Several of us at NEA had the great pleasure of sitting down and talking with Excellence in Education host, Esaí Morales. Most famously known for his Award winning work in “La Bamba,” “NYPD Blue,” and “Miami Vice,” Morales has given his time to causes beyond film and entertainment. Starting the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts Foundation in 1997 with fellow actors, Morales looked to advance Latinos in the media, telecommunications, and entertainment industries.
When did you become interested in theater?
Well, I can tell you it was pretty early on in the first grade. We were doing theater games in class and had to put on a play. I had a choice to be a rock, tree, or jumping bean. I chose to play a Mexican jumping bean. Little did I know that I would be playing Mexican roles for the rest of my life! It is kind of ironic. I had never met a Mexican before because I was a New York- born Puerto Rican. But I think it was an omen of sorts.
Later on, at the age of maybe 12 or 13, I remember watching Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” and elbowing my friend, pointing at the screen saying, “That is what I am going to do.” Probably looking back today I’d be like, “Oh my God, how could you get into such an unpredictable career, with long periods of unemployment, followed by insecurity and rejection!” But thank God for my innocence and naivetë.
What were some of your favorite subjects in school?
I spoke Spanish until I was 4 or 5 years old, so in school I remember learning this weird new language that had strange combinations of sounds. But once I learned English I really excelled, so much so that by 6th grade I had a 12th– grade reading level. And that is what I often point to when people ask me why I think I am a successful actor. Had I not had a grasp of the language, which is the currency with which we do our craft, I don’t think I would have had the confidence. I remember riding the bus and looking at street signs, advertisements, and not just reading them but giving them life. I remember asking myself, “How many different ways can I say that?” or “How did the writer mean that?” Not just what they literally meant but what they emotionally meant.
Reading and education to me was the cornerstone of my life and career.
Did any teachers in particular make a difference in your life?
My 5th grade teacher changed my life: Jacob Katz, who is no longer with us. Although he was a strict disciplinarian, he had real compassion. He saw in me something that changed my life. He told my mother that I had the ability and was smart enough to become the president of the United States one day. For my mother as an immigrant to be told something like that, you couldn’t tell a mother anything more. And ironically enough, on HBO last year I played the president of the United States [in the show “The Brink]!
Jacob Katz was always such a kind soul and to this day I wish I could go back and thank him specifically and publicly for planting these seeds of confidence that allowed me to flourish.
As you started your acting career and continued on to win awards for your work, how did the role of educators in your life help you continue to grow as an actor?
Anthony Abeson, at Performing Arts High School, has inspired me to this day. He once said, “If you are interested you will be interesting.” You give yourself to the material and elevate it, even if you are doing a silly commercial. Take it off the page! Teachers like him made me think and expanded my mind.
I consider myself an autodidact but I know there were people in my early life that were fundamental to creating a mind that was hungry for knowledge. They didn’t just teach me figures and details, they helped me find my place and where my contributions to society could go.
— NEA (@NEAToday) February 12, 2016
In 1997, you cofounded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts with fellow actors. What was the impetus for starting the foundation?
I saw too many times that people like myself, full- fledged, all-Americans of a certain background, were omitted from the family photo album that I call American media. That photo album doesn’t just inform our country, but also the rest of the world. If we were left out here, then it felt like a negligence of sorts. Instead of just asking “Hey, what about us?” we would start a foundation that would reward students already excelling in their schools. We would offer small scholarships and give students connectivity and focus so that the networks and studios would know there’s a pool of talent that has something to offer.
You have a 5-year- old daughter. How has your outlook on education changed?
Unfortunately, it seems like public education has suffered not only budget cuts. By not properly rewarding the people who educate a passion and not giving them the tools they need to truly help their students flourish, the system promotes an indoctrination of an education. We’re teaching too many students how to be smart enough to work the machines but not smart enough to question the purpose or larger picture, and I don’t think that’s by accident. We tie the hands of a lot of teachers.
When we spend more money on foreign wars than we do on our own infrastructure and education, we are seeing the sad effects today.
Teachers are the safeguard of our society. Without great teachers, you won’t have great students realize their potential, and you have a society that is a bunch of sheep.
We need media attention on our true heroes, who are true champions of our society, the planters of the seeds, or at least the nourishment to our contributing members of society.
If you could share one thought with the teachers of today, what would that thought be?
All I can say is that we stand on your shoulders; society stands on your shoulders. And we owe you this and much more. I would love to see the day where we reward you as much as we reward advertisers, athletes, stockbrokers, money exchangers, because your contributions are far more critical to the health and development of our society.
(Clare McLaughlin from NEAToday.org led the Q&A)