LATINO VOICES
11/22/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

John F. Kennedy's Complex Relationship With The Mexican American Community

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The cool, crisp, south Texas air kissed my face while I ran anxiously toward my best friend to finalize our plans to attend a football game in nearby Corpus Christi that Friday evening.

We joined up at the entrance of our high school building and headed toward our chemistry class. While we walked briskly our loud chatter boomed over those passing us in the hallway, yet we managed to hear the angry voice of a fellow student say to her boyfriend "I just heard that some crazy son-of-a-bitch shot President Kennedy in Dallas!"

Those words ring shockingly true today as they did when I first heard them as a 17 year old high school student.

President Kennedy's assassination

My recollection of that cruel memory of President Kennedy's assassination is likely no different from that of the millions of Americans that experienced the same shock on November 22, 1963.

Yet, somehow I felt that President Kennedy was closer to me because I was a member of the Mexican-American community that he seemed to embrace and which in turn voted almost 100 percent for him. I remember the many radio ads in Spanish urging its listeners to vote for Kennedy y Johnson.

On our side of town, there was one elderly woman who made it her mission to ensure that eligible voters cast their ballots for Democratic candidates. She was a relentless political activist and during the 1960 presidential election she seemed even more engaged, ferrying voters to the polling places like no other time.

But she wasn't the only one, Corpus Christi physician and political activist, Dr. Hector P. Garcia was a co-founder of the Viva Kennedy Clubs which were comprised of mostly political activists and successful businessmen and women.

The clubs took off like wildfire not only in the southwestern states but also in parts of the Midwest and its Honorary Chairs were the only two nationally elected Hispanics at the time, Senator Dennis Chavez and Congressman Joseph Montoya of New Mexico.

In his book, Viva Kennedy: Mexican-Americans in Search of Camelot, historian Ignacio M. Garcia talks about the hope that Hispanics of the southwest held about Kennedy's presidency.

After all, he promised civil rights action including legislation for migrant workers.

Yet, after the election, President Kennedy did little for Hispanics especially in making high level appointments to his administration which the Viva Kennedy Club members urged him to do.

Kennedy and the Latino community

It's fair to say that Kennedy wasn't close to the Latino community and hardly knew any of the Viva Kennedy Club leaders except for Senator Dennis Chavez.

Yet Mexican-Americans helped him get elected as the 35th President of the U.S. and as a result waited patiently for appointment announcements, only two of which materialized, Judge Reynaldo Garza of Texas was appointed to the federal bench and former El Paso Mayor Raymond Telles was appointed Ambassador to Costa Rica.

President Kennedy appointed two Puerto Ricans to the State Department but that didn't help strengthen relations between Kennedy's Administration and the Mexican-Americans who felt their historical voter turnout was owed a lot more than the smaller Puerto Rican effort.

Kennedy's lackluster support of the Mexican-American community brought heavy criticism from Viva Kennedy Club members including the ever faithful Senator Dennis Chavez.

The Mexican-American vote

Realizing the importance of the Mexican-American vote, President Kennedy had this important population in mind when he made the last trip of his presidency. While his trip to Texas was aimed at mending fences between rival state Democratic factions, it was also aimed at attracting voters to his probable reelection campaign in 1964.

Kennedy's Texas trip brought him in close contact with Mexican-Americans; his motorcade passed by the predominantly Mexican-American Breckenridge High School in San Antonio and he publicly kissed the cheek of Bertha Gonzalez, the wife of state senator and Viva Kennedy Club member, Henry B. Gonzalez.

n Houston, he went a step further by making a brief but important stop at the LULAC State Director's Ball at the Rice Hotel.

Among those that greeted him as he made his way into the grand ballroom, was World War II Veteran Macario Garcia who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1945 and who later made national news when a restaurant owner refused to serve him because of his Mexican ancestry.

Mrs. Kennedy stood up and spoke Spanish to the audience

The evening was a big boost for the President and his relationship with Mexican-Americans.

Especially noteworthy was when Mrs. Kennedy stood up and spoke Spanish to the audience which that alone almost assured that Mexican-Americans would once again rally for her husband albeit more cautiously.

No one can say what might have been for Mexican-Americans and other Hispanics had President Kennedy lived and been reelected.

But it is safe to say that there may have been a record number of high level appointments of Mexican-Americans and just as equally important, White House support for Hispanic friendly legislation.

We can only speculate what might have been but one thing since President Kennedy's assassination is certain, Hispanics, particularly the enormously large Mexican American population, continues to vote overwhelmingly Democrat.

Yet, the response from those that Hispanics have helped vote in office have been slow in reciprocating.

On this, the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, it may time for all of us to stop reliving the assassination but never stop remembering. And more importantly it may be time for Hispanics to reevaluate their political allegiance, their place in politics and take heed from past election experiences that has yielded them little or nothing in return.

This article was originally published on VOXXI as "The Kennedy administration and Hispanics."

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