Mexican-American Vets Ignited Kennedy's Latino Support | KERA News

Mexican-American Vets Ignited Kennedy's Latino Support

Nov 21, 2013
Originally published on November 21, 2013 8:12 am

On the evening of Nov. 21, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, walked through a wall of applause to take their place as honored guests in a Houston ballroom. They were making a brief stop at a formal dinner held by LULAC — the League of United Latin American Citizens — to show their appreciation for the Mexican-American votes that had helped the young president carry Texas in the 1960 election.

The crowd eventually settled down to hear the President tell them that Latin America was not just a friend, but a partner in the peace and prosperity he hoped the entire hemisphere would come to enjoy. And to make sure they understood him completely, he grinned at the crowd: "I'm going to ask my wife to say a few words."

Jacqueline Kennedy, dressed elegantly in a black Persian lamb suit and draped in pearls, stepped to the podium. Smiling, she told the audience how happy she was to be in Texas that evening — and how especially happy she was to be with them. "Estoy muy contenta..." she began, in her trademark whispery voice.

After years of being regarded as second-class citizens, denied access to some places and sent to the back door of others (often helpfully guided by not-uncommon signs that declared "no dogs, Negroes or Mexicans"), here was the respect LULAC's members long had been striving for. For the first time, a sitting president of the United States had chosen to visit a Hispanic group. Of the deluge of invitations that flooded the White House when the whirlwind trip through Texas had been announced, he had chosen them. After the Kennedys' brief remarks, the room rang with cries of "Viva Kennedy! And viva Jackie!"

Texas had been hugely important to Kennedy in his 1960 campaign. There were tens of thousands of potential voters in Mexican-American communities across the state, but until the late '50s and early '60s, many people chose not to vote. An expensive poll tax meant many poor Mexican-Americans couldn't afford to vote. And the slate of candidates offered by both parties was often too conservative (and yes, sometimes racist) to entice potential voters.

Veterans who'd returned from World War II and Korea expecting their service would open otherwise closed minds quickly found not much had changed, says Professor Ignacio Garcia, who teaches history at Brigham Young University and who is the author of Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans In Search of Camelot.

"[Veterans] assumed that things would change, that they would be like they were in the foxhole, or the military unit," Garcia explains. "And when they came back and discovered things were not changed, they became very adamant about changing things."

One particularly adamant veteran was physician Hector P. Garcia (no relation), a former Army major who'd spent years pressing the Veterans' Administration to deliver services in a timely manner to Mexican-American vets. Dr. Garcia founded the American G.I. Forum as a civil rights group that enabled Mexican-American vets to press for equity. When they heard the young senator from Boston talk about wanting all Americans to contribute to move the country forward, they decided to back him. The forums, located in several cities in Texas and a few other states, became the vehicle for Viva Kennedy clubs. And the clubs, says Ignacio Garcia, "were probably the last time an ethnic constituency operated totally independently of one of the major parties. No memos, no talking points, no directives."

The Viva Kennedy clubs planned and funded their own events, and they drew people by the thousands. Hector Garcia died in 1996, but his daughter Wanda vividly remembers the excitement at the Viva Kennedy-sponsored rallies. "He was like a rock star," she recalls. Even her normally reserved mother wasn't immune. At a rally, Wanda says she was astonished to look over and see her mother as frenzied as any of her own high school pals: "Here's my mother, a dignified woman, jumping up and down — I just looked at her, like, Mama!"

After the election, John F. Kennedy sent telegrams to the Viva Kennedy leaders, thanking them for their hard work, and saying it had made a considerable contribution to his Texas victory. But by the third year of his presidency, the Mexican-Americans who'd been so enamored of him were disappointed. They'd hoped their support would be rewarded with the placement of Latinos in important administration positions, but Kennedy had been very slow about moving in that direction.

Wanda Garcia remembers her father having terse conversations with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about the need to do much more for the people who'd given his brother a victory in a critically important state.

So the trip to Texas — besides being an attempt to mediate the fight between gubernatorial challenger Don Yarborough and Governor John Connally — was designed to show Mexican-American voters that Jack Kennedy was ready to rededicate himself to their interests.

Max Krochmal, a history professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, says Kennedy's election in the fall of 1960 was a wake-up call: Politicians saw they could no longer take the Mexican-American vote for granted. And Mexican-American voters got a glimpse of what their political power could accomplish: "The Viva Kennedy campaign really produced a sense of unity among Mexican Americans rarely seen before or after," Krochmal says.

The LULAC dinner, then, was a new beginning. But it was also the end, because the next day, Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas. But the Viva Kennedy clubs, and his appearance in Houston on Nov. 21 cemented a relationship between Democrats and many Mexican-Americans that continues today.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.We're about to hear the little-known backstory to one of the major political trends of our time. The trend is the growing power of the Latino vote.

INSKEEP: Democrats won big among Latinos in recent presidential elections. Many Republicans think their future depends on doing better among Latinos.

MONTAGNE: It's no accident that potential Republican candidates for 2016 include two men with Hispanic last names, and a third who's fluent in Spanish.

Now, for the backstory. We can trace back the effort to court the national Hispanic vote a half-century. On what turned out to be the last night of his life, President John F. Kennedy attended a Hispanic event in Texas. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the story.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: On the night of Nov. 21st, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stopped briefly at a formal dinner in Houston held by LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, which made him the first sitting president to attend a Hispanic event.


BATES: A mariachi band played the beloved folk song "Cielito Lindo," and a radiant Jacqueline Kennedy addressed the crowd in her boarding-school Spanish. It was reminiscent of her 1960 televised campaign commercial that had charmed Spanish speakers nationwide.


JACQUELINE KENNEDY: Queridos, amigos. Les habla la esposa del Sen. John F. Kennedy...

BATES: The first lady's ability to speak Spanish was widely appreciated. And it didn't hurt that the Kennedys were Roman Catholic, like most Mexican-American families. Her remarks at the LULAC dinner were met with applause, and shouts of "Viva, Kennedy!" and "Viva, Jackie!"For the jubilant Mexican-American audience, it was a long-awaited sign of respect.

Ignacio Garcia is a history professor at Brigham Young University, and the author of "Viva Kennedy: Mexican-Americans in Search of Camelot." He says Mexican-American veterans were the driving force behind John Kennedy's political support. They'd returned from the war with expectations.

IGNACIO GARCIA: They assumed that things would change, just that they would be like they were in the foxhole, or in the military unit. And when they came back and found that things had not changed, they became very much adamant about changing things.

BATES: To effect change, Professor Garcia says, Mexican-American vets became social activists and eventually, the backbone of Hispanic political organization in Texas.

The American GI Forum was started by Dr. Hector P. Garcia, a surgeon and former Army major who worked to get Hispanic vets equal benefits. The forums operated in Texas and several other states, and became the foundation for Viva Kennedy clubs, which supported the senator from Boston. Ted Kennedy was the designated liaison to the Mexican-American community, and developed warm relationships that continued until his death. Here's a ballad, or corrido, lauding him as the lion of the Senate.


BATES: The Viva Kennedy clubs operated independently of the Democratic Party. Members fundraised and held events with no oversight or interference. They even had their own logo: John Kennedy, astride a burro - a nod to the Democrats' symbol - wearing a sombrero emblazoned with "Viva Kennedy" across the front. It's now a collector's item.

Dr. Hector Garcia's daughter, Wanda, recalls how drawn people were to the young candidate at rallies, including her very reserved mother.

WANDA GARCIA: Here's my mother, a dignified woman, jumping up and down. And I just looked at her, like, Mama!

BATES: But three years into his presidency, the hope Hispanic voters had had for high-visibility representation had faded. Wanda Garcia remembers how her father irritated Attorney General Bobby Kennedy by pushing him hard to do more for Hispanics.

GARCIA: I can remember hearing many conversations between Bobby and my dad, about this issue.

BATES: Part of the purpose behind Kennedy's swing through Texas in November 1963 was to show he was ready to re-earn Hispanic voters' support. Max Krochmal, a historian at Texas Christian University, says the Viva Kennedy clubs were a political watershed because they showed politicians and Mexican-Americans the power of their vote.

MAX KROCHMAL: The Viva Kennedy campaign really produced a measure of unity among Mexican-Americans that was rarely seen before, or after.

BATES: Several hours after attending the LULAC dinner in Houston, John Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas. But the Viva Kennedy clubs, and that night's event, cemented a relationship between Democrats and many Mexican-Americans that continues today.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.