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This four picture combo, provided by Alexander Arroyos, taken Nov. 21, 1963, shows President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy greeting Latino activists at a LULAC gala in Houston's Rice Hotel.

, Associated Press - Ap

The president and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy mingled at the gala, where the first lady addressed the crowd in Spanish.

, Associated Press

JFK's last night recalled as key event for Latinos

  • Article by: RUSSELL CONTRERAS
  • Associated Press
  • November 25, 2012 - 6:20 PM

President John F. Kennedy was supposed to just stop by and wave hello.

Instead a group of eager Latinos persuaded him to come inside and speak to a packed room of Mexican-American civil rights activists. And then he persuaded his wife, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, to address the crowd in Spanish.

It was Nov. 21, 1963. Hours later, the president was dead, his assassination overshadowing the significance of a speech that can be seen as the birth of the Latino vote, so instrumental in 2012 in helping re-elect the first black president, Barack Obama.

To historians, Kennedy's appearance at the Rice Ballroom in Houston was likely the first time a president officially acknowledged Latinos as an important voting bloc.

The event is a touchstone for activists even if the spot where Kennedy sat and heard a band play Mexican ballads and where the crowd yelled "Viva Kennedy!" is now a refurbished ballroom in a loft apartment complex.

"That evening ... that's where it began," said Ignacio Garcia, author of "Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot" and a history professor at Brigham Young University.

The surprise visit came after Mexican-Americans in Texas, New Mexico, California, Arizona, Illinois and Indiana helped Kennedy win critical swing states in 1960, thanks to an unprecedented voter registration drive. Independent "Viva Kennedy!" clubs sprang up. Sen. Dennis Chavez, D-N.M., and Texas legislator Henry B. Gonzalez of San Antonio, a future congressman, positioned themselves as the first recognizable national Latino political figures.

Latinos identified with Kennedy

Just as in 2012, Republicans in 1960 did little to woo Latinos to support their candidate, Richard Nixon. Latinos also identified with Kennedy, who was Catholic and Irish-American, a member of an ethnic group that had battled discrimination similar to what Latinos faced in the Southwest.

On Election Day, Kennedy won 85 percent of the Mexican-American vote.

But during Kennedy's first months in office, Latino leaders expressed dismay that he had not appointed any Hispanics to his administration.

Sensing another close election in 1964 and hoping to ease tensions, Kennedy visited Texas in November 1963. Advisers suggested that he at least pay a quick visit to Mexican-American activists at a Houston gala sponsored by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the largest Latino civil rights group in the country. "The Secret Service told us that he may stop by, but not to advertise it because it wasn't part of his official schedule," said Alexander Arroyos, 76, who was an officer in LULAC at the time.

A warm welcome

The president was greeted by Macario Garcia, who was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. Inside the ballroom, Kennedy and the first lady found an enthusiastic crowd of World War II veterans, civil rights advocates and future elected officials.

Kennedy spoke briefly about foreign policy in Latin America and the importance of LULAC. Before that moment, historians believe that no president had ever acknowledged Latinos as a voting bloc, said Emilio Zamora, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

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