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NEW YORK — Patricia Velasquez, the actress, former runway model and face of Cover Girl, boasts a unique dual citizenship: She’s a member of the fashion tribe as well as a descendant of the Wayúu Indians, many of whom live in poverty on the border between Venezuela and Colombia.
But while some model types might prefer to forget the world they’ve left behind, Velasquez has done the opposite, bringing her two worlds together by founding a nonprofit organization called Wayúu Taya, which means “I am indigenous” in the Wayúu dialect. Already, Velasquez and her crew have opened a malnutrition center for children in the impoverished region, saving the lives of hundreds, and on Monday night she’ll throw her first fund-raising gala, honoring Carolina Herrera and Katie Ford. Iman will co-host. Celebrity chefs will crowd the kitchen at Butter, and Blu Cantrell will sing.
“I grew up in a town with no water, but we were lucky enough to get an education,” Velasquez says, days before her big event. “We were the poor kids, but we were going to the rich schools. We had to hide every day to take the bus, because only the really poor people take the bus in our country — the indigenous.”
The past 13 years have taken Velasquez far from her roots — to Milan, Paris, New York, and lately to Hollywood. She landed roles in “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns,” and she’ll play an FBI agent in the upcoming thriller “Mindhunters” with Christian Slater and Val Kilmer. While on the “Mindhunters” set last year in Holland, Velasquez’s own mind was on her homeland. “I just got really sad listening to the news,” she says. “I’m comfortable financially, so I thought maybe it’s time for me to really focus and do what I always wanted to do, which is to help my people.”
First she convinced Cover Girl to create an educational outreach program for the Hispanic community, then Velasquez, whom UNESCO named a goodwill ambassador last week, attended the Supermodel of the World contest in the Dominican Republic, using a big donation from Ford Models to start a foundation of her own. Eventually, she hopes Wayúu Taya will be able to help indigenous people all over Latin America, but for now the group’s focus is fixing water pumps and windmills and rebuilding schools in the region.
It’s a process that takes time. But while Velasquez worried that the decision to spend so much energy setting up her foundation might disrupt her career, it seems to have had the opposite effect.
“When you do something giving, life totally takes care of you,” she says. “When I came back from Paris last week, I thought ‘I have to get back to work before people forget me.’ Three days later, I’ve already received eight scripts and there are two offers there.”
Now, the only question is whether either of those offers is interesting enough to keep Velasquez from her good deeds. “I’d like to build my acting career,” she says, “but if I’m not in love with the part, I don’t want to go somewhere to film when I could be working for the foundation.”