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Kennedy Center Honors snub Latinos

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 10:40 AM EDT, Tue October 2, 2012
Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has chosen only two Hispanics among more than 170 honorees.
Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has chosen only two Hispanics among more than 170 honorees.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has honored only two Hispanics
  • Ruben Navarrette: Center overlooks contributions of Latino artists, performers
  • He says America's largest minority is everywhere except on the Center's annual list
  • Navarrette: Kennedy Center needs new leaders who understand our century

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- Normally, you might think that a controversy over whether the Kennedy Center, one of the nation's leading performing arts organizations, is overlooking the contributions of Latino artists, actors and musicians would be a real sleeper.

Until you heard that, during a recent telephone conversation between one lover of the arts and another, one claims the other told him to "F--- yourself."

Ok, gentlemen, you have my attention.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

It all happened very quickly. On Sept. 14, Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, and Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts talked. In multiple media reports, Sanchez said that Kaiser took none too kindly to him expressing his concern over the constant omission of Latinos from the annual list of Kennedy Center Honors recipients.

Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has chosen only two Hispanics among more than 170 honorees: Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and U.S.-born performer Chita Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent. Both these breakthroughs happened during Michael Kaiser's tenure, which has lasted nearly 12 years.

In 2012, Latinos are nearly ubiquitous. You'll find them in corporate America, professional sports, music, entertainment, politics and the media. At 50 million people, America's largest minority is everywhere. Except, for some reason, on the annual list of Kennedy Center Honorees.

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What accounts for the discrepancy?

It is a familiar story. In fact, it has become something of an annual tradition, like Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead, that, when the list of Kennedy Center Honorees is announced each year, there won't be a single Latino name on it.

And this tradition of omission continued this year when the 2012 honorees were announced. The seven artists set to receive the honor are actor Dustin Hoffman, musician George "Buddy" Guy, late night TV host David Letterman, ballerina Natalia Makarova and John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, all of rock band Led Zepellin.

Sanchez has had enough. As a Latino who loves the arts and believes that his community has contributed mightily to it, he is raising a ruckus.

It's the American thing to do. When we see something that isn't right, we speak up. We protest. We boycott. We raise hell until our concerns are addressed, and the wrong is made right. That's what Sanchez is doing. I commend him for it.

While Kaiser refused to share with reporters the exact words he used, he did admit to the Washington Post that he used "strong language" during the call. He claimed it was because he thought he was being labeled a bigot.

"I've spent much of the last 20 years working with organizations of color in this country, African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American," he told the Post. "This is a real part of who I am, and so when someone insinuates that I am a racist, it gets me extremely upset."

Still, Kaiser said, he regretted his choice of words.

Sanchez says the whole racism thing is a dodge, and that he never insinuated any such thing. "That was his interpretation," he told POLITICO. "The issue I presented was: how can you continue to exclude Latinos from the Kennedy Center Honors...He took that to mean I was calling him a racist."

Sanchez suggests that what really set off Kaiser was being challenged and questioned.

What if Sanchez did mean to imply that? So what? Kaiser would still be out of line. If he doesn't like being challenged or questioned, he should go into another line of work, one further removed from the public.

According to Sanchez, the Kennedy Center receives tens of millions in operating funds every year, paid for by public tax dollars. And its ex officio board members include the first lady. This is not a private enterprise.

Two weeks after the phone call, Kaiser finally did something he should have done much earlier. He sent a written apology to Sanchez for the call and the "unfortunate choice of words" he used "in frustration."

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Amazing. With Kaiser, everything comes with a qualifier. He was frustrated? That implies that there was something that Sanchez did wrong to frustrate him. If he thinks he's frustrated, imagine how frustrated Latinos are to constantly have their achievements, talent, and contributions ignored by cultural elitists who think only in terms of black and white.

Kaiser owes all Latinos a symbolic apology, and he can express that by showing that he understands what Sanchez was upset about in the first place and proving that he is committed to addressing this disgraceful pattern of omission. Sanchez is scheduled to meet with Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein soon to discuss his concerns, which are shared by as many as 30 Hispanic organizations who have signed onto the cause.

If Latinos don't get satisfaction, and more importantly some respect, we should turn the TV channel and not watch the broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors on December 2 and not buy the products of any advertiser that sponsors the show. It's time to take the gloves off.

This tempest will probably run its course, but the underlying problem remains. The Kennedy Center needs new leadership. The people at the top need to be let go and replaced with folks who have not just an appreciation for the arts but a firm grasp of the country they're living in -- and the century.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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