Kennedy Center Honors Ignore Worthy Latino Candidates… Again

Sep 20, 2012
9:49 PM

Here is something you might not know.

What do the following people have in common? Rita Hayworth, Ricardo Montalbán, Celia Cruz, Anthony Quinn, Raúl Juliá, José Ferrer, Rita Moreno, Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Rubén Blades, Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, Edward James Olmos. According to the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA) and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), any of these celebrated Latino icons could have easily been named as recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, one of the country's most prestigious awards. Yet, in the 35 years since the Kennedy Center Honors have been honoring people, only two Latinos—Plácido Domingo in 2000 (who is from Spain, so does he really count?) and Chita Rivera in 2002—have been given the award. That is two people out of 170 recipients. In fact, ever since Rivera won her award in 2002, no Latino has been honored.

Now the NHFA and NHLA are fighting back. After the Kennedy Center announced the 2012 list of winners—Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Buddy Guy, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin (really? the surviving members of Led Zeppelin?) and Natalia Makarova—these two national Latino organizations sent letters to Kennedy Center executives, Caroline Kennedy, President Obama, and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, calling for "major changes in the process by which Kennedy Center Honorees are selected and asking why there is a constant pattern of exclusion of Latinos."

The organizations issued the following statement:

Until we can present Latino modernity and inclusivity to the nation, Latinos will remain at the periphery. The numbers do not lie; a pattern of constant exclusion of Latinos requires immediate attention. The NHLA and NHFA call on Members of Congress to introduce legislation to withhold future funding for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts until the issue is resolved. The organizations also request the removal of Mr. Stevens as producer of the show and to direct the presidentially appointed [Kennedy Center] Board to name future Honorees. Finally, the organizations respectfully ask that President Obama replace [George Stevens, Jr., creator of the Kennedy Center Honors show and its current producer] as Co-Chair of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities in protest for his refusal to name Latino artists as Kennedy Center Honorees.

As NHFA Chairman Felix Sanchez said: "While the Kennedy Center Honors asks for nominations from its Board and other organizations, the nomination process is clearly a pro forma ruse to validate the ultimate Honorees named exclusively by Mr. Stevens. The secrecy in which the selection is cloaked has created a virtual lock-out of Latino artists.”

This story has already gotten mainstream media attention, with stories by Fox News Latino (an opinion piece written by Sanchez), NPR, and POLITICO. In fact, according to the POLITICO story, the issue has gotten personal and quite unprofessional on the part of the Kennedy Center.

Sanchez told POLITICO that, when he reached out to Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, Kaiser told him to “f—k yourself” and hung up the phone.

A spokesperson for the Kennedy Center, when informed of both the NHLA and NHFA’s letter and Sanchez’s allegation regarding Kaiser, responded with this statement: “The Kennedy Center has been and remains very supportive of Latino artists. In the last year alone, the Kennedy Center International Committee was in Spain, honoring Pedro Almodóvar, Sara Baras, Plácido Domingo, Paco Peña, and Tamara Rojo with the Kennedy Center Gold Medal in the Arts. The National Symphony Orchestra toured throughout the Latin American region this summer, giving concerts in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Through our DeVos Institute for arts management, we are working with dozens of Latino companies around the country to help build and strengthen arts organizations. Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser has also trained hundreds of arts leaders in Spain and Argentina, among many other countries. The President of Mexico has given him the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 2006 for his arts management training there.”

Now, we are trying to be a bit fair here, but once we read the Kennedy Center's statement, we felt we had to let them know the following: so what if you went to Spain and Latin America? Last time we checked, the organizations asking for a more transparent process to the Kennedy Center Honors live and work in the United States. That is like saying, "Hey, I love Mexican Americans, and I went to Acapulco and saw a lot of them there." The statement alone speaks to a closed process, let along the reported f-bomb that is more suitable to a social media discussion thread than a professional setting.

So no go on Carlos Santana but yes to the surviving members of Led Zeppelin? Led Zeppelin is from England, guys. Carlos Santana is pura raza. Come on, Kennedy Center, #NoMames.

UPDATE: Kaiser's f bomb made the rounds in Washington media and the Washington Post eventually reported about it.

Here is what the Post reported:

Sanchez said to The Post that he was “exasperated” during the conversation. He said he was expressing to Kaiser his concern that Latinos had been once again shut out when the 2012 Honors were announced last week. “Just the act of challenging his decision making brought out his ire in which he used profanity,” Sanchez said.

Kaiser declined to state what words were exchanged, but he did not retreat from what he said were his strong feelings in response to Sanchez’s criticism.

“I’ve spent much of the last 20 years working with organizations of color in this country — African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American. . . . This is a real part of who I am, and so when someone insinuates that I am a racist, it gets me extremely upset.”

The story conlcuded with this:

Sanchez said that efforts to work with and honor Latino artists in the United States should not be confused with importing and celebrating artists and theatrical or musical pieces from Latin America.

“We see that [trend] at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, art exhibits — we see that across the board in arts institutions: a preference for Latinos who are coming from their country of origin, as opposed to artistic contributions from U.S. Latinos,” Sanchez said.