Two national Latino organizations say that the Kennedy Center Honors awards exclude Latinos, and they have begun a public campaign to reform the program, which celebrates lifetime achievement in the performing arts and culminates in an annual telecast of ceremonies at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Felix Sanchez, who chairs the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, said Friday that George Stevens Jr., the veteran writer-director-producer and arts advocate who produces the Kennedy Center Honors telecasts, "has a vision for these awards that is no longer relevant" and should be replaced. The fact that only two Latinos have been honored in 35 years speaks for itself, Sanchez said.
“The insinuation that we are systematically shutting out one racial group is both unfair and inaccurate,” Kennedy Center spokesman John Dow said Friday in an emailed statement, adding that Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser “has been a strong and consistent advocate of Latino and Hispanic artists, programming and cultural values, as evidenced by his entire tenure.”
Dow said that the 14-member executive committee of the Kennedy Center’s board of trustees selects the honorees, after input from former winners and the Kennedy Center’s national artists committee.
Sanchez said that Kennedy Center trustees he’s spoken to have told him that power really rests mainly with Kaiser and the telecast’s co-producers, Stevens and his son Michael. "The board can suggest names, but they have no authority over the final decision. They are a little bit of a puppet -- it’s pro forma. There need to be some checks and balances."
Stevens does not pick the honorees, Dow said, and "we are proud to work with Mr. Stevens each year; the show he puts together is first rate, as evidenced by its fourth consecutive Emmy Award win last week."
Placido Domingo in 2000 and Chita Rivera in 2002 are the only Latino Kennedy Center honorees; Sanchez said that Domingo, the Spanish-born tenor who is general director of Los Angeles Opera and former director of Washington National Opera, counts as a Latino because he spent most of his early years in Mexico and has long been immersed in the American arts scene.
The Kennedy Center was established in 1971 by the federal government and receives annual federal funding -- currently about $37 million -- to cover basic operating and building costs, but it relies on donors to help cover programming expenses. It operates as a private, nonprofit organization that partners with the federal government. Kennedy Center trustees are a mixture of presidential appointees and government officials, mainly members of Congress, who serve as "ex oficio" members, entitled to serve because of the office they hold.
Sanchez said that the public push to reform the Kennedy Center Honors is not timed to pressure President Obama and other politicians as they vie for the Latino vote.
Instead, he said, the spark was the Sept. 12 announcement of the 2012 honorees, who did not include a Latino. David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, the surviving members of British rock band Led Zeppelin, Russian-born ballerina Natalia Makarova and blues musician Buddy Guy will receive their medallions at a private State Department dinner on Dec. 1, followed by an honors gala Dec. 2 at the Kennedy Center that will be taped for a CBS prime time broadcast on Dec. 26.
Obama last month appointed or re-appointed 10 members of the Kennedy Center board, including Caroline Kennedy, David Bohnett, the chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Mexican American television journalist Giselle Fernandez . Of 53 current trustees listed on the Kennedy Center’s website, Fernandez is the only one with a Spanish surname.
Joining Sanchez's group in the bid to reform the Kennedy Center Honors process is another Washington-based organization, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda.
Sanchez said the two groups had tried to present their objections privately over the past two years, sending emails and leaving phone messages requesting a discussion with Kaiser, Stevens, Kennedy Center board chair David Rubinstein and Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the president whom the Kennedy Center was built to honor. She has hosted the Kennedy Center Honors galas since 2003.
Sanchez said he received no response until Sept. 14, when Kaiser returned his call. He said their conversation lasted no more than three minutes.
"The act of challenging him was enough to light his ire and spew profanity at me and hang up," Sanchez said.
Dow, the Kennedy Center spokesman, said that "it was a heated conversation. Although Michael regrets the language used, the heated anger in response to persistent implications of racism was justified."
He added that "the Kennedy Center has a longstanding policy to not meet individually with people who are lobbying for specific honorees, but Mr. Sanchez has both spoken to and received correspondence from Kennedy Center representatives over the past two years."
The press release that took the issue public this week said that that figures such as Carlos Santana, Edward James Olmos, Joan Baez, Ruben Blades, Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan are deserving now and that a more inclusive program might have recognized deceased Latino greats including Anthony Quinn, Ricardo Montalban, Raul Julia, Jose Ferrer, Rita Hayworth and Celia Cruz.
Sanchez said what he’d like to see going forward is "not a quota, but an awareness -- an awareness of the absence. No matter how you look at it, there's something sorely missing."
The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, founded in 1997 by a group that included attorney Sanchez and actors Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, Sonia Braga and Merel Julia, aims to increase opportunities for Latinos in the arts and media and raises money for arts students’ scholarships.