BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- A few years ago, I noticed that Latin American artists get a lot of play in the states compared to U.S.-born Hispanic ones.
For instance, in 2010, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru won the Nobel Prize in literature and it seemed as though no one could stop commenting about what a big deal it was. People were talking to me about it as though his achievement would somehow change my life.
But to me, Vargas Llosa’s award was as inspiring as Herta Mueller's the year before: His was nice, but unrelated to my personal circumstances.
Something similar happened last year when theater critics went gaga over playwright Tanya Saracho. She'd written an adaptation of the Russian classic "The Cherry Orchard" called "El Nogalar" -- "The Pecan Orchard" -- and because a Chicago critic once referred to her as the "Chicana Chekhov," the alliteration and coincidence led to a breathless New York Times profile of Saracho.
The article was titled "Mexican? American? Call Her Writer" and it stuck in my craw. Not because Saracho isn't a brilliant artist with an important voice to share with the world but because it was yet another instance of American media looking well beyond our borders for examples of up-and-coming Latino talent.
It's not like Saracho goes around pretending to be Mexican-American. In fact, the article noted her ambivalence toward being called a Chicana and stated clearly that she describes herself as a "green-card-carrying Mexican citizen."
Still, it hurt when, a few paragraphs later, the co-founder of a Latino Chicago theater company made this damning observation: "She's the first really viable local Latino playwright we've had."
Ouch! In a state with 1.6 million Mexican-Americans and in Chicago, the city with the fourth-largest Mexican-American population in the country, we had to wait for someone to immigrate to become the shining beacon of artistic hope for the fastest growing minority population in the country?
Bless her heart, Saracho never desired to be pigeonholed as a Latina playwright, and last I heard she was working on plays containing no Hispanics or Latino issues so she could truly assume the mantle of brilliant dramatist, nationality aside.
But there is a tension between U.S.-born descendants of Latin American immigrants and foreign-born Latin Americans who live in the U.S. and get lumped in with the overall Hispanic community.
It's not huge tension, but it flares up at two notable times: When immigration restrictionists try to paint the Hispanic population as a community of immigrants with stronger ties to other countries than to the U.S., and when organizations looking to prove their open-mindedness and diversity point to Latin Americans to defend themselves against accusations of not being inclusive of America's Hispanic population.
The Kennedy Center Honors is being accused of the latter. For the second year in a row, Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, is raising a stink because in the 35-year history of the awards, only two Hispanics -- Placido Domingo, the Spanish tenor, and Chita Rivera, the Puerto Rican actress, dancer and singer -- have been chosen out of 170 artists honored.
Last year Sanchez tried unsuccessfully to get the Kennedy Center Honors to recognize Emmy-award winning Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno during the year that marked the 50th anniversary of "West Side Story."
This year the situation devolved between Sanchez and Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. During a three-minute phone conversation about this year's honorees, Sanchez insinuated that the lack of Hispanic representation was due to discriminatory blind spots and Kaiser told him to "f--- yourself."
In follow-up interviews, Sanchez has defended his assertion, telling NBC Latino he's sure the Kennedy Center honors will offer a "sympathy" pick sometime soon and that he or she will probably be foreign-born. "It seems that Latinos are only of value when they directly are from their country of origin."
It's certainly always seemed this way to me. Just one example: Forbes named Sofia Vergara 2012's highest-paid actress on TV. Sure she's Hispanic -- a native of Colombia.
Time, and efforts by leaders such as Sanchez, will heal this wound. But it has to start with our society's entertainment kingmakers recognizing the talent of U.S.-born Latinos as much as they love the charms of foreign-born ones.
Esther J. Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org