Actor and Activist Edward James Olmos Celebrates Culture in a Series of Winter Park Institute Events

November 03, 2010

Edward James Olmos was greeted by an extremely enthusiastic and packed house at Rollins on Thursday evening, October 28. Visibly moved, he touched his hand to his heart and began by speaking to the crowd in Spanish, which prompted an even bigger ovation. “For those of you who are Spanish-impaired,” laughed Olmos, “ask someone later what I said.” Afterward, Olmos had the house lights brought up so he could see the audience during his talk.

The multi-talented actor, producer, director and community activist was born in East Los Angeles and raised by his great grandparents. He shared some of his earliest childhood memories and the wisdom imparted by his great grandfather.  He also recalled his introduction to Belvedere Elementary School in 1952 and the words engraved above the entrance: “If it isn’t worth saying in English, it isn’t worth saying at all.”

Olmos shook his head in disappointment. “Culture is something we should celebrate,” he said. He challenged the audience repeatedly asking anyone to “name one national hero of Latino culture that they had studied—male or female—at any time in their lives.” When no one could, he said “Martin Luther King, Jr. is the only person of color we say thank you to once a year.”

While primarily of Mexican American descent, Olmos demonstrated the point of his talk, “We’re All in the Same Gang,” by tracing his heritage to Hungary, Asia and Africa. “We’re all white, brown, red,” said Olmos, who proved to be an engaging storyteller—at times showing anger, often prompting laughter, and always displaying great passion.

“We still use the word ‘race’ as if it was a cultural determinant,” said Olmos. “There’s only one race—the human race. The rest is culture.”

To prove his point further, Olmos recalled his visit to the United Nations with his fellow cast members from the successful Sci-Fi television series Battlestar Galactica, a show reputed for dealing with tough social issues. “‛As the admiral of the Battlestar Galactica,’” I told them, “‛there is but one race … and that is it. So say we all.’” To which the majority of the Rollins audience answered in kind: “So say we all!”

A self-described “kid from east LA with dyslexia,” Olmos was the first in his family to achieve a college degree. He polled the audience for the number of bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. “Today you better doctorate,” he said, “but don’t get the Ph.D. syndrome. ‘I know everything and I’m going to tell you everything that I know!’”

A prolific reader, Olmos mentioned a number of books he’d read, including The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, which prompted him to espouse the  importance of a healthy lifestyle (he’s 63). He also shared his intriguing dinner conversation with Rollins President Lewis Duncan, whom he referred to as “Doc.”

“Rollins College has one of the most prolific presidents,” said Olmos. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years and I’m telling you he’s brilliant. He is literally a rocket scientist.” 
Part of their discussion was that, while over the centuries, generations have gradually lived longer, scientific advances may ultimately eliminate “diseases of the body.” 

“I’m only halfway,” said Olmos. “I’m going to hit 120. And if I don’t, I’m going to die trying.”

By Ann Marie Varga

Office of Public Relations & Community Affairs
For more information, contact

Edward James OlmosOn the morning of Friday, October 29, Winter Park Institute Scholar Edward James Olmos wrapped up his residency with an informal conversation with members of the Rollins community. The most mainstream and well-known of the Winter Park Institute Scholars thus far, Olmos took questions from a predominantly student-filled audience, sharing intimate stories of growing up in East Los Angeles and lessons he learned from his diverse entertainment experiences.  

Olmos’ confessed that his first love in his life was baseball. Dreaming of one day becoming a professional baseball player, he poured his heart into the game and earned the title of Golden State Batting Champion.  By age 13, however, Olmos fell out of love with baseball and in love with Rock and Roll. “When I hung up my cleats, my father got so angry with me that he didn’t talk to me for two years,” confided Olmos. 

It was rock music that got Olmos hooked on entertaining. As the singer in several garage bands, Olmos explained how performing at famous clubs on Sunset Strip gave him some of his most valuable on-stage experience. “My father taught me how to dance.  I was a terrible singer, but I would get on stage and just groove. My movements were so original that the audience didn’t know what to make of it, but they loved it.”

Olmos went on to explain how we combined his music with theatre in college, learning from the legendary acting coach, Lee Strasberg. “In essence, I gleaned knowledge from everyone I worked with and every character I played,” explained Olmos. “Strasberg was frighteningly difficult to please.  He would break down the most talented of the students, sometimes to the point where I had to avert my eyes. However, once you were able to meet his standards of theatrical excellence, you were ready for anything.”

To use an acting term, Olmos was “on” throughout the event, treating the discussion as a performance. His enthusiasm was matched by several students in attendance, dressed as characters from several of Olmos’ movies and TV shows. 

Olmos concluded the event by professing his impression of Rollins and its President, Lewis Duncan. “Rollins is truly a gift and an extraordinary opportunity.  Dr. Duncan is not just a rocket scientist. He is a humanist and an inspiration for all of us.” 

Following the event, Duncan, who was equally impressed with Olmos, reflected upon the unique opportunity it was to have experienced presentation. “Most scholars come to Rollins to tell us what they know,” said Duncan.  “However, Olmos shared that the farther down his life-long journey he goes, the more he realizes what he doesn’t know.  His words helped us realize that we come from common ancestry that makes us far more alike than different.  His message is that there is no ‘they,’ only ‘we.’  He represents both the voice that is angry about exclusion but also the voice that recognizes that great American strength is in the inclusion of diversity, of culture.”

The Winter Park Institute continues its spectacular season of events on Thursday, November 4, with the highly anticipated keynote address by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at 7:30 in the Alfond Sports Center. For more information on Winter Park Institute events, please visit

By Justin Braun (MBA Class of 2011)

Office of Public Relations & Community Affairs
For more information, contact

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