Irate Congressional Hispanic Caucus leaders to meet with Kennedy Center brass over insult to Felix Sanchez & slights to Latino stars.
Two dozen major Hispanic advocacy organizations have united in calling for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Board of Trustees to act expediently in repairing its relationship with the Hispanic community after the Center’s president, Michael Kaiser, told the head of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts to “go f*** yourself.”
In response to a Congressional Hispanic Caucus letter of complaint, Kennedy Center officials have now agreed to set up a meeting with representatives of the two groups to discuss the grievances. All caucus members are invited to participate. The CHC is surveying its individual members for their availability before setting a date.
The Latino organizations have taken on the Kennedy Center for what they identify as its pattern and practice of discriminating against Hispanic performing artists. The Kennedy Center has included only two Hispanics among the 187 honored in its 35 years of existence. No Hispanic artist has been recognized in the last decade.
Three areas of immediate concern have been singled out by Félix Sánchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, and Héctor Sánchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, which is a coalition of 30 national Latino organizations.
Process for Kennedy Center
The first asks the Kennedy Center to take appropriate disciplinary action against Kaiser for his intemperate remarks.
Second is the concern that the Kennedy Center board has named an internal task force without including any independent voices to assess the Honors selection process. Asked Felix Sanchez, “How can you appoint board members who didn’t realize they had a problem to solve the problem now?”
Third is the need to add senior producers to its Honors production team who understand inclusive diversity. “George Stevens Jr., the show’s creator and producer, failed for over a third of a century to reflect the true American mosaic,” Félix Sánchez emphasized.
Among the Hispanic organizations endorsing these actions are the National Council of La Raza, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Igniting the conflict was a three-minute phone conversation on Sept. 14 during which Sánchez brought up the lack of Hispanic representation. This resulted in Kaiser’s outburst, after which he immediately hung up.
Since then, Kaiser has written a letter of apology and Sánchez has met with Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein.
“The Kennedy Center still finds it difficult to recognize that it discriminated against Latino artists,” Sánchez said. “The real question for the Kennedy Center to contemplate is when does a sin of omission become a sin of commission?”
Artists have been honored since the Kennedy Center began the event in 1978. “The Honors have been compared to a knighthood in Britain or the French Legion of Honor—the quintessential reward for a lifetime’s endeavor,” its website proclaims.
Honorees range from all fields of the performing arts—actors, dancers, musicians, comedians, composers, TV hosts. They have included actor Gregory Peck, dancer Twyla Tharp and most recently comedian David Letterman.
The show is broadcast on CBS to millions of viewers. “The honorees receive many perks, including meeting the President, the First Lady and the Secretary of State,” Sánchez said. “We’ve had people with extraordinary careers who never received the Honor, like Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Desi Arnaz, Anthony Quinn, Rita Hayworth and Raúl Juliá.”
If artists the stature of Rita Moreno, who won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, aren’t recognized, it denies their accomplishments and continues to marginalize Hispanics from the mainstream, he said.
Puerto Rican Chita Rivera and Plácido Domingo, who was born in Spain, are the only two Hispanic artists who have received the honor.
No time frame has been set to resolve the issues that Latino leaders believe need to be addressed. That’s a concern, Sánchez said, adding, “The Hispanic Caucus won’t be patient. In the end, responsibility rests with the Kennedy Center’s chairman and board to expeditiously and fairly address this issue.”
Kennedy Center and the agenda
Following up on a private meeting with Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein, Héctor Sánchez, who chairs the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, wrote Rubenstein on Oct. 17 with a plan “that will swiftly and effectively” address three points of contention between the Center and the Agenda, which speaks for most of the nation’s leading Hispanic organizations. The letter’s content, edited here for space, is endorsed by 24 major Latino groups. It says:
- There are no mitigating circumstances to explain Michael Kaiser’s outburst during a phone discussion in his capacity as Kennedy Center president with a member of the public and a representative of the nation’s largest minority group. This was an inexcusable breach of professionalism. Our community is clearly not satisfied with a simple apology. If the Center’s board does not send a strong message that such behavior is not tolerated, it will be perceived as a sign of profound disrespect to the concerns of our community.
- The Center’s board needs to undertake a thorough review of the Honors’ selection process. By including just two Latinos out of more than 180 recipients over the Honors’ 35-year history, the current selection process is flawed. While we commend the board for setting up a task force to review the selection process, we would strongly recommend that this task force include outside members who have expertise in the field of diversity, particularly the Hispanic community. At the very least, the Kennedy Center should engage an outside, independent group to review the task force’s findings and recommendations.
- The Center also must conduct a thorough evaluation of its Honors Production Team to ensure greater diversity. It plays an integral part in the selection of Honorees and must be thoroughly reviewed by the Kennedy Center board. We strongly recommend that one of the outcomes of this review is that the Center will add producers who have expertise and experience with the whole of our national culture, including the Latino community.
Almendra Carpizo is a reporter with Hispanic Link News Service in Washington, D.C.