Modesto Lacén

Hispanic Community June 2021 PREMIUM
Career, Fatherhood And The Afro-Puerto Rican Experience

Although he described his acting debut in Héroes de Otra Patria - which translates to Heroes of Another Country - as a “beautiful experience” Puerto Rican native Modesto Lacén Cepeda also shared a rather interesting, yet ironic tidbit about that 1997 movie: His character (a soldier in the Vietnam War) was an African-American.

“Honestly, I tried to do a southern accent. I don’t know if I accomplished that mission but I did my best,” said Lacén, 44, in an in-depth interview over the phone from his home in Puerto Rico.

Born in Loíza, located on the northeast coast of the island, this multilingual actor has worked on numerous projects in film, theater and television for close to 30 years. His spot-on portrayals of some of the most revered Latin-American figures in the world of music and baseball have  been truly phenomenal. 

But the most important role he’s truly proud of is being a devoted father to his 16-month-old son, Nicanor. “It has provided me with an understanding of what love is. Exponentially, it has made me see my own parents and what they did for me. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to be a father at this age,” said Lacén who exhaled slowly while reflecting on the reality of fatherhood.

As the youngest child of two older brothers, Modesto’s parents provided the almost ‘perfect’ childhood environment for nurturing his passion for the arts. But knowing the imperfect world their children would face, they instilled a powerful message of embracing humility, selflessness and kindness towards everyone - regardless of race, color or sexual orientation.

They also taught/encouraged their children to embrace their Afro-Latino roots while at the same time acknowledging that they live in a divided world still plagued with  racism, where they would be  shunned because of the pigmentation of their skin. 

Sadly, Modesto would readily admit that he did experience this firsthand in his own homeland. 

Photo Credit: Luis R. Vidal

Acting was love at first sight

Affectionately called Mode (/mōh-dě/) by his family and close friends, he was captivated by the arts at a very young age.  “As a child, I liked going to the movies, theater, school plays and poetry recitals. I knew as a kid I wanted to explore more than that,” he stated matter-of-factly. “When I realized I wanted to be an actor there were no barriers in my mind. There were no limits to what I could achieve.” He was fascinated by films and recalled being “overwhelmed and touched” by what he saw on the big screen.

During his early adolescence, he began to seriously consider acting as a profession. His parents supported his passion, and he attended private acting lessons weekly in San Juan. Formal education was always a priority in his household and although teachers were impressed with Lacén’s grades and dedication, he wouldn't be swayed by school counselors to consider other college majors. He knew what box he would check off on the college application - Theater Arts.

Lacén, who has resided most of his adult life in Puerto Rico, knew there was an African-American Oscar-winning actor in the United States he wanted to emulate who truly set the bar - Denzel Washington. 

Yet, he was also quite cognizant of the late Raúl Juliá, who broke down barriers for future Latin American actors thanks to his cinematic and theatrical brilliance, a love for Shakespeare (including speaking with a distinct accent), and an unforgettable role as Gomez Addams in the 1991 feature-length film “The Addams Family”.

When Juliá passed away in 1994, this fellow actor made it an absolute priority to attend his wake in Puerto Rico. “I was in the 11th grade. I had my driver’s license and drove to San Juan to pay my respects. It was my way of paying homage to a great career and the great person he was,” recalled Lacén. 

Becoming Clemente and a Knight

As a teenager, Modesto appeared in a number of television spots on WAPA TV (Puerto Rico’s official station) and in 2000 he graduated with honors from the University of Puerto Rico.

A few years later, he arrived in New York City and although the forthcoming news of an off-broadway production on the life of Roberto Clemente - a fellow countryman - would hit  Puerto Rico while he was in the states, Lacén knew immediately he was meant to play that iconic role.

“I heard about it in the Puerto Rican media. They were looking for an actor. Everywhere they went people were saying, ‘Modesto is going to do that...right?’ I contacted the producers and told them I was interested in auditioning.”

Once the decision to cast Modesto became official, he was totally engulfed in this once-in-a-lifetime role. This included reading numerous books, researching audio/video footage, meeting Clemente’s family, his intimate friends and eventually physically transforming himself into the extraordinary man who is idolized by millions around the world. Although Lacén hails from Puerto Rico, he also needed to capture the essence of Clemente’s pronunciation in the English language.

Among his memories of the film’s opening night and tours, Lacén can most vividly recall when two of Clemente’s sons saw the production for the very first time. “I can still recall [in New York City] Luis Roberto and Roberto Jr. crying and they lost it. I remember watching them as I took the final bow. Even though they are adults, I saw them as kids who were watching their father. It was very powerful,” recalled Modesto about that particular evening 10 years ago.

Lacén had another unforgettable role in an off-broadway production, released in 2015, that years later opened more doors in his career. Lacén transformed into Pedro Knight, the Cuban musician, business manager and husband of Cuban singer Celia Cruz, the “Queen of Salsa”. 

Filmed entirely in Columbia, this Fox Telecolumbia and Telemundo series entitled Celia revolved around the life and unbelievable career of one the greatest Latin-American artists of her generation. This Spanish-language telenovela (soap opera) became a huge hit and was nominated for numerous awards.

As with every actor, Modesto compares himself to a ‘doctor’ and describes the process he undertakes with each character. “I do extensive research. Precise research like a surgeon. I get my hands on books, materials, and speak to people who may have known the person,” Lacén said about his highly-acclaimed performance as a young Pedro Knight. He added: “I play with their physicality and aim towards their humanity [because] I understand I’m portraying someone who lived.”

Photo Credit: Luis R. Vidal

‘Paying it forward’ as a Black Puerto Rican father

Similarly to those characters he’s interpreted on the stage and big screen, Modesto yearns to broaden educational opportunities for others. He’s always taking on creative projects and spoke about the formation of a multicultural organization that would incorporate creative writing, theater, film, culture and even   a wellness program.

Named after a flowering tree in Puerto Rico, Artocarpus 76 is a not-for-profit organization and the brainchild of Lacén and his beautiful wife Ana Teresa Toro. They have “planted” the seed and slowly watched their homegrown program “blossom” before their eyes. 

“For years, I’ve wanted to ‘pay it forward.’ I wanted to do more for Puerto Rico, Loíza and the Afro-Puerto Rican community. Throughout my career, I’ve realized I do have a responsibility,” said this socially-conscious actor. “As a Black-Latino, I carry that with humility and a great sense of pride.”

Yet, there is someone quite special in this thespian household who loves the ocean, is an innate dancer, is quite jovial and is constantly interacting with his beloved parents. Their first son, Nicanor Lacén Toro, continues to formulate words, laugh and embark on an imaginary journey to explore an entirely new world in the Caribbean.

Lacén echos his own parents’ concerns about racism, although he is hopeful that when his son grows up the scourge of xenophobia will be eradicated.

Nevertheless, he felt it was extremely important to be part of a powerful documentary entitled “Sombras de Una Verdad” (Shadows of the Truth) which was filmed entirely in Puerto Rico on the topic of racism on the island, specifically towards Afro-Puerto Ricans.

Once this much-anticipated program aired on TV, the documentary became a hot topic of discussion throughout the island. There was an encore presentation, and it opened the doors to an unpleasant reality often dismissed as nonsensical.

“First of all, it was a visceral reaction. It’s a delicate topic and was a cathartic experience for a lot of people. It was on a main network and we were talking about this honestly. Truthfully, a lot of people were grateful,” said Lacén, who was periodically stopped by island residents and welcomed positive commentary on this ground-breaking project.

Lacén became quite animated when discussing the educational system on the island and how he was only taught about the horrors of slavery. “They didn’t talk about the vast, complex and beautiful stories of blacks who were successful, intelligent entrepreneurs,” he said.

Lacén and his wife will certainly educate their son about his Afro-Latino roots, and open doors to a future of optimism and opportunities. I’m certain that in the foreseeable future, while everyone is clapping for his father during a standing ovation, Nicanor will be watching next to his loving mother, shedding tears of jubilation. 

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