can overcome prejudice,” Calderon said. “It was a special moment for NKU especially, and the Latino community.”
Olmos stressed education, but also let the audience know that it had as much in common as it had dividing it. “I am African first, Asian second, indigenous third, mixed with European and that’s what makes me brown. Orale!”