The Latino Fight to Be Included in the Kennedy Center Honors

by Sandra McElwaine on November 30, 2012

When Obama applauds this year’s honorees at a glittering event this Sunday night, a key constituency will be missing-as they have 33 of the last 35 years.

Hyped as the “highlight of the Washington cultural year,” the Kennedy Center Honors is the city’s fanciest night out, the capital’s red carpet version of the Oscars. On Sunday evening at the 35th annual honors, President and Michelle Obama will be in the presidential box. Caroline Kennedy will take the stage to make introductions. The honorees-David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, Buddy Guy, Natalia Makarova, and Led Zeppelin-all festooned in multicolored ribbons with chunky bronze medallions, will be taking their bows from boxes adjacent to the presidential couple. Tickets, for mega-donors lucky enough to attend, run from $400 to $5,500. (Others can watch a truncated version of the show on CBS later in the month.)

Inside, the festivities may seem exceedingly glamorous and serene. But outside the ceremony, which has expanded to a weekend of exclusive parties, including a State Department dinner, a White House reception, and a flurry of other tony gatherings, a collection of Hispanic organizations remain miffed by their lack of inclusion.

Over 35 years, just two Latinos have been among the 170 Kennedy Center honorees, Plácido Domingo in 2000 and Chita Rivera in 2004. And only one Latina, former TV personality Giselle Fernández, sits on the Kennedy Center board of trustees, which is appointed by the president.

Hispanic concerns hit a boiling point in September, when after years of trying to reach Kennedy Center officials, Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, finally received a call back from Michael G. Kaiser, the president of the organization. While Sanchez was explaining his dismay at being shunned by the honors once again, he says, Kaiser quickly became agitated and lashed out. “Go fuck yourself,” he said, and slammed the phone down, according to Sanchez.

“I was stunned,” says Sanchez. “He took umbrage that I might question or challenge him and started to defend his positions. He was very dismissive about people in a powerless situation.”

The fallout from the obscenity ricocheted through the Hispanic community, with 30 major Latino organizations joining forces to demand an apology. Nearly two weeks later, Kaiser expressed remorse in a letter to Sanchez.

“I am writing to apologize for the language I used during our telephone call. It was an unfortunate choice of words and I deeply regret using them in frustration during our conversation,” Kaiser wrote, citing a lengthy career “working with artists of color.”

The incident galvanized the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 30 Latino coalitions that had been expressing their distress over the criteria and procedures for choosing the Kennedy Center honorees. They say the process is deeply flawed and blame longtime producer George Stevens Jr., who is also co-chairman of the president’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, for turning a blind eye to their complaints and dismissing Latino artists.

Demanding his resignation, they claim he has control over the entire process and is too cozy with people who are chosen. They also maintain he has a grip on social activities surrounding the event, to which few Latinos have been invited, they say. (Stevens declined to respond to questions sent to the Kennedy Center.)

“The Kennedy Center exemplifies the extremism of exclusion, and enough is enough. They live in a comfortable, beautiful world, clueless about diversity.”

The center is private nonprofit but receives approximately $37 million in federal funds each year. The Latino artistic community had suggested that members of Congress might consider withholding these funds until the impasse was resolved.

In a meeting with Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein in the middle of October, Sanchez asked for an outside diversified task force to look into the situation. Rubenstein listened and as an emollient agreed to an in-house investigation. Sanchez and his confrères were not mollified, he says.

“The Kennedy Center cannot put their arms around the fact they did something wrong and are in denial,” says Sanchez.

Why it has taken so long for the board to see the problem not as one of mere optics but of discrimination and disregard for a community that comprises 17 percent of the population is incomprehensible, he says.

“The Kennedy Center exemplifies the extremism of exclusion, and enough is enough,” says Hector Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda. “They live in a comfortable, beautiful world, clueless about diversity, and are not willing to adapt or change unless something like this happens.”

With input from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other Latino leaders, both Hector and Felix Sanchez, who are not related, sent a letter to Rubenstein outlining their priorities late in October. They requested a reprimand of Michael Kaiser for his remarks; an outside task force with expertise in diversity, particularly Hispanic culture, to review the honors selection process; and a thorough evaluation of the honors production team, with the addition of senior producers who have expertise in the whole of American culture, including the Latino community.

Hector and Felix Sanchez say they received a cursory email from Rubenstein, with no response to any of their issues.

But within the last couple of weeks, the center appears to have to realized it was facing a public-relations debacle and began dealing with the brouhaha. It hired a Washington-based Latino PR firm, and Kaiser reached out to national political and cultural figures, meeting with some key members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. (He apologized to them for his outburst to Sanchez.)

Diversity in all the arts was part of the conversation. According to sources, it was direct and candid, with future meetings planned. “Increasing Hispanic visibility is a major priority for all,” says one observer.

No one at the Kennedy Center or anyone connected to it past or present responded to questions from The Daily Beast. Spokesman John R. Dow said in an email: “A positive dialogue is underway and will continue in the months ahead.”

But the foot-dragging and sidestepping continued to rankle some Latinos, who had discussed a protest the night of the gala, until the NHLA received a letter from Rubenstein on Nov. 27.

He wrote that he had spoken with prominent leaders in the Latino community around the country. An artistic panel “of diverse and preeminent cultural leaders” had been established, as had a new committee on the board of trustees with input from “eminent” outsiders to look into the honors selection process well in advance of the 2013 nominating season.

Felix Sanchez says that while he feels vindicated and pleased by Rubenstein’s positive reaction, the coalition’s goals remain unchanged: legitimate recognition, inclusion in the honors, and additional membership on the board of trustees, which presently has four vacancies.

“We are trying to work with the Kennedy Center in creating change,” he says. “We will remain engaged and receive updates on their progress. We’re optimistic, but we remain vigilant.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, where this story first appeared

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