JFK's Fateful Last Night And The Latino Vote

By David Martin Davies
November 20, 2013
Jacqueline Kennedy appeared in a television campaign ad speaking Spanish.

SAN ANTONIO — As the nation remembers the last tragic day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, many Latino voters of that era reflect on what the 35th president meant to their emerging political bloc.

JFK had a special connection to the Mexican-American voter, and his campaign helped create the Latino Democratic political coalitions that still exist today.

It was the night before Kennedy’s fateful trip to Dallas and he was in Houston. He had received an invitation to stop by the banquet for the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. In his first three years in the White House, Kennedy had declined invitations from LULAC and other Latino civil rights organizations, but this time it was different.

"This organization has done a good deal for this state and for our country," Kennedy said in his speech. "And I’m particularly glad that it emphases the not only the opportunity for all Americans a chance to develop their talents, education for boys and girls so they can pursue those talents to the very end of their ability.”

Kennedy's appearance at the Rice Ballroom in Houston is considered the first time that a sitting president officially acknowledged Latinos as an important voting bloc. Benny Martinez was there that night.

"The crowd there was over capacity. When he walked into our banquet everybody went wild hollering 'Viva Kennedy Viva Kennedy,'” Martinez said.

The phrase “Viva Kennedy” was a salute and a reminder to JFK of how the Latino vote turned out for him in droves in his 1960 presidential election. Viva Kennedy clubs sprung up all across the Southwest in Mexican-American neighborhoods and mounted an unprecedented voter registration effort and get-out-the-vote campaign for Latino voters.

Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline was drafted to appear in a television campaign ad speaking Spanish.

Even though Kennedy was from the Northeast and born to extreme wealth and privilege, Martinez said there was a connection with the Mexican-American community.

“We were both Catholic and we liked the man," he said.

The Latino vote was critical for Kennedy’s presidential election victory. On Election Day in 1960, Kennedy won 85 percent of the Mexican-American vote. In Texas, where he lost the white vote, JFK won 91 percent of the Latino vote delivering the state’s electoral votes and the White House. 

Mexican-American voters in New Mexico also made the difference for JFK. The Viva Kennedy clubs delivered — and they wanted in return civil rights reforms, and appointments for Latinos to high-ranking civil service jobs and federal judgeships.

“One of the things we were working against was the poll tax because back then you had to pay $1.50 to get your poll tax in January in order to vote," Martinez said.

But Historian Ignacio M. Garcia said Kennedy did not deliver for Latinos.

“He never quite got to the nitty gritty," Garcia said. "He never developed like Robert Kennedy did, who would become a good friend of César Chavez, or Edward Kennedy who probably was the best Kennedy friend Latinos ever had.”

The candidate the Viva Kennedy clubs supported never really existed, Garcia said. That Kennedy was a useful invention for the fledgling national Latino vote.

“The Kennedy mystique allows them to create an agenda for their community, a national agenda, and Mexican-Americans now see themselves as a national community," Garcia said. "So Kennedy is very useful as that kind of tool.”

But that night in Houston, Kennedy appeared to have understood he needed start fulfilling his promises to his Latino voters. And if he was going to win re-election, he would have to reignite the enthusiasm of the Viva Kennedy clubs.

But 15 hours after the historic meeting, Kennedy was dead.

The torch was passed to Lyndon Johnson, who did make good on making minority appointments and civil rights laws. And Johnson enjoyed support from Latino voters who helped him during his landslide victory in 1964.

President Kennedy Address to LULAC in Houston