Opinion: Once Again, Kennedy Center Dishonors Latino Artists

The Kennedy Center Honorees for 2012 have been named, and once again, no Latinos are on the list. So continues the incomprehensible practice of ignoring the many Latino artists ―some, like Anthony Quinn, Celia Cruz and Raul Julia, now deceased― who have been than worthy of this recognition.

In the Kennedy Center Honors’ 35-year existence, only two Latinos have been selected: Plácido Domingo in 2000 and Chita Rivera in 2002. Last year, the 50th anniversary of the film West Side Story, would have been a perfect opportunity to honor its star, Rita Moreno, who was also an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Golden Globe, Grammy and ALMA award winner. Other Latino artists who inexplicably have been passed over include Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan, Ruben Blades, Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, Cristina Saralegui, Edward James Olmos and Luis Valdez.

George Stevens Jr., the show’s creator and de facto executive producer since its inception in 1978, must be held accountable. He has virtual control over who is honored, yet has chosen to ignore years of recommendations ―and protest― by national Latino organizations. Stevens’ ongoing defiance spotlights tensions between Latino leaders and the White House on this issue.

President Obama appointed Stevens as co-chair of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, and for three years, President and Mrs. Obama have feted the Kennedy Center Honorees at the White House and presided from the Presidential Box over this nationally broadcast show. Have the President and First Lady not wondered why no Latino artists have been named during their tenure? Has anyone on the White House staff raised this matter with Kennedy Center officials?

It is also time for the Kennedy family to wake up and take action. Surely, Robert Kennedy, who marched with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in support of migrant farm workers, would not have stood by and watched such an egregious pattern of discrimination. Surely, Caroline Kennedy, whose parents’ legacy includes the first targeted outreach to Mexican Americans in the Southwest during the 1960 presidential campaign, must be aware of this blatant omission that is allowed to continue year after year in her family’s name.

This week, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA) called on President Obama to remove George Stevens as co-chair of the Presidential Committee on Arts and Humanities in protest against his refusal to name Latino artists as Kennedy Center honorees. We also ask that the President and First Lady not attend any future Honors awards ceremonies until Stevens is replaced with a new and independent producer; that the selection process be removed from the producers of the show; and that Honorees be selected by the presidentially appointed Kennedy Center Board instead.

The NHFA also encouraged Members of Congress to stand in support of the Latino artistic community by withholding future federal funding from the Kennedy Center until this matter has been addressed publicly. We also expect an acknowledgment made by both Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein and President Michael Kaiser that discriminatory practices against Latino artists henceforth will not be tolerated at the Kennedy Center.

Why is this so important to our community? Because the Kennedy Center Honors purport to celebrate the artistic achievements of the American mosaic. Disregarding Latino artists is like removing California, Texas, New York and Florida from the map of the United States. The cultural identity of a nation is built upon the totality of its citizens.

When an entire community is left out of a nationally broadcast show that celebrates this identity, with its Honorees presented and celebrated at the White House, it sends a message that Latino contributions are not on a par with those of other artists. We know this is not true, and the rest of the nation deserves to know it as well.

If the Kennedy Center continues to ignore this reality, then it is time to call the Honors ceremony what it has become, the George Stevens Jr. Awards Show, move it from the Kennedy Center to a downtown hotel, and stop broadcasting it over network TV. Only then will the outrage stop.