After two years of writing letters to urge the Kennedy Center to end the near absence of Latino artists from the Kennedy Center Honors, Sanchez had little evidence that anyone was paying attention. He had been unable to get a meeting or have a telephone conversation with Kennedy Center officials. On Sept. 12, the seven 2012 honorees were announced without any Hispanics among them. Two days later, he called Kaiser’s office, and now, within hours, Kaiser was returning the call.
The conversation began bluntly — “How can you continue to exclude Latinos from the Kennedy Center Honors?” Sanchez recalls saying — and ended badly, with Kaiser telling Sanchez to “f--- yourself.”
In between, Sanchez remembers Kaiser hotly listing his record of promoting Latino arts and arts groups. The exchange lasted less than three minutes, Sanchez says. Kaiser declines to quote any words from the conversation. He says, “We both used language we would prefer not to have used.” Sanchez denies he said anything inappropriate or ill-tempered.
News of the insult — spread by Sanchez and not denied by Kaiser, who apologized
two weeks later — gave sudden prominence to an issue that has festered with little attention paid outside Latino advocacy circles.
The uproar has called into question the opaque process by which winners are picked to bask in the glow of what has become a signal artistic and social showcase for excellence across performing arts disciplines. Perks include meeting the president of the United States, dining at the State Department and being saluted during a prime-time network television special.
And the controversy raises a broader question: When it comes to recognizing the artistic achievements of the nation’s largest minority, are the Kennedy Center Honors out of step with other high-profile prize programs, such as the Oscars, the Tonys, the Emmys and the Grammys? A look at those contests — including their versions of lifetime achievement awards — shows that a roughly similar small number of Latinos has received top honors.
Latinos and other minorities are under-represented in the entertainment industry, which may limit their access to the creative opportunities that sometimes yield award-winning work before mass audiences, advocates say.
“What’s happening at the Kennedy Center is happening all across this nation,” says Giselle Fernandez, a former network television journalist, the only Latina among the center’s 32 presidentially appointed trustees. “When you talk about television and theater and motion pictures and corporate America, Hispanics still aren’t at the biggest tables in the country, and therefore the fastest-growing and largest ethnic minority is not represented in positions of power to reflect the new America.”