En español | Jimmy Smits was tired of being a photo op for causes — just another celebrity asked to say a few words and then gently trundled offstage. If this was activism, it wasn't very active. So in 1996, while he, Esai Morales, and Sonia Braga toured with the Rock the Vote campaign, they asked themselves how they could make a difference in people's lives. The answer, says Smits, "seemed like a no-brainer — the education quotient was very important." With that realization, the three, along with attorney Felix Sanchez, cofounded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
Since 1997, the foundation has awarded 500 scholarships to Hispanics working on graduate degrees in film, production, set design, direction, and acting, areas in which they're underrepresented. Says Smits, "Media images are so important to young people feeling positive about themselves. It bothered me that the images were mostly negative."
Throughout his career, Smits, 54, has shown he's a versatile and substantive actor as well as a forceful and articulate advocate for change, appearing at Congressional Hispanic Caucus hearings on Latinos in the entertainment industry, working with Red Cross relief efforts for Katrina and Hugo, and recording a public service ad for colorectal cancer.
Charitable impulses come naturally to the Brooklyn-raised star. Son of a Surinamese/Dutch father and Puerto Rican mother, he says his altruism comes from his mother and her connection to the church: "If you're given gifts or blessings in your life, it's up to you to help the guy coming up behind you."
Smits's interest in theater began in junior high and gained momentum in high school. "He was very quiet but assured onstage, committed to the character. The role he played was not showy, but Jimmy held his own," says Mickey Tannenbaum, who directed Smits in a production of Ossie Davis's Purlie Victorious at Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School. "The kid who played the lead was so powerful, it was easy to overlook what Jimmy was doing, but there was this quiet intensity; in the back of my head it was, 'This kid really wants this."