It is Hispanic Heritage Month at The Kennedy Center; as soon as you enter you can feel there is something different in the air. As soon as you enter you are greeted with some powerful artwork featuring all sorts of Mexican icons like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Cantinflas, and even a Luchador. It is part of an artwork co-commissioned by the Kennedy Center and created by Mexican graffiti artist SANER. It hit the right note with me and definitely set up the tone for the rest of the night.
Inside, at the Eisenhower Theater, the program ¡Viva Cesar, Viva Kennedy! began to a cheerful and welcoming “Buenas noches!” (or good evening!) by Andrés W. López, board member of The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. His address reminded the crowd that we were about to enjoy a special program; packed with historic references to César Chávez and our 35th President John F. Kennedy. The two have lots in common, including an inspiring track record that not only touched millions of people, but also changed American history recognizing the importance of equality and civil rights for all.
The first part of the program was composed of a series of interviews with noteworthy speakers that told a first-account story of their relationship with the Chávez movement or a personal connection to President Kennedy. Led by Dan Guerrero, an actor and activist in his own right; the night was a moving reminder of how far the progressive movement led by Chávez has come and the many lives it transformed.
First up it was Dolores Huerta who appeared on stage with a resolute walk. She spoke of her years working with Chávez, fighting the good fight on behalf of farm workers working under subpar conditions. Her insightful account of the movement included how she was able to convince Chávez to boycott grapes instead of potatoes; “people just think of Idaho when you mention potatoes.” It was indeed a contribution that made a difference. Her words, full of energy still, remind us that the work is never done. She also imparted some advice on women everywhere, “you have to keep going and forget about criticism.” Wise and meaningful words coming from a woman who survived several arrests, a beating that almost claimed her life, and a lifetime of discrimination.
Other speakers included Barbara Carrasco, a visual artist who worked to bring meaning to the ideas of the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement. Carrasco, along with artist Andrew Zermeno explained that because most of the farmers did not know how to read or write, the visual and artistic elements were part and parcel of the messaging in the movement. Along these lines, Luis Valdez, an American playwright and founder of El Teatro Campesino (The Farm Workers’ Theater), spoke of the importance of self-expression through art. Valdez created plays to express the plight of Chicanos, and he mentioned that the power of the arts came from that drive for self-expression that allowed all people to transmit something powerful from within them regardless of the level of education.
The speaking portions were interspersed with stills from archival footage, showing the entire span of the historic UFW movement and key moments during Kennedy’s administration, where Latino concerns were addressed. There were also videos, illustrating these talks and a particularly touching black and white clip of then First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who delivered an address in Spanish to a roaring crowd. Throughout the speaking portion of the program there were songs and a theatrical elements performed by El Teatro Campesino.
This first portion closed with a bilingual rendition of “Strawberry Fields Forever” performed by La Santa Cecilia.
The second part of the program included a spectacular performance by legendary Mexican singer Eugenia León and several duets with La Santa Cecilia. León showed up in a long sequined cape that was covered in flowers, a modern take on traditional Mexican dresses that shone through the entire performance and her dancing. Her powerful voice filled the Eisenhower Theater, as she did a rendition of “Guantanemera” that would’ve made Celia Cruz proud. The crowd went crazy as she asked them to sing along.
As far as voices go, La Santa Cecilia’s lead singer Marisol or “La Marisoul,” as she is also known was not far behind. She cited Eugenia León as one of her influences and did a tremendous rendition of their hit “La Negra,” one of their hit songs. I could hear the crowd around me singing along, bopping and shaking as if the seats were not there. The night came to a stirring conclusion when the band sang “Gracias a la Vida” along with León. La Marisoul shared that the song was so special it had brought her to tears during rehearsal, and the emotion was definitely transmitted during the duet, as the two women held hands and gave us a night that will not soon be forgotten.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.
“Strawberry Fields Forever”
“Como Dios Manda”
“Yo Vengo a Ofrecer mi Corazón”
“Gracias a la Vida”
¡Viva Cesar, Viva Kennedy! featuring Eugenia León and La Santa Cecilia played on Thursday, October 13, 2016 at at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater-2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to future Kennedy Center events, go to their calendar.