HBO Def Poet Serves Up Comedy, Advice

Joe Hernandez-Kolski was the keynote speaker for the 2013 Latino Heritage Celebration.

Joe Hernandez-Kolski
Joe Hernandez-Kolski performs in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre on Tuesday night.
September 17, 2013

By Lauren Ingeno

Growing up with a Polish father and a Mexican mother while attending a predominantly black high school in Chicago, spoken-word poet and comedian Joe Hernandez-Kolski often struggled with his identity.

But now, Mr. Hernandez-Kolski said he embraces being a “pocho” ­– a term used to describe an “Americanized” Mexican, which can often be used by native-born Mexicans in a derogatory way.

“It gives me white privilege with a side of street cred,” Mr. Hernandez-Kolski joked to an energetic audience in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre on Tuesday night.

As the 2013 Latino Heritage Celebration’s keynote speaker at the George Washington University, Mr. Hernandez-Kolski vocally painted vivid pictures of his childhood, his teenage years and his time as an undergraduate.

“You watch two Ivy League dudes try to out-street each other. The handshake itself is a fiesta,” Mr. Hernandez-Kolski said, poking fun at himself and his college peers. “We were trying so hard to be hard – at Princeton.”

The two-time HBO Def Poet’s stories managed to be both hilariously honest and deeply touching, as he blended personal experience with social commentary and life tips, including his “top 10 pieces of college advice.”

“When you’re half Latino, you very often feel like you’re not Latino enough,” said Mr. Hernandez-Kolski, who has performed in film, television and on the stage.

The theme for this year’s Latino Heritage Celebration – a month-long series of events presented by the Multicultural Student Services Center and a number of multicultural groups at GW – is “Soy America: A Charge.” It refers to the “coming out” movement of Latinos in America who are “charging ahead” to make a difference in society.

Audience members stayed on the edges of their seats as Mr. Hernandez-Kolski rapped, joked and even busted out his best Beyonce moves to “Single Ladies.”

While some people call it poetry and others say it’s comedy, Mr. Hernandez-Kolski said “dialogue” is really what he does. And he lived up to this proclamation.

Before he even set foot on stage, Mr. Hernandez-Kolski spoke to each audience member and learned his or her name. Impressively, halfway through his performance, he called out the names of at least 30 people. 

He encouraged audience interaction throughout his pieces, and at one point, he told the crowd to publicly ask someone out, if anyone was feeling so brave.

“I’m encouraging people to make their intentions genuine,” Mr. Hernandez-Kolski said.

One audience member eventually took the plunge and asked the man beside him if he’d like to go on a date.

Toward the end of his act, Mr. Hernandez-Kolski’s eyes began to tear as he read a deeply personal poem to his mother in the form of a love letter.

“Deep in my heart, I know she was the one, and yet I let her go,” Mr. Hernandez-Kolski’s read. “You will always be my first true love. And I will always be your m’ijo.”

Mr. Hernandez-Kolski advised his audience to “get off Facebook,” “drink coffee,” and to “learn to accept people how they are,” among other things. 

But what he called his “most important” piece of advice was to “be patient with yourself” and to “enjoy exactly where you’re at.”