The Kennedy Center Honors is the annual Hollywood on the Potomac event, where legendary American actors, directors, choreographers, musicians and singers receive a national ovation from official Washington for their impressive careers. The bipartisan event is lead by the sitting president, first lady, vice president, cabinet, Supreme Court justices, speaker of the House, Senate majority and minority leaders, members of Congress, ambassadors, journalists, K Street power brokers and the cultural cognoscenti.
This year, the president and Mrs. Obama will preside, for the third time, over these awards from their elegant center box overlooking both the audience and the performers. In the 33 years since the inception of the Kennedy Center Honors, there have been 165 honorees, but only two Latino honorees: Placido Domingo in 2000 and Chita Rivera in 2002.
The fact that Latinos are glaringly absent as honorees must not bother President Obama since he named George Stevens, Jr., the show's executive producer, as the co-chair of the president's committee on arts and humanities. The Kennedy Center Honors show has become a symbol of cultural exclusivity, not inclusivity. Misguided presidential appointments like these are reasons why Latinos are kept on the margins of American society. Why? Because appointees, like Mr. Sullivan, have a history and track record of locking out Latino artists and performers from cultural events like the Kennedy Center Honors.
For over a year, 18 National Latino Organizations, including the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA), the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have tried to engage the Kennedy Center and the Kennedy family to address the egregious lack of Latino inclusion in the Kennedy Center Honors.
Despite requests to meet with Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and with the show's executive producer George Sullivan, Jr., we were told that the show welcomes our suggestions, but has a policy of not meeting with groups or individuals who are promoting candidates as honorees. This is quite a contemptuous statement from an entity that has benefitted from the nation's largesse and who has exhibited a historic pattern and practice of shutting the doors on Latino artists for 31 years, out of their 33 years of their existence.
During those 31 years, Latino artists, who are now deceased, like: Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Ricardo Montalban, Raul Julia, Anthony Quinn, Fernando Llamas and Rita Hayworth were more than worthy recipients of this American Arts Award. Presently, Latino artists deserving of this national acknowledgement by the President and the nation's leaders include: Rita Moreno, Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan or Ruben Blades.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film West Side Story. Rita Moreno, who turned 80 this year, won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in that film; Ms. Moreno is also a former Tony and Emmy award winner. Ms. Moreno is just one example of how easy it would have been to include a Latino honoree, had the executive producer wanted to honor her.
Let's face it, this is a town full of politics and the naming of these honorees is not immune from these practices. The public and the various Kennedy Center Boards are welcome to offer nominations, but it is widely understood the executive producer of the show has the final say as to who gets honored. It's time for that practice to end. It's time for the president and his staff to have a "come to Jesus" talk with the Kennedy Center officials, and it's time for the Kennedy family to wake up to the eroding loss of their legacy with the Latino community.
In 1960, John and Jackie Kennedy awoke the sleeping giant -- Latino voter -- in Texas, California and the Southwest. In the mid '60s, Robert and Ethel Kennedy marched with Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta on behalf of farm worker rights; and on his dying bed Ted Kennedy worked for health care and immigration reform. It's time for the Kennedy Center Honors to carry forward the legacy of the family name extended in the Kennedy Center Honors, by also acknowledging and including the artistic contributions made by American Latinos. ¡Sí se pude!