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Q&A: ‘We Stand on Your Shoulders’

Most famously known for his award-winning work in the 1987 biopic, “La Bamba,” Esia Morales was this year’s host of the NEA Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Gala, held in February. Before the event, he sat down with NEA Today to discuss his passion for theater, the role of educators in his life and why education is important to him.

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!

Did any teachers in particular make a huge difference in your life?

My fifth-grade teacher changed my life. 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!

As you started your acting career and continued on to win awards for your work, how did educators help you continue to grow as an actor?

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 in society could go.

We are very excited to be partnering with you for the Salute to Excellence in Education Gala. What excites you most about being a part of NEA Foundation’s work?

They came to me and that is an honor in and of itself. 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. Frankly, I think we should live up to the great hype of being the greatest nation on earth and not just say it and proclaim it.

There will be many educators in attendance tomorrow night, but there will also be many that won’t be. 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, stock brokers, money exchangers because your contributions are far more critical to the health and development of our society.   

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