Spanish tenor Placido Domingo was awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 2000. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES/AFP/GETTY…)
The two words that rocked the Kennedy Center Honors as even Led Zeppelin never will interrupted a search for ballet slippers.
Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, had just picked up his daughter from high school in Bethesda and was driving to a dance supply store in Frederick to buy pointe shoes for her when his cellphone rang. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, was on the line.
After two years of writing letters to urge the Kennedy Center to end the near absence of Latino artists from the Kennedy Center Honors, Sanchez had little evidence that anyone was paying attention. He had been unable to get a meeting or have a telephone conversation with Kennedy Center officials. On Sept. 12, the seven 2012 honorees were announced without any Hispanics among them. Two days later, he called Kaiser’s office, and now, within hours, Kaiser was returning the call.
The conversation began bluntly — “How can you continue to exclude Latinos from the Kennedy Center Honors?” Sanchez recalls saying — and ended badly, with Kaiser telling Sanchez to “f--- yourself.”
In between, Sanchez remembers Kaiser hotly listing his record of promoting Latino arts and arts groups. The exchange lasted less than three minutes, Sanchez says. Kaiser declines to quote any words from the conversation. He says, “We both used language we would prefer not to have used.” Sanchez denies he said anything inappropriate or ill-tempered.
News of the insult — spread by Sanchez and not denied by Kaiser, who apologized two weeks later — gave sudden prominence to an issue that has festered with little attention paid outside Latino advocacy circles.
The uproar has called into question the opaque process by which winners are picked to bask in the glow of what has become a signal artistic and social showcase for excellence across performing arts disciplines. Perks include meeting the president of the United States, dining at the State Department and being saluted during a prime-time network television special.
And the controversy raises a broader question: When it comes to recognizing the artistic achievements of the nation’s largest minority, are the Kennedy Center Honors out of step with other high-profile prize programs, such as the Oscars, the Tonys, the Emmys and the Grammys? A look at those contests — including their versions of lifetime achievement awards — shows that a roughly similar small number of Latinos has received top honors.
Latinos and other minorities are under-represented in the entertainment industry, which may limit their access to the creative opportunities that sometimes yield award-winning work before mass audiences, advocates say.
“What’s happening at the Kennedy Center is happening all across this nation,” says Giselle Fernandez, a former network television journalist, the only Latina among the center’s 32 presidentially appointed trustees. “When you talk about television and theater and motion pictures and corporate America, Hispanics still aren’t at the biggest tables in the country, and therefore the fastest-growing and largest ethnic minority is not represented in positions of power to reflect the new America.”
At the Kennedy Center, shockwaves continue to reverberate. During a previously scheduled trustees meeting last week, the board agreed to appoint a committee to review the honors selection process and identify improvements to ensure the honors reflect the full range of artistic excellence. Fernandez says she will be an active member of that committee.
“It’s very important that we have a multicultural influence in the selection process,” says Fernandez, who oversees Latino creative ventures as managing director of a division of the Trump Group.
Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein was scheduled to meet with Sanchez over lunch this past Friday to discuss the controversy. Rubenstein declined to comment.
Reps. Charles Gonzalez and Ruben Hinojosa, Texas Democrats who serve as chairman and first vice chairman, respectively, of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, wrote to Kaiser stating their “concern with the lack of Hispanic representation” in the honors and requested a meeting “to discuss the nominating process.”
The Kennedy Center receives $37 million in federal funds for operations, maintenance and repairs, but not for programming. The honors gala is also a fundraiser that generated more than $5 million last year.