WASHINGTON — Carlos Santana, the Mexico-born powerhouse whose songs have stirred listeners across cultures and across generations, was among five high achievers recognized Sunday at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Santana and a fellow honoree, opera singer Martina Arroyo, were only the third and fourth Latinos in the ranks of 190 overall who have been given a Kennedy medallion. They joined past winners Placido Domingo and Chita Rivera.
“The Latino thing has arrived. It has become the new black,” said Harry Belafonte, in a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Santana at the 36th annual national celebration of the performing arts.
Other honorees this year: pianist Herbie Hancock, singer-songwriter Billy Joel and actress Shirley MacLaine.
Santana, 66, who hails from a small town in Jalisco, Mexico, found fame at San Francisco’s Fillmore and became a sensation at the 1969 Woodstock Festival with tunes such as “Soul Sacrifice” and “Evil Ways.”
At the dawn of this century, he proved his staying power when his album “Supernatural” collected nine Grammys, a record, at the 2000 awards ceremony. He has 10 Grammys and three Latin Grammys.
Belafonte, in his send-up, said his own calypso music could have had a renaissance if he, not Santana, had taken Woodstock by storm. Rattling off Santana’s many influences — rock, blues, Afro roots, the Afro-Latino groove, reggaeton and tejano — he said it all sounds foreign, joking: “We shoulda built a bigger fence.”
In keeping with a night that emerged as an overdue tribute to Latinos, even Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the high court, got in on the revelry.
She celebrated the career of Arroyo, 76, a fellow New Yorker whose father was Puerto Rican and mother was African-American.
“I’m here for the diva,” Sotomayor told the crowd, who gave the justice a standing ovation.
Rapper Snoop Dogg and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, an unlikely pair, appeared in praise of Hancock.
The black-tie audience was not the most likely to plug Snoop Dogg’s ribald rap into their iPhones. But there’s an anything-goes energy at the gala, which is the exclamation point to the social calendar in the capital.
Snoop Dogg, in sunglasses, a tuxedo and spats, was backed up by several performers. He energized the audience by shouting, “Put your hands up. It’s a party, y’all.”
Conservative talk-show host O’Reilly opened the tribute to Hancock, saying, “I know, I’m surprised too,” as he took the stage. Hancock calls himself a “left-wing, liberal Democrat” and counts President Obama as a friend.
O’Reilly, a fan of Hancock’s, said the musician was always serene, modest and polite.
“And believe me, I need that kind of role model,” he said.
He said that Hancock, a Buddhist, was so composed that he was the only person seated with Obama who was “not nervous about what I’m going to say.”
MacLaine, 79, was dubbed by emcee Glenn Close as “a captivating redhead from Virginia with legs out to here, a heart out to there and a life too big for just one lifetime.”
Anna Kendrick belted out “It’s Not Where You Start,” one of MacLaine’s Broadway hits.
MacLaine’s brother, actor Warren Beatty, won the honor in 2004, making them the only brother and sister to collect Kennedy prizes.
The evening’s emotional wallop came when singers Tony Bennett and Garth Brooks led tributes to Joel, called the “poet, performer and philosopher of today’s American songbook.”
The 64-year-old Joel was serenaded with tunes ranging from the pop hit “Only the Good Die Young” to the gut-punching ballad to Vietnam Marines, “Goodnight Saigon,” a number that was performed by Brooks and drew about 50 war veterans to the stage. Many wearing fatigue jackets, they swayed arm in arm.
The audience rose to their feet during the number, as Joel’s eyes glistened.
Before the curtain came down, Rufus Wainwright’s plaintive rendition of “New York State of Mind” reminded the audience that not everyone feels the pull of Washington.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who attended, singled out Arroyo as a “national treasure” and enthused about Hancock and Santana.
“Being from San Francisco and having Carlos Santana honored is really personal for us,” she said.
She added about Hancock, who lives in Los Angeles: “What a master. He’s a personal friend, so we’re thrilled for him.”
The honors, given only to living artists, recognize a person’s lifetime of contributions to American culture through the performing arts: music, dance, theater, opera, film or television.
Michael Stevens, from Studio City, produced and co-wrote this year’s program with his father, Washington’s George Stevens Jr., creator of the program.
The son, speaking Saturday during a rehearsal, said the diverse Kennedy honorees had traits in common during their enduring careers.
“It’s a passion for discovery,” he said. “And it’s that none of them have been held back by a fear of failure, by a fear of success, by any kind of fear.
“Their art is in part their courage to want to continue to discover: to continue to write, to continue to perform despite the obstacles that they might face along the way, which can be personal, which can be societal, which can be creative. And that’s what makes them unique.”
The awards show airs Dec. 29 on CBS as a two-hour, prime-time special.
Tribune Washington Bureau reporter Becca Clemons contributed to this report.