Skip to main content

Kennedy Center Honors snub Latinos

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
October 2, 2012 -- Updated 1440 GMT (2240 HKT)
Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has chosen only two Hispanics among more than 170 honorees.
Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has chosen only two Hispanics among more than 170 honorees.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has honored only two Hispanics
  • Ruben Navarrette: Center overlooks contributions of Latino artists, performers
  • He says America's largest minority is everywhere except on the Center's annual list
  • Navarrette: Kennedy Center needs new leaders who understand our century

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- Normally, you might think that a controversy over whether the Kennedy Center, one of the nation's leading performing arts organizations, is overlooking the contributions of Latino artists, actors and musicians would be a real sleeper.

Until you heard that, during a recent telephone conversation between one lover of the arts and another, one claims the other told him to "F--- yourself."

Ok, gentlemen, you have my attention.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

It all happened very quickly. On Sept. 14, Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, and Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts talked. In multiple media reports, Sanchez said that Kaiser took none too kindly to him expressing his concern over the constant omission of Latinos from the annual list of Kennedy Center Honors recipients.

Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has chosen only two Hispanics among more than 170 honorees: Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and U.S.-born performer Chita Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent. Both these breakthroughs happened during Michael Kaiser's tenure, which has lasted nearly 12 years.

In 2012, Latinos are nearly ubiquitous. You'll find them in corporate America, professional sports, music, entertainment, politics and the media. At 50 million people, America's largest minority is everywhere. Except, for some reason, on the annual list of Kennedy Center Honorees.

Opinion: Why Latinos are key in election

What accounts for the discrepancy?

It is a familiar story. In fact, it has become something of an annual tradition, like Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead, that, when the list of Kennedy Center Honorees is announced each year, there won't be a single Latino name on it.

And this tradition of omission continued this year when the 2012 honorees were announced. The seven artists set to receive the honor are actor Dustin Hoffman, musician George "Buddy" Guy, late night TV host David Letterman, ballerina Natalia Makarova and John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, all of rock band Led Zepellin.

Sanchez has had enough. As a Latino who loves the arts and believes that his community has contributed mightily to it, he is raising a ruckus.

It's the American thing to do. When we see something that isn't right, we speak up. We protest. We boycott. We raise hell until our concerns are addressed, and the wrong is made right. That's what Sanchez is doing. I commend him for it.

While Kaiser refused to share with reporters the exact words he used, he did admit to the Washington Post that he used "strong language" during the call. He claimed it was because he thought he was being labeled a bigot.

"I've spent much of the last 20 years working with organizations of color in this country, African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American," he told the Post. "This is a real part of who I am, and so when someone insinuates that I am a racist, it gets me extremely upset."

Still, Kaiser said, he regretted his choice of words.

Sanchez says the whole racism thing is a dodge, and that he never insinuated any such thing. "That was his interpretation," he told POLITICO. "The issue I presented was: how can you continue to exclude Latinos from the Kennedy Center Honors...He took that to mean I was calling him a racist."

Sanchez suggests that what really set off Kaiser was being challenged and questioned.

What if Sanchez did mean to imply that? So what? Kaiser would still be out of line. If he doesn't like being challenged or questioned, he should go into another line of work, one further removed from the public.

According to Sanchez, the Kennedy Center receives tens of millions in operating funds every year, paid for by public tax dollars. And its ex officio board members include the first lady. This is not a private enterprise.

Two weeks after the phone call, Kaiser finally did something he should have done much earlier. He sent a written apology to Sanchez for the call and the "unfortunate choice of words" he used "in frustration."

In America: It's immigration, stupid, say Latino voters in Nevada

Amazing. With Kaiser, everything comes with a qualifier. He was frustrated? That implies that there was something that Sanchez did wrong to frustrate him. If he thinks he's frustrated, imagine how frustrated Latinos are to constantly have their achievements, talent, and contributions ignored by cultural elitists who think only in terms of black and white.

Kaiser owes all Latinos a symbolic apology, and he can express that by showing that he understands what Sanchez was upset about in the first place and proving that he is committed to addressing this disgraceful pattern of omission. Sanchez is scheduled to meet with Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein soon to discuss his concerns, which are shared by as many as 30 Hispanic organizations who have signed onto the cause.

If Latinos don't get satisfaction, and more importantly some respect, we should turn the TV channel and not watch the broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors on December 2 and not buy the products of any advertiser that sponsors the show. It's time to take the gloves off.

This tempest will probably run its course, but the underlying problem remains. The Kennedy Center needs new leadership. The people at the top need to be let go and replaced with folks who have not just an appreciation for the arts but a firm grasp of the country they're living in -- and the century.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT