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Lalo Guerrero & Sons at the White House
January 9, 1997

by Mark Guerrero

     After being nominated by a professor at the University of California at Irvine by the name of Robert Garfias, my dad, Lalo Guerrero, was selected to receive the National Medal of the Arts for the year of 1996, along with playwright Edward Albee, jazz musician Lionel Hampton, actor Robert Redford, songwriter Steven Sondheim, dancer/choreographer Bella Lewitzky, author Maurice Sendak, arts patron Vera G. List, theater director Zelda Fichandler, opera conductor Sarah Caldwell, photographer Harry M. Callahan, and the Boys Choir of Harlem.  At the same ceremony, the Charles Frankel Prize Awards were given to five recipients, including Mexican-American educator Arturo Madrid, and television journalist Bill Moyers.  Some other past winners of the National Medal of the arts, which was established in 1985, include Aretha Franklin, folk singer Odetta, television producer Norman Lear, singer Lydia Mendoza, Antoine "Fats" Domino, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Gregory Peck, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, bluegrass guitarist/vocalist Doc Watson, Bob Hope, Harry Belafonte, Dave Brubeck, Gene Kelly, Pete Seeger, Cabell "Cab" Calloway, Ray Charles, playwright Arthur Miller, writer John Updike, James Earl Jones, banjo great Earl Scruggs, country singer Roy Acuff, violinist Isaac Stern, Riley "B.B." King, opera singer Beverly Sills, Ella Fitzgerald, composer Aaron Copeland, painter Georgia O'Keefe, and film director Frank Capra.  My dad's in some illustrious company, indeed.

     The ceremony took place in the afternoon on Thursday, January 9, 1997 at the Mellon Auditorium at the Department of Commerce in Washington D.C.  My dad was accompanied on the trip by his two sons, Dan and me.  When we arrived at the Mellon Auditorium for the ceremony, we were taken to a green room behind the stage.  All the recipients and their families were there having wine and mingling.  It was announced that the President and first lady would be coming in to meet everyone.  They put us all in a semi-circle and the President and Mrs. Clinton came in and went down the line shaking hands with and meeting everyone.  An official White House photo was taken of every meeting.  We were then ushered into the theater and my brother and I were lucky enough to be seated front row center.  The Boys Choir of Harlem performed music by George Gershwin and Duke Ellington prior to the ceremony .  After the speeches by Mrs. Clinton and the President, the awards were handed out individually to the recipients who were all seated on the stage behind the President’s podium.  After a paragraph or two spoken by President Clinton about each recipient, the President and first lady would walk over to the recipient, place the medal around his or her neck, shake hands, pose for a photograph, go back to the podium, and repeat the process.  There were scores of news photographers to the right of the stage with cameras flashing throughout the ceremony. Right after my dad received his award, as the Clintons were starting to walk back to the podium, my dad reached for Hillary’s hand saying “did we get the photo?”  The President and first lady went back to my dad and posed for a second photo with my dad.  When President Clinton got back to the podium he said, “that guy’s still got a lot of salsa.”  The audience erupted in laughter. What absolutely amazed and impressed me about Hillary Clinton, was after my dad’s photo was taken with the her and President Clinton, she looked at my brother and I, who were taking our own photos of the event, and said to us, “did you get it?”  It was amazing that with all the people she had just met in the green room and the hundreds of people in the audience, she remembered that my brother and I were my dad’s sons and was aware enough, and cared enough, to ask if we got our photos.  She’s a very smart and impressive lady.  The ceremony ended with the Boys Choir of Harlem performing “Amazing Grace.”

     That evening, we were picked up at our hotel by a chauffeured mini bus to take us to the White House.  In the mini bus with us were, most notably, Lionel Hampton and Steven Sondheim, who were staying at the same hotel. It was quite an experience being in small vehicle with a jazz legend and a Broadway legend, who wrote the lyrics to the songs in “West Side Story” and many other major plays, later turned into motion pictures.  We arrived at the White House and were taken to a side entrance.  The people who met us at the door knew who we were without asking any of us, even me and my brother.  Dressed in tuxedos, we entered the state dining room filled with maybe 100 to 150 people sitting around circular dinner tables of eight.  As each person entered the room, his or her name was announced over a public address system.  It was very unreal when I entered having my name announced, “Mr. Mark Guerrero,” following “Mr. Robert Redford.”  It was hilarious. We were intentionally seated at different tables so that we could interact with new people.  The seating was assigned, with a name card at each place setting.  I wound up at a table with Steven Sondheim, former Miss America and Los Angeles television news anchor Tawny Little, the head of the Library of Congress, and four others.  My dad was at a table which included Robert Redford.  There were many other famous people at the event including actor/director Rob Reiner, super model Lauren Hutton, actor Ron Silver, and Chicana singer Tish Hinojosa.  After a great dinner, consisting of roasted swordfish with grilled vegetables and basil potatoes in a leek nage, an endive salad, and a frozen pear parfait in caramel and raspberry sauce, served on the famous red china purchased in the 80s by Nancy Reagan, we were led into the east room and seated for a concert by the great Jennifer Holliday, backed by a small combo.  On the way in we all had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with the President again.

     After the show, we were ushered into another room where the party was to take place.  The United States Marine Band, which included a bass player and drummer with a full kit, played all kinds dance of music for dancing, including rock & roll. Champagne was served and people loosened up and had a great time socializing and dancing.  In the meantime, we were all free to wander around certain rooms of the White House, including the first lady portrait room.  I remember walking in there with my drink in my hand and looking out the window at the Washington Monument with snow around it and thinking “is this happening?”  It was very surreal that a Chicano musician from East L.A. was partying in such an historic building with the President and first lady.  In the course of the evening, somehow my cumberbun fell off and was lost.  I noticed it was gone and mentioned it to my brother.  Later, he was wandering around and happened to find it neatly folded on a window sill.  President Clinton was very down to earth and approachable.  In fact, my dad walked up the the President from behind on the dance floor between songs and tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention.  With secret service men looking on, President Clinton turned around, smiled, and put his arm around my dad.  My dad thanked him for the award and a great night, which was a highlight of his life.  Later, I walked past the President in a hallway and thanked him myself for the great night.  He shook my hand a smiled and was very friendly. At one point my dad, who was fortified by several drinks, thought he might ask the first lady to dance.  I thought that at my dad’s age, of 80 at the time, and the alcohol in his system, it would not be a good idea.  I strongly advised him not to do it and, after some thought, he agreed.  Who knows, maybe it would have been o.k., but it wasn’t worth the risk of him falling down.  Around midnight, the party was over and we were taken back out to our mini bus and back to our hotel.  My dad said it was the crowning achievement of his life and that he never felt more “American.”

Mark, Dan, and Lalo Guerrero with President Clinton
(The Mellon Auditorium, Washington D.C.- January 1997)

Video of Lalo receiving the National Medal of Arts


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