This year’s Kennedy Center Honor recipients have been announced, and as usual they are an array of luminaries. The 2012 honorees include David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, ballerina Natalia Makarova, blues musician George “Buddy” Guy, and the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. In December, the stars will be feted at a gala with the President and First Lady in attendance.
But not everyone is celebrating the Honors. Two Latino groups want to reform the selection process, saying it excludes Hispanic artists. The Kennedy Center denies shutting out anyone based on race or ethnicity. The truth lies somewhere in between; while the Center may not be intentionally discriminating against Latinos, their honorees unfortunately do not reflect the diversity of our country.
The Kennedy Center Honors are a lifetime achievement award given for contributions to American culture through the performing arts. Their official website notes that the Honors “have been compared to a knighthood in Britain, or the French Legion of Honor.” Yet since the Honors began in 1978, only two Latinos have merited recognition – Placido Domingo (2000) and Chita Rivera (2002) – out of 170 honorees. No Hispanic has received an Honor in the last decade.
The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA) are rightfully concerned about the lack of Latino honorees. Felix Sanchez of the NHFA says that when he called Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, Kaiser told him “F— yourself” and hung up. Kaiser later told the Washington Post that the insinuations of racism upset him and that he regretted using “strong language.” Still, this is hardly appropriate behavior from an individual overseeing such a prestigious organization.
The Honors are unique because there is no competition, no categories, and no losers. The Kennedy Center Board internally reviews and approves deserving candidates. So, why haven’t there been more Hispanic recipients? Given the visibility if Hispanics in the arts, it would appear that the nominating system is indeed due for an overhaul. Certainly, there are Latino artists worthy of recognition, including Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan, Joan Baez, Edward James Olmos, Linda Ronstadt, and Rita Moreno.
To put things in perspective, consider that the Honors have gone to twice as many Russians – such as Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov – as Hispanics.
Although the Kennedy Center is a private, non-profit organization, they receive roughly $37 million in federal funds. The least they can do with this taxpayer money is to make a good faith effort to fully acknowledge the artistic accomplishments of all noteworthy Americans. Overlooking members of the country’s largest and fastest-growing minority group is not good for the Center or its audiences. It is already a shame that Latino icons like Rita Hayworth, Desi Arnaz, and Celia Cruz have passed away without receiving Honors during their lifetimes.
In response to NHFA complaints, the Kennedy Center released a statement, noting that it “has been and remains very supportive of Latino artists.” The statement went on to enumerate the Center’s activities in Spain, Argentina, and Mexico. However, the Center’s efforts in other countries are no substitute for engaging with the Hispanic arts community in the U.S. A good start for the Center might be to strive for more diversity on their board. Currently, TV journalist Giselle Fernandez is the only Hispanic on the Center’s Board of Trustees.
Having a quota system for awards is not a good idea. Neither is neglecting or ignoring the careers of prominent Latino singers, dancers, musicians, and playwrights. It’s time the Honors step into the 21st century and begin recognizing outstanding Hispanic achievements in the arts.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.