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Democracy

The night before his murder, JFK became the first president to meet with Latino leaders

The historic meeting was overshadowed by the horrors of November 22, 1963.

john f. kennedy, jackie kennedy, lulac
via Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy greet attendees of a dinner held by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas. Master of Ceremonies, John J. Herrera, stands at far right; Mariachi musicians play at left.

November 22, 2023, will mark the 60th anniversary of one of the most horrific moments in American history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The anniversary has been greeted by a host of new documentaries and renewed interest in the conspiracies surrounding the assassination.

One historic moment from Kennedy’s short but consequential presidency occurred on the last night of his life, Thursday, November 21, 1963. That night, Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and his wife, Lady Bird, visited a formal dinner in Houston, Texas, held by LULAC — the League of United Latin American Citizens. The event featured a welcoming party of Mexican-American World War II veterans, including Medal of Honor recipient Macario García.


The event is believed to be the first time a sitting U.S. president publicly recognized the Latino vote.

John F. Kennedy, Jaqueline Kenny, LULAC

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (partially hidden at left) greet visitors upon their arrival at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas.

via Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The visit was a thank-you to Latino voters who played a significant role in Kennedy taking Texas in the 1960 election as part of his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon. Mexican-American military veterans, angry that they still faced prejudice and second-class citizen status after serving their country in the war, bound together in the state to create the Viva Kennedy movement to elect the first Catholic president.

"[Veterans] assumed that things would change, that they would be like they were in the foxhole, or the military unit," Professor Ignacio Garcia, author of “Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans In Search of Camelot,” told NPR. "And when they came back and discovered things were not changed, they became very adamant about changing things."

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Lady Bird Johnson applaud during a dinner held by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas. Past National President of LULAC, George Garza, stands at far left; dinner attendees, Debbie Briones and Lisa Herrera, stand at left in foreground.

via Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Kennedy’s trip to the LUAC gala was a way to publicly rededicate himself to Latino voters. However, the president’s primary goal on his Texas trip was to soothe party tensions caused by the fight between gubernatorial challenger Don Yarborough and Governor John Connally.

Kennedy arrived at the Grand Ballroom at Houston's Rice Hote to the sound of the song “Kennedy, Kennedy” played by El Trio Internacional. When he took the stage, he said some words about his policies in Latin America and then introduced Jacqueline, who made a short speech in Spanish.

@vincepalamara1

Jackie Kennedy addresses LULAC gala in Houston, Nov. 21, 1963; the night before #jfk #jackiekennedy #jacquelinekennedy #vincepalamara #palamara

After the couple’s speeches, the room erupted with chants of "Viva Kennedy! And viva Jackie!"

Dr. William Elizondo, who was present at the historic event, recalls taking the opportunity to tell Kennedy about the problems with poverty and health faced by many Latinos in San Antonio. He remembers Kennedy saying, “I'm definitely going to look into it.”

“He was so vivacious about what he was going to do,” Elizondo told My San Antonio. “We felt grateful that things would be made better and change in a positive manner.”

Sadly, the next day, at 12:30 pm, Kennedy would be struck down by an assassin in Dallas, with Jacqueline by his side.

But Kennedy's death didn’t squash the growing Latino political movement in the U.S. It would carry on, with many of its leaders, such as Edward Roybal, making their way to prominent roles in Washington, D.C. This new wave of Latino leaders would lobby to expand the Voting Rights Act to include Latinos, from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and establish the Latino vote as one of the nation’s most influential blocs.

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two women with their hands over each other's eyes

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