On the anniversary weekend of Kennedy’s cold-blooded assassination on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas, the effect of Kennedy’s presidency still resonates with Mexican-Americans. Kennedy and his wife, First Lady Jackie, connected with Mexican-Americans because they were warm and charming, and Catholic, the primary religion in the Mexican-American community. Jackie also made a point of reaching out by speaking Spanish to the Mexican-American community.
On Nov. 21, the night prior to Kennedy’s assassination, he and Jackie had attended – along with Vice President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird – a formal dinner given by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). The LULAC had invited Kennedy to the dinner and were unsure whether Kennedy would appear, but he did. And, he seemed to enjoy himself. The dinner had a mariachi band performing and Kennedy reportedly told Jackie he was enjoying the music. Everyone at this event, according to Frank Urteaga, a member of LULAC who was there that night, liked Kennedy and how friendly he was with everyone, shaking hands with the band members. In photos of Kennedy at this event, Kennedy’s happiness was evident.
In 1960, no one had any idea how powerful the Mexican-American vote would be. The Chicano Movement (El Movimiento) was blooming. Kennedy was so popular among Mexican-Americans that “Viva Kennedy” clubs were formed; their vote helped Kennedy narrowly win the presidential election in 1960. These clubs helped compel the Mexican-American community to become proactive and “get out there and vote.” The MTV generation echoed this with its “Rock the Vote” movement in 1990.
According to Lupe Fraga, who was 27 at the time and at the LULAC dinner that night, “It was 20 minutes that they were there with us, but it’s really one of the greatest 20 minutes of my life that I have ever experienced.”
But, as popular Kennedy was with Mexican-Americans, he didn’t fulfill his promises to them. For one, Kennedy didn’t appoint more Mexican-Americans to high political positions and didn’t pass legislation that would benefit the Mexican-American community. To be fair, maybe Kennedy would have if he had not been assassinated; but, as it turned out, his brother Robert Kennedy became a terrific supporter of Mexican farm worker activist Cesar Chavez. Edward Kennedy was hugely supportive of Mexican-Americans, as well.
Still, Kennedy’s legacy is important because he did shine a light on the growing voting power of Mexican-Americans in American society when no other president before him had done so. In fact, Kennedy’s power was so great that Mexican-American political coalitions today continue because of his influence.
But, what happened after Kennedy’s assassination was even more interesting. After Lyndon B. Johnson was appointed president in Kennedy’s stead, Johnson paid attention to the Mexican-American community. For a man who had voted against civil rights measures, Johnson turned out to be a huge asset to Mexican-Americans, passing civil rights laws and placing Mexican-Americans in legislative positions.
By Juana Poareo