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.
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.