Kennedy Center Reviews Honors Process After Latino Outcry

PHOTO:  In this handout from the White House, U.S. President Obama talks with the surviving members of Led Zeppelin John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page during intermission at the Kennedy Center HonorsPete Souza/The White House/Getty
In this handout from the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama talks with the surviving members of Led Zeppelin during intermission at the Kennedy Center Honors

After receiving criticism from Latino groups in recent years, the Kennedy Center has pledged to review the way it selects winners of the nation's highest prize for the arts -- the Kennedy Center Honor.

The Center will set up an 11-member advisory panel, which includes five Latino members: Gabriel Abaroa, Debbie Allen, Roberto Bedoya, Maria de Leon, Rául Esparza, Yo- Yo Ma, Norman Mineta, Joseph Polisi, Thomas A. Saenz, and Damian vWoetzel. The group will meet and make recommendations to the Center's full board of trustees before the 2013 selection process.

So, why were Latino groups, like the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, upset? Of the 180 winners of the award in its 35-year history, there has been only one U.S.-born Latino, singer and actress Chita Rivera, and one Spaniard, tenor Plácido Domingo. In September of last year, the NHFA criticized the Kennedy Center for their "10th consecutive year" without a Latino honoree. The foundation argued that Latinos make up 17 percent of the population, and have significantly contributed to American arts.They also suggested this group has been largely neglected and ignored by the Kennedy Center Honor.

Tensions only escalated when the chairman of the NHFA Felix Sanchez, called Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser to discuss the 2012 choices in September, and Kaiser reportedly told Sanchez to "f--k himself" and hung up. Kaiser quickly released an apology for his "unfortunate choice of words."

According to Sanchez, the lack of diversity in the Kennedy Center Honors is more problematic than in other entertainment awards, because it receives federal funding, he told CBS. He said that Carlos Santana, Rita Moreno, Joan Baez, Gloria Estefan are among the Latino artists which have been overlooked for the award.

Some past winners include Led Zepplin, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Spielberg, B.B. King, David Letterman and Lucille Ball. (Maybe a bad time to mention Desi Arnaz didn't make the list?)

But it's not just Latinos that seem to be a bit underrepresented. Kennedy Center spokesperson John Dow said that the Center could not provide a breakdown of the races or ethnicities of their winners. But from a list of all 180 winners of the award there seems to be very few Asian winners (we could only identify renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma) and a handful of winners of Native American descent, Maria Tallchief and Lena Home. In contrast, at least 35 African American winners have won the award.

Although Sanchez and the NHFA see the new committee as a "step in the right direction," not everybody thinks it's a good idea. In an interview with the AP, filmmaker George Stevens Jr., said he didn't think any changes were needed to the former selection process.

"We should be conscious of diversity insofar as it doesn't compromise excellence because without excellence, we're not fulfilling President Kennedy's mandate," Stevens said. "And I think we can do both."

But Kaiser repeated in a press release Tuesday that the Center is committed to diversity, and hopes to improve the Center's relationship with the Hispanic community.

"While the Center has a strong track record of diversity throughout its other performance, education and arts education programs, it is important to undertake this review process to ensure the Honors reflect the diversity of those who have contributed to American culture," he said.