“I am proud to be a Puerto Rican,” Rosie Perez said. “And I am fabulous, damn it!”
Perez proved as feisty as the women she portrays in her movie and Broadway roles. She spoke on October 8 to an audience of about 400 in the Givens Performing Arts Center on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She was the first guest of the University’s 2007-08 Distinguished Speaker Series.
“A chip on your shoulder is not so bad,” Perez said, “as long as it’s correctly placed.”
A rebellious spirit has served the actress well. Perez, who is about five-feet nothing in heels, said it was spirit that earned her the first movie role in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
“I started my career being discovered by Spike Lee in a night club,” she said. “I was a biochemistry major about to transfer when I saw this scrawny, ugly little man.”
Perez called Lee out for bad behavior, she said. In the late 80s, he had established himself as an up-and-coming film director.
“He pointed at me yelling and screaming and said ‘this is fate,’” Perez said. “I was like ‘never in a million years buddy.’”
Lee tried to give Perez his phone number and, ultimately, threw it on the floor, when, Perez said, “all these women dove on the floor to pick it up.”
The rest is film history. Perez remains very busy professionally with “Lackawana Blues” just out on DVD; two films - ”The Take” and “Pineapple Express” – about to be released; a show – “The Ritz” – just debuting off Broadway; and other ventures including voice-overs for Nickelodeon children’s programs.
To a very diverse crowd that included members of Lambda Theta Alpha, UNCP’s Latin service sorority, the Brooklyn-born Perez discussed Latinos in the entertainment industry.
“I am the hip hop generation, before the bling-bling,” she said. “My generation is reaping the benefits of what others did before us.
“Today, I can be whoever I want to be,” she said. “I’m going to portray the good, bad and ugly because that’s the way it is.”
Perez listed the Latino actors, actresses and entertainers who paved the way, including Desi Arnaz, Raul Julia, Rita Hayworth, Rachel Welch (“yes, she finally admitted it.”) and Rita Moreno, a former guest of UNCP’s Distinguished Speaker Series.
“Everyone should be proud of who they are if they know where they came from,” Perez said. “Half the people from Latin nations don’t know their history, so it’s no wonder people push us, and we fall down.
“We’re great,” she said. “Whatever you are, go back and look at your history. You can never win a good fight unless you do.”
Perez embraced all the cultural influences that produced modern Puerto Rico – Indian, African, Spanish, German, Irish and the U.S., which she said “owns” the country today as a territory that has “taxation without representation.”
She embraced the political movements that spawned New York City’s famous Puerto Rican Day Parade. She stopped short of supporting independence for the island nation or running for political office.
“In my heart, I’m for independence,” she said during the question and answer session afterward. “But I cannot say, because I don’t live on the island anymore.
“Politics? No, no!” Perez said. “I have too big a heart to be a politician.
“I just wanted to come here to inspire everybody,” she concluded. “Go out and change the world and change yourselves.”
Journalist Bob Woodward is the next Distinguished Speaker on Tuesday, November 13 at 7 p.m. For more information about the series or other series at GPAC, please contact the box office at 910.521.6361 or 800.367.0778.