The Kennedy Center is reviewing the way it selects artists who receive one of the nation's highest arts prizes, the Kennedy Center Honors, after Latino groups criticized the center for having only chosen two Latinos of the more than 180 winners in its 35-year history.
The center announced Monday a new 11-member advisory panel that includes five Latinos and some Kennedy Center board members. Among the invited members: actress Debbie Allen, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Broadway actor Raul Esparza and Joseph Polisi, president of The Juilliard School in New York. It also will include representatives of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.
In addition, the center said it will form a Latino advisory committee to foster engagement with the Hispanic community. Though details have yet to be decided on who will make up the committee, how many members it will include, and if it will be a permanent addition to the process.
The 35-year-old Kennedy Center Honors have become a major cultural prize. The honor comes with a salute from the president and secretary of state each year in December, along with performances by A-list entertainers.
In September, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts criticized the Kennedy Center, saying it has long excluded Latinos. Two of the more than 180 past honorees have been Hispanics_ Placido Domingo, the acclaimed Spanish tenor, in 2000 and Chita Rivera, the actress and singer of Puerto Rican descent, in 2002.
Chairman Felix Sanchez said the foundation focused on the Kennedy Center Honors rather than other entertainment prizes because the center receives federal funding and is in the nation's capital. He suggested potential Latino honorees could include Carlos Santana, Rita Moreno, Joan Baez, Gloria Estefan and others.
Sanchez said Monday that the Kennedy Center review is a sign of progress.
"It's just a long-awaited acknowledgement from the Kennedy Center that they are going to view Latinos as part of the American mosaic – as they should have done," he said.
Hector Sanchez, chairman of the Hispanic Leadership Agenda, which is made up of a coalition of 30 national Latino organizations, said he was optimistic about the future.
"This is a great step in the right direction," Sanchez said. "The next step is to make sure that our recommendations in the committee actually take place."
Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, who had come under heavy criticism for cursing out Felix Sanchez during a heated phone conversation last year, said the honorees should reflect the nation's diversity.
"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," Kaiser said Monday in announcing the review process.
But not every agrees the changes were necessary.
Filmmaker George Stevens Jr., defended the former selection process and said no changes were needed.
"We should be conscious of diversity insofar as it doesn't compromise excellence because without excellence, we're not fulfilling President Kennedy's mandate," he said. "And I think we can do both."
Felix Sanchez told Fox News Latino that Stevens comments reveal an attitude problem with the production leadership team at the Kennedy Center. He said the current process has no checks and balances and he hopes that ultimately committee members, not a few individuals, will have more say in who gets awarded.
"That is what has blocked us," Sanchez said. "This kind of an attitude is what creates blocks for Latinos at the Kennedy Center Honors and many other areas of looking and naming Latinos in recognizing Latinos in other areas."
Reporting by the Associated Press.