Felix Sanchez recalls sitting across from then-First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1997, silently hoping for a conversation about a foundation he was trying to start. As their White House meeting drew to a close, though, nothing had happened.
So, Sanchez suddenly, maybe too abruptly, interrupted the First Lady to pitch the idea of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, which would be among the first groups to tie Hispanics in Hollywood to the White House.
“…and so I jumped in and I said ‘You know Mrs. Clinton, we’re also working on a foundation to work on diversity in TV and film, and we’d love to have you help us launch the event,’” Sanchez said, “and she said to me, ‘Just tell me when and where,’ and that was really the truth of the matter.”
Sanchez is the co-founder and chairman of the NHFA. In addition to connecting Hispanics to government, the foundation also advocates for young Hispanic artists in the frivolous and hard-to-crack media industry.
From a young age, there was a question that lingered; When Sanchez turned on the TV or went to the movies, he would always ask the same question: Why isn’t there somebody who looks like me?
Then he saw a film with Sal Mineo, a young Italian actor who had a darker complexion, matching that of Sanchez
“The closest person that I sort of latched onto for that was Sal Mineo,” Sanchez remarks,
This question would lead him to the work he does and loves – opening the doors so that the new generation does not have the same question.
Growing up in San Antonio, Sanchez was raised around many Mexican-Americans. In his neighborhood, schooling, and community, all he knew was his heritage; he was no different from everybody else.
“I never really thought about my ethnicity or my identity because it was all around me,” Sanchez said, “it was something I absorbed naturally.”
That all changed when he moved to Austin to attend college at The University of Texas.
“It was only 80 miles away, but it was a world away from what I had lived in. There, I noticed I was a different cog in the wheel there.” Sanchez explained.
Out of 50,000 students, there were only 750 with Spanish surnames, and only 150 of them were Mexican-American. He often found himself the only Latino – sitting in lectures, living in his dorms, and attending extracurriculars.
However, this did not inhibit Sanchez in any way. He graduated near the top of his class and went to Houston for law school.
After graduation, Sanchez moved to Mexico City to work for the Institute for Legal Research; his work for a human rights campaign landed him an invitation to the Palacio de Minería to meet the Mexican president.
“I thought to myself: ‘I’m meeting the Mexican president. When will I ever meet an American president?,’ only to find that I would come to Washington and meet every single president since Ronald Reagan.” Sanchez recalls. “It’s just one of those American stories that if you follow your dreams and your passions, amazing things can happen in your life.”
Sanchez eventually moved to Washington, D.C. to work for U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, a Texas Democrat. When Bentsen joined the 1988 Dukakis & Bentsen presidential campaign, he was asked to become a liaison between Dukakis’s team and Bentsen’s team.
The campaign reached out directly to the Hispanic community, and Sanchez found himself at the forefront of it.
“When I went to work on the campaign, it was the first democratic presidential campaign that did outreach to the Latino community in a concerted way.” Sanchez reminisces, “Mind you, there were only three of us doing this for the whole country…”
In a time when there was no internet, Sanchez was tasked with assembling a group of Latino celebrities to come together and travel around the country speaking at rallies in support of the campaign.
“Somehow, I was supposed to hire a plane, create the travel logistics, find the talent, bring them on, and do all of this without the internet, without IMDB, without any connections to Hollywood, except it was a friend of a friend of a friend who knew a friend of a friend of a friend,” he says.
It was during this campaign that he got to talking with future NHFA Co-Founders Jimmy Smits and Esai Morales, both big-name actors.
In 1996, when Sanchez and Smits were attending an event with the Clinton presidential campaign at The Alamo in Texas, Sanchez pitched his idea. He was in the back of a secret service car leaving the event when a perplexed Smits asked him: “What are we really accomplishing by being here [political event]?”
It was then that Sanchez pitched the foundation.
“If we created a pipeline, where you can show people what it takes to become an actor, director, or producer… if we invest our time and effort at the graduate school level… we could create these pipelines to the industries that open doors for them.”
“That was our Thelma and Louise moment,” Sanchez said, referencing the iconic 1991 film. Next they had to hit the ground running.
Then came the impactful meeting with Hillary Clinton at the White House. As Smits and the first lady chatted, he recalls, “ I’m counting in my head thinking ‘We only have two more minutes here before they’re gonna pull the plug on us.’”
“…and so I jumped in and I said ‘You know Mrs. Clinton, we’re also working on a foundation to work on diversity in TV and film, and we’d love to have you help us launch [it],’ and she said to me, ‘Just tell me when and where.’”
Clinton was thrilled and agreed to join them for their inaugural gala. For the next one, she brought along her husband, the incumbent president, along.
NHFA acts as a bridge between the federal government and Hollywood一 advocating for policies and initiatives that support up-and-coming Hispanic talent. Sanchez is passionate about this work and about the importance of representation in the media.
“We have had many campaigns where we had to address the lack of representation in a very grotesque way.” Sanchez explains, “One of the things that we worked on was with the Kennedy Center Honors.”
Sanchez sent letters for years to the Kennedy Center’s president, pleading for Hispanic/Latino representation in the prestigious awards ceremony. There was none.
Then the Kennedy Center president called him in 2012 to set the record straight. He said the Center did honor Latinos, just not in the way that Sanchez was hoping.
Sanchez recalled the president saying: “You know, you don’t understand, we do a lot of work with Latinos in other events across the country, and you shouldn’t be focused on this one event.”
Sanchez responded, “Oh okay, so this is a separate but equal argument?”
The next day, in an NPR interview, he noted the president had called him personally to tell him off.
“That became a front page,” Sanchez recalls. “No one was addressing it.”
That wasn’t enough for Sanchez; he had to make sure that some actual change was made, Hispanic voices were heard, and that the president wouldn’t just sweep this under the rug.
So he complained to many people, including Michelle Obama’s chief of staff to make sure Latino voices weren’t ignored.
His work paid off; Martina Arroyo became the first Hispanic artist to be recognized at the award ceremony the following year.
The foundation’s work also impacts the lives of students every day.
“I want to say from the first time I met him back in 2016, he just felt like your biggest advocate in this industry,” remarked Jeanette Godoy, a former NHFA scholarship recipient,
After experiencing a traumatizing assault, Godoy turned to theater as her escape. She began to work at the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles while pursuing a master’s in theater. Godoy currently works as a teacher, actor, and costume designer at UCLA. She credits NHFA for helping her succeed.
Recently, the foundation has asked her to help direct a film, so her commitment to the foundation is not going away anytime soon.
As an acknowledgment of his commitment to the Latino community, President Joe Biden nominated Sanchez to be a member of the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As of now, he is yet to be approved by Congress for the position.
“It’s not always about being at the top of that industry, but about making your mark wherever you’re standing,” he says. “It’s a tough business.”
His dedication to the Hispanic/Latino community will never stop with one angry phone call or a predominantly-white industry. He believes the key to more representation lies in the future, which is why he places his bets on young Hispanic youth.
“He’s really finding these opportunities, from here in LA to DC, to really showcase our work, show what we’re up to, allow us to be in these spaces where we can network, nobody does that in this industry, unless you’re their manager or their agent,” Godoy remarked. “He just wants to see us succeed in this industry.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misquoted Felix Sanchez’s description of Sal Mineo.