By Adrian Perez, Publisher
This past week The Kennedy Center Honors, presided by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, recognized several individuals with what is perhaps most prestigious distinction an artist can receive in America today. Recognized for their lifetime artistic contributions were Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Buddy Guy, Natalia Makarova, and rock group Led Zeppelin. Overlooked for their lifetime achievements, again, were Rita Moreno, Carlos Santana, and many other Latino American artists.
This has been an ongoing issue for Felix Sanchez, Chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA), whose battle with The Kennedy Center Honors goes back a couple of years when he initiated a letter writing campaign. However, it wasn’t the letter writing that may bring change to the annual event, but a telephone conversation that was heard across the nation.
Founded in 1997 by Actors Jimmy Smits, Sonia Braga, Esai Morales, Merel Julia and Sanchez, the purpose of NHFA is to advance the presence of Latinos in the media, telecommunications, and entertainment industries. Sanchez, an attorney and former Congressional staffer, serves as Chairman on a pro bono basis and has lead the organization to produce an annual quantitative review of how Latinos are portrayed on primetime network TV. In addition, the NHFA has awarded over one million dollars in scholarship grants to Latino students pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.
The Kennedy Center Honors was established in 1978 and is comprised of six Honorary Chairs (the current and former First Ladies), six Officers (including Kaiser), and a Board of Trustees. The Trustees are comprised of 53 individuals, with 32 members appointed by the President of the United States, and 21 serve as Ex-Officio members representing key government departments and Congress. The only Latina is Giselle Fernandez who was appointed by the President, otherwise there are no other Latino Americans on the Board.
The Center receives $37 million in federal funds, raises millions of dollars each year to develop and promote its programs, and is named after late President John F. Kennedy. Since 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors has recognized over 170 honorees, of which only two have been Hispanics - Placido Domingo, the Spanish tenor, in 2000; and Chita Rivera, the actress, singer and dancer of Puerto Rican descent, in 2002.
Many would figure that any organization with the late President’s name, whose photo can be found in many Latino households across America and whose brother walked with Cesar Chavez for the plight of farm workers, would be sensitive to Latinos. But the Kennedy Center Honors’ management appears out of touch. Couple that with a nebulous selection process and a Board of Trustees that doesn’t reflect America today, it is no wonder why we have not seen more Latino honorees.
When the 2012 Honorees were announced on September 12, 2012, and no Latinos were named, Sanchez called the President of The Kennedy Center Honors Michael M. Kaiser to complain. To his surprise, Kaiser actually called him back and shared a few choice words that expressed his dislike of Sanchez’ call.
Sanchez described their conversation as blunt, lasting only three minutes, asking Kaiser “How can you continue to exclude Latinos from the Kennedy Center Honors?” Kaiser responded “hotly,” according to Sanchez, defending his record of promoting Latino arts and artists and ended the conversation by telling Sanchez to “go f--- yourself.”
Sanchez, being well connected to the media, shared his conversation with them and within days, major outlets, like the Washington Post, carried the news that Kaiser had told one of America’s Latino leaders to “go f--- yourself.” Over the following two weeks Kaiser did not deny the accuracy of the discussion and by then, 30 leading Latino national organizations were demanding an apology. Kaiser was pressured to issue an apology, which continued to display his ignorance of the contributions made by Latino American artists.
"One of the challenges with Latino artists is that so many are so young and it's a lifetime achievement award," Kaiser said. "I believe you're going to see more and more and more because the Latino contribution to the arts has been growing and growing and growing."
Kaiser’s apology prompted a meeting between Sanchez and The Kennedy Center Honors Board Chairman David M. Rubenstein. Although their discussion was not made public, it is known that at its next Board of Trustees meeting it was agreed to establish a committee to review the selection process for honorees. In addition, two members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Representatives Charles Gonzalez and Ruben Hinojosa both Texas Democrats, who served as Chairman and First Vice Chairman respectively, wrote to Kaiser, expressing their "concern with the lack of Hispanic representation."
Perhaps in the next couple of years The Kennedy Center Honors will recognize the lifetime contributions of Rita Moreno, Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Ruben Blades, Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, Cristina Saralegui, Raquel Welch, Edward James Olmos, Luis Valdez, or Pedro Almodovar, all recommended over the years by the NHFA.