The Kennedy Center has just announced the five recipients of this year’s Honors, a prestigious award meant to recognize creators, performers, and artistic trailblazers who have shaped American culture through the excellence of their work. The honorees of this year at the 42nd annual event span the genres of music and entertainment, representing the plurality of the American experience: Linda Ronstadt; Earth, Wind & Fire; Sesame Street; Michael Tilson Thomas; and Sally Field.
Arizona-born singer Linda Ronstadt, who is of Mexican and German heritage, was honored for the expansive contributions she has made to American music. She retired a decade ago after a storied career that spanned musical genres. Notably, she brought traditional Mexican compositions into the mainstream, performing her award-winning album Canciones in front of audiences large and small. Ronstadt had once explained, per the Miami Herald, “I wanted [fans] to know that they had something that really was strong and it was pure Mexican and that they should feel proud of that and they don’t have to sell [their culture] down the river.” Never shying away from being outspoken, she recently stated that she would not attend the Kennedy Center award ceremony if President Trump were to be in the audience.
Writer Gustavo Arellano described to the publication the impact that Ronstadt’s Mexican tracks had on a Latino audience, writing that she has inspired an entire generation of Mexican Americans to “grow up comfortable with both sides of that term.” Arellano recalled, specifically, her performance of La Charreada on Sesame Street. “Nothing normalized seemingly foreign concepts in the 1980s more than “Sesame Street,” so seeing a Mexican on it taught my child’s mind that we were really, truly cool.”
This revelation for Arellano was no coincidence; Sesame Street — also one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees — made a deliberate effort to celebrate a multicultural America in its programming. An article this spring in The Daily Beast highlighted the way that a black psychiatrist named Chester Piece fashioned Sesame Street into an egalitarian, educational, and anti-racist program. Pierce flipped what he saw to be a racist mass media on its head, using it for the betterment of underserved communities by being an early champion of representation in the media. ‘“Sesame Street’ has incorporated a hidden curriculum,” said Sesame Street actor Loretta Moore Long (aka Susan), “that seeks to bolster the Black and minority child’s self-respect and to portray the multi-ethnic, multicultural world into which both majority and minority child are growing.”
Earth, Wind & Fire also received an award for their classic dance tunes, ubiquitous across the eras. Michael Tilson Thomas, the openly-gay founder of the New World Symphony in Miami and the current San Francisco Symphony Music Director will receive an Honor as he finishes his tenure on the West Coast. The actress Sally Field is a Kennedy Center honoree this year too, having made her mark in film, television, and on the stage. Field published her memoir In Pieces last year, writing vulnerably about her trauma as an abused youth and the challenges she had to overcome both in and out of her field of work. Acting, though, saved her. “I was able to feel something I didn’t feel before,” she told the New York Times last year. “I heard my voice. And I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t. How long would it have taken me to feel that I had a right to be outraged?”
The Kennedy Center Honors are scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, December 8th.