Four Latinos' deep cultural imprint is recognized with nation's highest arts honors

Musician José Feliciano, visual artists Judith Baca and Antonio Martorell and poet Richard Blanco were lauded for "the drive to create" and "the yearning to connect."

President Joe Biden presents the National Humanities Medal to poet Richard Blanco for his work that represents "a mosaic of our past, our present and our future." Susan Walsh / AP

Four Latinos who have made their mark in music, art and literature across the decades are now recipients of one of the country's highest honors.

Acclaimed music artist José Feliciano, visual artist and muralist Judith Baca, and graphic artist and painter Antonio Martorell were honored with the National Medal of Arts, while poet Richard Blanco was awarded the National Humanities Medal.

The four artists were part of a group recognized by President Joe Biden at a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday.

Trailblazing music icon José Feliciano, 77, is known around the globe for his chart-topping hits like “Feliz Navidad” and his rendition of “Light My Fire.” 

Considered one of the first Latino artist to cross over into the English market, paving the way for others, the Puerto Rican musician’s career has spanned 60 years and has garnered him more than 45 gold and platinum records, multiple Grammy wins and nominations, and Billboard’s first Legend Award.

“Blind since birth, he picked up a guitar at age 9. A pioneering art — artist bridging cultures and styles, winning Grammys, and opening doors for generations of Latino artists and the heart of our nation,” Biden said of Feliciano, who couldn’t accept the award because he was touring.

Feliciano has produced more than 600 songs and released 60 albums.

Medal recipient Judith Baca’s work has left a deep imprint in California’s cultural history. Baca, 76, is most known for "The Great Wall of Los Angeles," which spans a half-mile and focuses on California’s ethnic history. The project was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.

Baca, who was born in Los Angeles to Mexican American parents, is the artistic director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, or SPARC, Los Angeles’ first mural program, which she helped co-found. The program has produced more than 400 murals in the city since 1974.

Her large-scale public artworks focus on the lives and communities of diverse Californians including women and youth and immigrant communities. Baca is also an emeritus professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Her groundbreaking murals depict the strength and scope of human nature and tell the forgotten stories — and tell a fuller story of who we are as Americans,” Biden said of Baca's work.

Puerto Rican painter, graphic artist and writer Antonio Martorell was honored for his contributions as “one of Puerto Rico’s greatest cultural ambassadors,” Biden said. 

Martorell has created prolific contemporary art pieces that are displayed in exhibits in Puerto Rico, the U.S. and abroad.

José Feliciano, Biden said, opened doors "for generations of Latino artists and the heart of our nation."Andrew Benge / Redferns

Having created early poster drawings of the Puerto Rican experience in his early career, his work was crucial to the development of posters as a form of expression during social commentary in the 1960s and 1970s.

"His work challenges and unites people across languages, classes and generations," Biden said. "His creations span genres — painting, writing, sculpture, theater design. Always daring to try something new while building on what came before."

The National Medal of Arts — given to Feliciano, Baca and Martorell — is awarded to those who have contributed to excellence and growth of the arts in the U.S.

A work that 'bridges cultures and languages'

Richard Blanco, who was the nation's first Latino and openly gay inaugural poet, was recognized with a National Humanities Medal, which is awarded to people who have helped deepen and broaden humanities with contributions in history, literature and philosophy, among other subjects.

The Cuban American poet's work has spurred public discourse by taking on controversial topics like immigration, race and gun violence, hoping to make sense of the issues.

Blanco, who is also an author, professor and public speaker, read the inaugural poem at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, in 2013. He also wrote a poem for the historic reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba in 2015.

“His poetry bridges cultures and languages — a mosaic of our past, our present and our future — reflecting a nation that is hectic, colorful and still becoming,” Biden said. “Richard Blanco’s powerful storytelling challenges the boundaries of culture, gender and class while celebrating the promise of our nation’s highest ideals.”

“Poetry truly understands that and uses language to make us feel and think of things in new ways,” Blanco told NBC News in a 2021 interview. “That’s how it can help heal us — by asking questions we aren’t asking of ourselves and others, by changing the conversation, the rhetoric, the discourse, so that we can see beyond abstract language of sociopolitical jargon and arrive at greater truths.”

In total, 24 people and organizations were recognized at the White House, including music artists Bruce Springsteen and Gladys Knight, actor Mindy Kaling, and designer Vera Wang.

“The work of our honorees is as diverse as the nation that celebrates with them today,” Biden said. “But common threads weave them together in many ways in the very fabric of America: the pursuit of excellence, the drive to create, the yearning to connect, and the boldness to be truth tellers, bridge builders and change seekers.”

The honorees were supposed to be recognized in 2021, but the ceremony was delayed by the pandemic.