JFK’s last night: The Kennedy mystique and Latino power

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John F Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, 1963, Latino voters, lulac

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy visited a LULAC meeting on Nov. 21, 1963 and gave a moving speech in Spanish.

With those words First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began a brief but stunning address to a packed Latino convention dinner audience at the Rice Hotel in Houston on the evening of Nov. 21, 1963, that might have been one of the highlights of President John F. Kennedy’s fateful political trip to Texas that long four-day weekend.

But 16 hours later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and most of everything that happened on that first day of the trip was overshadowed and relegated to a footnote in history.

Except, that is, for the hundreds who were at the dinner held by the League of United Latin American Citizens, LULAC, which in 1963 had taken a back seat in the growing national spotlight on civil rights to the NAACP and the Rev. Martin Luther King, regardless of the work the Hispanic group was doing.

In the mainstream news media, that 17-minute Kennedy appearance at the LULAC event was largely forgotten until about a year ago when published accounts recounted the story, though repeating an erroneous fact that the president’s visit that night had been a spur of the moment incident.

In fact, however, it wasn’t. And neither was the First Lady’s moving  speech in Spanish.

The late John Herrera, a former national president of LULAC who was the master of ceremonies at the Rice Hotel dinner and introduced Kennedy that night, had long insisted that he and others had issued an invitation to the White House weeks earlier – and gotten a commitment but with an understanding.

The LULAC event would not be noted on the long agenda of what the president would be doing that Thursday.

“They wanted it to be hush-hush, a planned ‘dropped by at the last moment kind of things’ that would catch everyone by surprise, especially the news media which was going to be the main conduit for news of his trip to Texas, besides word of mouth,” Herrera said in a 1976 interview in Houston where he was an attorney.

“We didn’t mind. The more attention on him being there with us, the better, we thought. We knew he was coming, and we knew the First Lady would be speaking to us in Spanish, just as she had spoken in French when she met Charles DeGaulle.”

In 1961, accompanying her husband to Paris, Mrs. Kennedy had dazzled the French president, charming him through a state dinner.

The Kennedys LULAC visit and speech was no ‘drop in’

John F Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, 1963, Latino voters, LULAC

President John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie in 1961. The Kennedys visited LULAC on Nov. 21, 1963 to reach out to Latinos. (AP Photo)

Years later, Clint Hill, one of the Secret Service agents on the 1963 Texas trip, confirmed Herrera’s account, down to Mrs. Kennedy having made prepared comments and rehearsing what she would say to the LULAC crowd.

“It was no accident,” Hill said. “On way to San Antonio from Washington that day on the flight, she had been practicing her Spanish while we flew.”

But, of course, in politics, where image and illusion are of tantamount importance – and the Kennedy White House was a master of such orchestration – the made-up story of the Presidential party slipping in on the spur of the moment and the First Lady delivering an impromptu talk in Spanish all made for better copy.

Years later, the romanticism of the Kennedys “dropping in” on the Houston ballroom full of Hispanics would continue.

One report last year claimed that it “was likely the first time that a president officially acknowledged Latinos as an important voting block.”

Forgotten in that reporting bravado was that in 1960, the Kennedy presidential campaign had gone to great lengths to organize Viva Kennedy Clubs in Texas and California, as well as a few other states.

After his election, Kennedy had even publicly thanked his running mate, then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, for his help in carrying Texas’ decisive electoral votes and in particular for using his own organization to deliver the large Latino vote in heavily Hispanic South Texas.

The importance of Kennedy’s visit to Texas

John F Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, 1963, Latino voters, LULAC

President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Texas in 1963 is said to have been his way to connect with Latino voters. (AP photo)

Author Ignacio Garcia, in his “Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot,” also downplays much of the previous history between JFK and Hispanics, for whom the 1960 campaign had been a national political debut in Texas and especially in California.

“That evening … that’s where it began,” insists Garcia, a history professor at Brigham Young University. “But because very few people know about the meeting, it’s like it never happened.”

But in 1960 in Los Angeles , where Kennedy was nominated at the Democratic National Convention that year, the candidate had gone out of his way to be seen with then City Councilman Ed Roybal, who was the leading Latino political figure in California and who was elected to Congress two years later, in part because of his connection with the Kennedy mystique.

In the 1960 campaign, Roybal was intimately involved in setting up Viva Kennedy Clubs in California and in organizing the Mexican American Political Association, still the oldest Latino political group in the country, to help rally Latinos around Kennedy.

“It was President Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 that first empowered us,” Roybal later said in an interview. “Here at the nominating convention, he said, ‘I can win, Ed, but I need your votes to do it.”

“My greatest disappointment is that we couldn’t carry California for him. But we carried Texas, and what we started here in 1960 would eventually turn California into a strong Democratic state,” said Roybal.

“I think President Kennedy knew that. I think that’s why that Texas trip in ’63 was so important. He was saying to us, in his own way, ‘I can win again, but I need your votes to do it.”

Jackie Kennedy’s LULAC speech in Spanish

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