When he ran for the White House in 1960, John F. Kennedy faced a tight race. Kennedy and his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, have been neck and neck in the polls throughout the election season. Kennedy gained leads after his historic television debate performances, but Nixon gained momentum ahead of Election Day.
One way the country’s first Catholic president sought to gain an edge in the close struggle was to court a potential bloc that had been largely ignored by American political candidates – the Latin vote.
Unite Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans
While Latino voters now feature prominently in national political discussions, this was hardly the case until 1960. For most of the 20th century, Democrats and Republicans expected Latinos to serve as subordinates. silent and loyal when they bothered to ask for their vote. Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans made up the bulk of Latinos in the country. But they had made little effort to unite and amplify their voices.
Latino voters lived in different parts of the country, with Mexican Americans mostly in the southwest and the mainland Puerto Rican population concentrated in the northeast. They had distinct political and cultural identities rooted in their regions, states, as well as in the countries of origin from which they or their ancestors had emigrated.
Cuban refugees added to the mix after 1959, most of them arriving in Florida. But they expected the imminent overthrow of Fidel Castro and an early return to their island homes. So despite their overlapping linguistic and cultural traditions and their often shared experiences of discrimination, poverty and political exclusion, most Latinos do not act as if they belong to any community, political or otherwise.
All the same, growth large Hispanic populations in every corner of the country raised a new political possibility: could these distinct communities (at least Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans) be forged into one constituency? Given the little power they had accumulated by working separately, could some sort of national alliance change the political game?
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Edward Roybal leads efforts to activate Latin voting
For ambitious Mexican Americans, the presidential campaign of 1960 presented a first test. Edward Roybal was the leader in the Latin vote merger. A liberal Los Angeles city councilor, Roybal attended the 1960 Democratic National Convention, where he helped convince the Kennedy campaign to allow a broad voter turnout effort in Mexican-American communities.
The logic was simple: To defeat Nixon, Democrats needed an increase in Mexican-American votes, especially in Texas. As Ignacio García writes in Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot, Roybal and other like-minded Mexican-American leaders expected a President Kennedy to return the favor by acting on their behalf once he came to power. This included using federal power to improve the economic and social situation of their people, awarding prestigious federal jobs to Latin Americans and supporting them in their struggles for respect and influence within local democratic parties and states. The “Viva Kennedy” campaign was born.
For more than two months, Roybal and other Mexican-American elected officials, civil rights leaders and activists have raised funds and rallied on behalf of Kennedy and his running mate, Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson. They formed Viva Kennedy clubs from the California coast to the Great Lakes. They encouraged Americans of Mexican descent to see Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, as another foreigner. Sending it to the White House would, in a sense, be breaking their own bill into the American mainstream.
As Sal Castro recalls in Blowout !: Sal Castro and the Chicano struggle for educational justice, the Viva Kennedy clubs acted as a link between the candidate and his community. When John Kennedy received an enthusiastic reception on Olvera Street, “the birthplace of Mexican Los Angeles,” and then spoke outside a crowded college football stadium in the largely Mexican-American section of eastern Los Angeles, activists of Viva Kennedy have brimmed with optimism to their potential as people, if harnessed for an uplifting and charismatic leader.
The Kennedy campaign confirmed that Mexican Americans were an emerging factor in national elections and a new state of affairs in which they and their leaders no longer needed to deny their heritage to have a political voice.
Although led by Mexican Americans, all parties had an interest in extending the reach of the Viva Kennedy campaign well beyond its core in the Southwest. Over time, two Puerto Rican leaders from New York enlisted as co-chairs of Viva Kennedy. Their inclusion has given the appearance of a truly national mobilization of the people John Kennedy sometimes calls “Latin Americans.”
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JFK speaks in Harlem in Spanish
In October, the candidate himself campaigned in Spanish Harlem, the epicenter of Puerto Rican life in New York City. In his remarks, John Kennedy identified himself with this community of recent migrants, as worthy compatriots who, like his Irish ancestors, had sought safety and opportunity in a land of progress. Countryside sound trucks drove through the barrio and Kennedy buses drove Puerto Ricans to recording sites.
New York’s political leaders had long kept the Puerto Rican electorate small, the better to reserve power and patronage for their white voters. But thanks to the excitement and resources of the presidential campaign, the number of Puerto Ricans engaged in continental democracy has increased dramatically.
After Kennedy narrowly defeated Nixon, Puerto Rican leaders celebrated their role in Democrats by taking New York, then the largest state in the constituency. For their part, the influentials of the southwest declared that “Mr. Kennedy rose to the Mexican presidency. “
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Kennedy administration ignores promises
While Kennedy acknowledged that Mexican-American votes in Texas were critical to his victory over Nixon, he largely overlooked promises made to Viva Kennedy activists – especially Mexican Americans – once in the White House. Without the unifying force of the campaign and its famous candidate, the Latino alliance that Viva Kennedy represented collapsed.
Nonetheless, the Kennedy campaign of 1960 outlined the main lines of Latin American politics in the years to come. He encouraged the leaders of various Latin American communities to view the presidential election as the foundation of a nationwide Latin American political community, while appealing to members of these communities in different ways.
It has also reinforced the urge of Latino leaders to look to Washington as a source of allies and aid in their local political struggles. This gave future politicians in each community a chance to climb into the Democratic Party. Some supporters of Viva Kennedy, like Edward Roybal, were soon elected to Congress.
Over the next decade, Roybal and other leaders of various Latin American communities, virtually all of whom had some connection to the 1960 campaign, eventually found themselves in the capital. There they brought consistency to the Latino national constituency that first appeared in 1960. They lobbied to expand the voting rights law to include Latinos, formed in groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are fought for a Hispanic census category and have established that Latinos voting is national, permanent – and on the verge of having great influence.