WASHINGTON — The Kennedy Center Honors may seem like a genteel tribute to the world’s greatest performers, but a public squabble about the selection process has revealed behind-the-scenes resentment over the lack of Latino honorees.
Only two Latino performers have won the award in its 35-year history, and none were included on the latest list of honorees, announced earlier this month.
But angry Latino groups won a round Friday when Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser finally agreed to send a written apology this week to Felix Sanchez, founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, for using profanity against him in a recent phone call about the awards.
Sanchez also will meet with Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein next week to discuss the concerns about the awards shared by about 30 Hispanic organizations.
“I think the apology was genuine,” Sanchez said in an interview with McClatchy.
He nonetheless wants to see reforms and transparency in the honorees’ selection process, which the Kennedy Center likens in prestige to a British knighthood or France’s Legion of Honor.
“It’s an outrage that for a third of a century, Latinos were systematically locked out of an arts institution named for John F. Kennedy, a president with strong links to Latinos,” Sanchez said. “It’s a pattern and practice of discrimination.”
The Kennedy Center Honors are a career capstone to artists, who receive their medals from the secretary of state and are then feted at a gala celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, attended by the president and first lady.
Caroline Kennedy, a trustee of the center and daughter of the late president, is the ceremony’s emcee. Latino groups reached out to her in recent days as well.
In his letter to Sanchez, Kaiser apologized for using “an unfortunate choice of words and I deeply regret using them in frustration during our conversation.” Kaiser also said that he had been supportive of “artists of color” and diverse organizations during his career.
Tenor Placido Domingo and dancer Chita Rivera are the only Hispanic performers who have received the award, given annually to performers in music, film, opera, dance, television and theater. Performers that Hispanic groups have suggested in the past as worthy of the honor include Rita Moreno, Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Ruben Blades, Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan and Edward James Olmos.
A group composed of past honorees and the center’s artists committee makes recommendations about new recipients, according to the Kennedy Center website. The final decisions rest with the center’s board of trustees.
“The honors are not designated by art form or category of artistic achievement,” according to the website. “The selection process, over the years, has produced balance among the various arts and artistic disciplines.”
In an interview, National Hispanic Leadership Agenda chairman Hector Sanchez (no relation to Felix Sanchez) called the selection process “secretive.” In a letter to Rubinstein, he said the absence of Latino honorees was “condemnable, and using profanity to escape responsibility is despicable.”
Felix Sanchez said that Kaiser had resisted efforts by Latino groups over the last two years to push for a meeting, saying that the honors could not be the object of lobbying for any individual. Felix Sanchez said they were not pushing for any one performer, only those of Hispanic heritage.
“I assure you that the concerns raised by Mr. Sanchez were heard and will be given serious consideration,” Kennedy Center spokesman John Dow said in an email.