Nov 21, 2023 - Politics & Policy

JFK visited with Latino civil rights leaders on his last night

President John F. Kennedy greets Mexican American activists at a Houston LULAC banquet in the Rice Hotel as El Trio Internacional plays "Kennedy, Kennedy," a song composed for the president for his 1962 visit to Mexico. Photo: Courtesy of Alex Arroyos/John F. Kennedy Collection, Houston History Research Center, Houston Public Library.

Former President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy were only supposed to drop by and say hi during a Nov. 21, 1963, gathering of Mexican American activists in Houston.

Why it matters: The historic meeting, held 60 years ago on Tuesday, has been overshadowed by Kennedy's murder the next day in Dallas, yet historians believe it was the first time a sitting president publicly recognized the Latino vote.

Context: Latinos in the 1960s were a voting bloc many national politicians ignored, but Kennedy was the first to see its potential in helping sway national elections.

  • Jacqueline Kennedy recorded the nation's first Spanish-language national campaign ad targeting Latino voters, and John Kennedy mentioned Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in his opening statement in the nation's first televised presidential debate.
  • Kennedy won 85% to 90% of the Latino vote in 1960, thanks to an aggressive campaign by Viva Kennedy! clubs and excitement over electing the nation's first Catholic president.
  • He beat Republican Richard Nixon by a razor-thin margin of less than two-tenths of one percentage point (0.17%). Kennedy's brother, Robert, would later say Mexican American voters were crucial to the slim victory.

During a fall 1963 Texas tour aimed at uniting fractured Democrats, Kennedy stopped in Houston.

  • The first couple received more than 1,000 invitations for events during a two-hour break.
Civil right attorney John J. Herrera greets President John F. Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson at Houston LULAC banquet.
Civil rights attorney John J. Herrera greets President Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson at the Houston LULAC gala.
  • Once the White House decided to attend the LULAC gala, Jacqueline Kennedy enlisted her trusted aide, Providencia Paredes, a Dominican-born woman, to help her write and memorize a speech she would give in Spanish, said Gustavo Paredes, Providencia's son, to Axios in 2021.
  • "She was always working with Jackie, even giving her insight into the Latinos she would encounter," Gustavo Paredes said.

What happened: After arriving in Houston and dining alone, the Kennedys walked down into the Grand Ballroom at Houston's Rice Hotel, where they were greeted by a welcoming party of Mexican American World War II veterans that included Medal of Honor recipient Macario García.

  • A nervous John J. Herrera, a civil rights lawyer and organizer of the LULAC gala, led Kennedy to the stage as El Trio Internacional played "Kennedy, Kennedy," a song composed for the president for his 1962 visit to Mexico, according to his personal archives.
  • Kennedy approached the podium to speak, but the crowd remained standing. "Won't all of y'all sit down?" the president playfully asked. He then spoke about his policies in Latin America.
  • Jacqueline Kennedy followed and addressed the crowd in Spanish, where she commended Mexican Americans in the audience for their deep, historic connections to Texas. The crowd erupted in "Viva Kennedy" chants.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Vice President Lyndon Johnson sit in front of mariachis in Houston the night before the president is assassinated.
First lady Jacqueline Kennedy, President Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Vice President Lyndon Johnson sit in front of mariachis in Houston the night before the president's assassination. Photo: Courtesy of Alex Arroyos/Houston History Research Center, Houston Public Library

Zoom out: After the speeches, the band played "Jacqueline," another song composed for the president's 1962 Mexico trip and which in part says, "Que Dios te acompañe donde quiera que se aye" — may God be with you wherever you are.

  • "This reminds me of Mexico City," musician Fernando Herrera overheard Jacqueline tell her husband. Then the first couple got up and left.
  • After the Kennedys left, "the band played and the people danced and they talked, but there were moments of silence when their faces had a faraway look," the now-shuttered Houston Press reported.
  • "It was as though they couldn't believe they'd just witnessed the first visit by a U.S. president to a major Latin American" organization.

The next day, John J. Herrera was in his office, still on a high from the day before, when his son, Mike, ran in to tell him to turn on the radio. The president had been shot in Dallas.

  • John J. Herrera ran to the restroom and locked the door. He screamed.
  • "We were on such a high, and then we were so sad," Mike Herrera said in a 2013 interview, two years before his death.
  • "No one had believed we could get President Kennedy to visit us. And then he did."

Subscribe to Axios Latino to get vital news about Latinos and Latin America, delivered to your inbox on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Go deeper