Spanish tenor Placido Domingo was awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 2000. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The two words that rocked the Kennedy Center Honors as even Led Zeppelin never will interrupted a search for ballet slippers.

Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, had just picked up his daughter from high school in Bethesda and was driving to a dance supply store in Frederick to buy pointe shoes for her when his cellphone rang. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, was on the line.

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.

Felix Sanchez speaks at a National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts gala at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, Sept. 11, 2012. (Courtesy of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts)

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.”

At the Kennedy Center, shockwaves continue to reverberate. During a previously scheduled trustees meeting last week, the board agreed to appoint a committee to review the honors selection process and identify improvements to ensure the honors reflect the full range of artistic excellence. Fernandez says she will be an active member of that committee.

“It’s very important that we have a multicultural influence in the selection process,” says Fernandez, who oversees Latino creative ventures as managing director of a division of the Trump Group.

Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein was scheduled to meet with Sanchez over lunch this past Friday to discuss the controversy. Rubenstein declined to comment.

Reps. Charles Gonzalez and Ruben Hinojosa, Texas Democrats who serve as chairman and first vice chairman, respectively, of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, wrote to Kaiser stating their “concern with the lack of Hispanic representation” in the honors and requested a meeting “to discuss the nominating process.”

The Kennedy Center receives $37 million in federal funds for operations, maintenance and repairs, but not for programming. The honors gala is also a fundraiser that generated more than $5 million last year.

Sanchez is a former Senate staffer and Democratic campaign aide whose Texas roots date back to when the territory was still part of Mexico. He seized on Kaiser’s outburst as a moment of maximum impact to advance the cause of recognizing Latino achievement. While the Kennedy Center is the target now, the effort is part of a systematic campaign in recent years by allies in a coalition called the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda to highlight the relative exclusion of Latinos from many forums, including the Sunday morning political talk shows, prime-time television and federal employment.

“We hope that this will be a watershed moment that will enlighten all these other awards shows that they can be equally subject to this kind of scrutiny,” Sanchez says.

At the same time, he adds, the Kennedy Center Honors are special, because of their identification with the nation’s capital and also because of a warm relationship Latinos feel toward the Kennedys.

Campaigning for her husband in 1960, Jackie Kennedy asked Latinos in Spanish for their votes, and pictures of John Kennedy were hung next to images of Jesus in many households, Sanchez says. Bobby Kennedy met with Cesar Chavez after one of the farm labor leader’s hunger strikes. Edward Kennedy championed immigration reform.

“How can there have been such a huge disconnect between the Kennedy legacy, as it pertains to the Latino community, and these awards, which purport to honor the American mosaic of artistic achievement?” Sanchez says.

Patterns of neglect

Since 1978, the inaugural year of the Kennedy Center Honors, two of the 186 honorees have been Hispanics — Placido Domingo, the Spanish tenor, in 2000; and Chita Rivera, the actress, singer and dancer of Puerto Rican descent, in 2002.

“When you look at 35 years and only two Hispanics, you realize this clearly has to be made right,” says Fernandez. While she notes the center’s diverse programming at other times of the year, she decried “the great omission of so many worthy performers” from the honors.

Sanchez and his allies have proposed Rita Moreno, Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Ruben Blades, Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, talk show host Cristina Saralegui, Raquel Welch, Edward James Olmos, playwright and director Luis Valdez and director Pedro Almodovar.

Since the Kennedy Center honors only living artists, they also mention artists who have died since the honors began in 1978, for whom it’s too late: Desi Arnaz, Jose Ferrer, Rita Hayworth, Luis Bunuel, Cesar Romero, Anthony Quinn and Tito Puente.

At the same time, consider:

●The Oscars. Looking at the top four annual awards — best actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress (to be comparable with the five or six annual Kennedy Center honorees) — the winners since 1978 include Mercedes Ruehl, Benicio Del Toro, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. (Ferrer, Quinn and Moreno won in previous years.) No Latinos have won honorary lifetime achievement awards since 1978.

●The Tonys. Counting best actor and actress for musical and play, the winners since 1978 include Chita Rivera (twice), Mercedes Ruehl, Paulo Szot and David Alvarez. No lifetime achievement awards went to Latinos since 1978.

●The Emmys. In the categories of best actor and actress in a prime-time comedy and drama series, the winners since 1978 have included America Ferrera.

●The Grammys. Counting best record, best album and best new artist, winners since 1978 have included Carlos Santana, Christina Aguilera and Esperanza Spalding. Recipients of lifetime achievement honors (including posthumous ones) have included Andres Segovia, Pablo Casals, Tito Puente, Joan Baez and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

The Grammys, of course, customized endlessly expanding channels to honor Latinos. Within the main Grammy Awards, the single category called best Latin recording grew to best Latin pop album, best Latin rock/alternative, best Latin urban, best tropical Latin, best regional Mexican, best Tejano, best Norteno and best Banda. In addition, the parallel universe of the Latin Grammys was born in 2000.

Yet the Kennedy Center Honors and the other top non-ethnically defined prizes are coveted exactly because they reward national, mainstream achievement and impact.

“These awards, like so many others, serve as a family photo album of America and Americana,” says actor Esai Morales (“La Bamba,” 1987), who co-founded the Hispanic Foundation for the Arts in 1997 with actors Jimmy Smits, Sonia Braga, Merel Julia and Sanchez. The foundation has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to Latino students pursuing graduate degrees in the arts.

The under-representation of Latinos and other minorities in the entertainment industry is well-documented. The NAACP sounded an alarm in 1999 when no actor of color was cast in a leading role on prime-time television that season.

“Increasingly, Latinos were added to shows as series regulars,” Sanchez says.

For example, Eva Longoria played a strong Latina co-lead on “Desperate Housewives,” and Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family” reportedly has become the highest-paid actress on television.

The Writers Guild of America found in 2011 that minorities held 5 percent of the film writing jobs and 10 percent of the television writing jobs in 2009, the most recent year studied. The Directors Guild of America reported last month that minorities directed 17 percent of prime-time episodes on network and cable television in the 2011-2012 season.

Until there is greater entry to acting roles and positions in storytelling and production, there may not be full representation on the awards podium, says Luis Reyes, author of “Hispanics in Hollywood.”

“The talent is there,” Reyes says. “It’s access to better roles, major roles, and roles that engender Oscar nominations. Salma Hayek had to produce her own film, ‘Frida,’ which got her an Oscar nomination.”

Latino actors were happy to see former CIA officer Tony Mendez’s account of rescuing hostages in Iran get made into an upcoming movie, Morales said, but were quietly envious when director Ben Affleck took the lead role as Mendez in “Argo” for himself. It was reminiscent of the film version of Isabel Allende’s novel “The House of the Spirits,” with Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close cast as leads and Latinos in supporting roles. Or when Italian Americans Patti LuPone and Madonna, respectively, got the nod to play Eva Peron in “Evita” on Broadway and in the movie.

Aside from playing overtly Latino characters, Latino actors are just as eager for opportunities to play big parts that have nothing to do with being Latino.

“How can you be cast as the most bankable name when the most bankable names aren’t Latino?” Morales said. “How can you become a bankable leading actor when you won’t get asked?”

How honorees are chosen

The made-on-the-Potomac awards show has come a long way since Washington Post television critic Tom Shales called the honors “a new and not particularly essential device for paying tribute to America’s cultural luminaries” in his review of the first awards gala in December 1978.

“The first several years we couldn’t give the tickets away,” Kaiser says.

The annual December affair was conceived by George Stevens Jr. and co-producer Nick Vanoff. Stevens, who previously founded the American Film Institute, has been co-producing the honors ever since, now with his son, Michael. The productions have won four consecutive Emmys for best variety special.

The criterion for the honors is “excellence” achieved by artists in dance, music, theater, opera, film or television who “have made significant contributions to American culture,” according to the ballot for nominations. The honorees at the celebration Dec. 2 (for broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS) will be: Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Natalia Makarova, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

In the early years of the honors, Stevens and members of the Kennedy Center board had a great say in picking the winners, Kaiser says. During the first 22 years, zero Latinos were honored, “which was incorrect,” says Kaiser, who became president in 2001. Stevens declined to be interviewed.

More recently, the center created an artists committee of past honorees and other artists to nominate candidates. The committee has 76 members, two of whom are Latino — ballet dancer Paloma Herrera and violinist and conductor Jaime Laredo.

Kaiser, Stevens and Rubenstein collect the “dozens and dozens” of suggestions forwarded by members of the artists committee, as well as letters from the public, and pare them to about 15 names, according to Kaiser. Then the 14 members of the executive committee of the board of trustees make the final decision, Kaiser says. No one on the executive committee is Latino.

Critics say the executive committee is a rubber stamp, and the process cloaks the outsize influence that Stevens and Kaiser still wield. Members of the executive committee did not return telephone calls for comment, or referred a reporter back to Kaiser.

Pressed on the critics’ assertion, Kaiser wrote in a follow-up e-mail after an interview: “As the program’s co-founder and longtime producer, [Stevens] has historically had a substantial role in all aspects of the honors. I agree that the selection process has been opaque and I believe the board’s plan to review the process will, hopefully, make it less so.”

The coalition working with Sanchez has called for Stevens’s removal as producer of the honors and has sent a letter to the White House asking President Obama to stop attending the awards until changes are made.

Latino arts advocates aren’t the only ones trying to influence the outcome. Leading artists and financiers campaigned hard for composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch before he died in August. One letter to Kaiser said “the music of Marvin has left an indelible imprint” and was signed by Julie Andrews, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Quincy Jones, Mike Nichols, Neil Simon, Barbra Streisand — and Chita Rivera.

Warren Buffett (whose company owns a stake in The Washington Post) wrote to Rubenstein and Stevens in support of Hamlisch.

Hamlisch was never honored.

Kaiser won’t comment on specific not-honored artists.

“One of the challenges with Latino artists is that so many are so young and it’s a lifetime achievement award,” he says. “I believe you’re going to see more and more and more because the Latino contribution to the arts has been growing and growing and growing.”

Sanchez is unsatisfied with that explanation. The reason so few Latinos have been honored may have something to do with the broader forces causing under-representation in so many showcases. But he also suspects it might have something to do with the particular worldview of those picking winners at the Kennedy Center.

Take the choice of Led Zeppelin, Sanchez says. It’s the third time in four years that members of British rock bands have been honored, following Roger Daltrey and Peter Townshend in 2008 and Paul McCartney in 2010.

They are undoubtedly talented, influential — and uplifted by assumptions about the primacy of Anglo-American culture and how “our mother country is England,” Sanchez says.

“Being in the Northeast, we look to England,” he says. “When in fact, the mother country is as much Mexico. The land mass coming from Mexico was much greater than the 13 colonies.”

Morales, for his part, looks ahead to all the Latinos who Kaiser presumes will be honored some day.

“I wouldn’t want to be the first Latino to get that award,” Morales says. “It would feel like it was given grudgingly.”