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Latinos rare recipients of Kennedy Center honors

The Census Bureau’s estimate that the ethnic minority population of the U.S. (with Hispanics as the largest constituent) will become the majority by 2050 emphasizes that our nation’s destiny is multiculturalism. 

Yet, this year’s choices for the annual Kennedy Center Honors program seem to reflect a degree of resistance to this new reality. On September 12, the Kennedy Center’s tribute line-up was announced, and not one Latino was named in the arts honoree roster. 

That prompted a frustrated Felix Sanchez, the chair of the National Hispanic Foundation of the Arts (NHFA), to telephone Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center. Sanchez had been trying for two years to discuss the lack of Latinos in their honor roll. 

Of the Center’s 170 honorees selected over the decades, only two, Plácido Domingo and Chita Rivera, have been Hispanic. 

Within hours, Kaiser returned the call on Sanchez’s cell phone while he was shopping for ballet slippers for his niña. 

Soon the conversation turned ugly. “How can you continue to exclude Latinos from the Kennedy Center Honors,” Sanchez bluntly began. “F— yourself!” Kaiser reportedly shot back to end the short-fused chat. Kaiser later sent Sanchez an apology for his outburst.

The repercussions from that explosive conversation rippled through arts and media circles. The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and even syndicated columnist, Ruben Navarrete, of CNN commented on both Kaiser’s swearing and the pattern of exclusion. 

In his column, Navarrete even recommended a boycott of the CBS prime-time broadcast of the December 2 Kennedy Center gala later in the month.   

Two Latino advocacy organizations, the NHFA and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, sent letters to the Kennedy Center, President Barack Obama and Congressional Hispanic Caucus members calling for major changes in the method used to select honorees. 

Sanchez and other arts advocates argue that Latinos and other minorities are under-represented in the entertainment industry and, by overlooking talented Latino entertainers, the Kennedy Center only perpetuates this exclusion. 

In its own defense, the Kennedy Center – a nonprofit funded by federal dollars – points out that the Center’s International Committee was in Spain honoring Spanish entertainers; its National Symphony Orchestra toured Latin America this past summer; and the Center helped to train arts leaders in Spain, Mexico and Argentina. 

This admission reveals a somewhat disturbing pattern at the Kennedy Center – honoring and working with Spanish-speaking and Latin American artists in their home countries, but not Latinos in the United States.

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This Article appears on the December 2012 issue of LPM under Vibe

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