Two Latinos are among the five artists that will receive this year’s Kennedy Center Honors – doubling the number of Latinos who have ever received this prestigious award.
Mexican American guitarist Carlos Santana and opera singer Martina Arroyo will be awarded the high distinction, considered the nation’s top for those who have influenced American culture through the arts. Acclaimed actress Shirley MacLaine, rocker Billy Joel and jazz pianist Herbie Hancock round out this year’s honorees.
In December, President Barack Obama will host the recipients at the White House, and Secretary of State John Kerry will host a dinner for them at the State Department.
The selection of Santana and Arroyo marks a landmark for the Kennedy Center, which had been repeatedly criticized by some advocacy groups for the lack of Latinos chosen for the honor. Since 1978, when the Honors were established, only two of 186 honorees – Placido Domingo and Chita Rivera – were of Latino origin.
Last year, controversy arose following a tense phone exchange between Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, on which Kaiser allegedly used profane language when Sanchez called to discuss the lack of Latinos honored by the center. Kaiser apologized for the exchange and the Center amended the selection process by creating an artist review panel and opening the nomination process up to the public on its website.
After learning the news Thursday morning, Sanchez told Fox News Latino he applauds the selection of all the nominees, but in particular those of Santana and Arroyo.
“Carlos Santana helped define a generation. He is an icon for the Latino community, in this country and around the world,” he said, adding that this is an opportunity to tell Arroyo’s story. “(Her) story needs to be told and admired. … It has never been told or fully appreciated.”
Sanchez said the selection of these two artists is a sign of faith by the Kennedy Center that it has wholeheartedly accepted that Latinos have a profound influence in this country and particularly in the arts.
Addressing last year’s controversy, Sanchez said it's all part of the growing pains of a country, but that it was difficult to galvanize why the liberal arts had sidestepped the Latino community’s contributions for so long.
“We have a powerful advocacy that yields substantial changes,” he said. “We are spread out to the four corners of this nation, you can’t be in denial of our contributions, not just in the arts,” he added.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Santana said he was very grateful and happy to be in the company of luminaries and to receive an award he remembers watching almost every year with his family. The 66-year-old musician who was born in a small, remote town in Mexico and immigrated with his family to San Francisco said he set out to bridge cultures and music styles.
"I guess people understand that Santana is not just a Mexican guitar player — I bring a collective-consciousness awareness agenda with me," he said. "I grew up with the generation of Woodstock and Bob Marley, 'One Love,' and 'Imagine,' John Lennon. I am one of them, and we don't do what we do to be commercial or to be popular or to be cute. It's not entertainment or show business for us. For us, it's a calling."
Santana, who swept the 2000 Grammy Awards in nine categories with his album "Supernatural," said more mainstream institutions should be recognizing Latino artists.
Arroyo, born and raised in Harlem as the daughter of a Puerto Rican father and an African-American mother, said her voice was discovered by accident in high school when she was heard imitating the singers outside an opera workshop. She went on to star in the great opera houses in Paris, London, Vienna and beyond.
Arroyo made her debut at Carnegie Hall in 1958 and had her breakthrough with the Metropolitan Opera when she was called at the last minute to replace Birgit Nilsson in "Aida" in 1965. She went on to perform 199 times at the Metropolitan Opera, performing all the major Verdi roles, as well as roles from Mozart, Puccini and others.
Still, Arroyo, 76, said she is most proud of her work teaching young students about character study in opera.
Receiving the Kennedy Center Honors, she said, was unimaginable.
"We go around the world singing, and people say oh, there's an American singer. But this is your government saying, yeah, we like you, too," she said. "There's no higher group for me than my country. That makes it extremely special."
"Piano Man" Joel, one of the best-selling recording artists of all time behind with hits including “Uptown Girl,” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, said in a written statement he was honored to join the roster of outstanding musicians who came before.
“But to be chosen for this special award essentially for doing what I love most amazes me more than anything,” he said.
For MacLaine, the honors almost feel like a homecoming, she said. The 79-year-old actress, who grew up in nearby Arlington, Va., said the cultural prize stands apart from other awards.
"It's a more global kind of recognition ... not just Hollywood or New York," she told The Associated Press. "The people who get these awards are contributing to the world's art, and I feel privileged to be one of them."
After nearly 60 years as one of Hollywood's leading actresses, MacLaine hasn't stopped. She can be seen in the upcoming film, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," alongside Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig.
Hancock, born in Chicago, became a classical music prodigy playing with the Chicago Symphony by the age of 11. In high school, however, he discovered jazz. In 1963, Hancock joined the Miles Davis Quintet and has gone on to embrace electronic music and to collaborate with the likes of Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and others.
Hancock, 73, said he is overwhelmed to join the ranks of Kennedy Center honorees, "to be on that list of people whose work I've respected for so many years during my lifetime."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Lucia I. Suarez on Twitter @luciasuarezsang