During his 1960 bid for the White House, John F. Kennedy faced a tight race. Kennedy and his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, remained neck-and-neck in the polls throughout the campaign season. Kennedy gained leads after his historic TV debate performances, but Nixon gained momentum heading into Election Day.
One way the nation’s first Catholic president sought to gain an edge in the close contest was by courting a potential bloc that had been largely ignored by U.S. political candidates—the Latino vote.
Uniting Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans
While Latino voters are now prominent in national political discussion, this was hardly the case before 1960. For most of the 20th century, Democrats and Republicans expected Latinos to serve as silent and loyal subordinates, when they bothered asking for their votes at all. Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans constituted the bulk of the nation’s Latinos. But they had made few efforts to unite and amplify their voices.
Latino voters lived in different parts of the country, with Mexican Americans mostly in the Southwest, and the Puerto Ricans’ mainland population concentrated in the Northeast. They held distinct political and cultural identities rooted in their regions, states, as well as the homelands from which they or their ancestors had migrated.
Cuban refugees added to the mix after 1959, the bulk of them arriving in Florida. But they expected the imminent overthrow of Fidel Castro and a quick return to their island homes. So despite their overlapping linguistic and cultural traditions, and often common experiences of discrimination, poverty and political exclusion, most Latinos did not act as if they belonged to one community, political or otherwise.
All the same, the growth of large Spanish-speaking populations in all corners of the country raised a new political possibility: Could these distinct communities (at least Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans) be forged into a single constituency? Given how little power they had amassed working separately, might some kind of national alliance change the political game?
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Edward Roybal Leads Effort to Activate Latino Vote
For ambitious Mexican Americans, the 1960 presidential campaign presented an early test. Edward Roybal was the leader in coalescing the Latino vote. A liberal city councilman from Los Angeles, Roybal attended the 1960 Democratic National Convention, where he helped convince the Kennedy campaign to authorize a vast voter turnout effort in Mexican-American communities.
The logic was simple—to defeat Nixon, Democrats needed a surge in Mexican-American votes, especially in Texas. As Ignacio García writes in Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot, Roybal and other likeminded Mexican-American leaders expected a President Kennedy to reciprocate by acting on their behalf once he reached office. This included using federal power to improve their people’s economic and social condition, awarding Latino Americans prestigious federal jobs, and backing them in their struggles for respect and influence within state and local Democratic parties. The “Viva Kennedy” campaign was born.
For more than two months, Roybal and other Mexican-American elected officials, civil rights leaders, and activists raised funds and barnstormed 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 Mexican Americans to see Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, as a fellow outsider. To send him to the White House would, in some sense, punch their own ticket 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 conduits between the candidate and their communities. When John Kennedy received a rapturous reception on Olvera Street, “the birthplace of Mexican L.A.” and then later spoke before a jam-packed college football stadium in the largely Mexican-American section of East Los Angeles, Viva Kennedy campaigners brimmed with optimism at their people’s potential, if harnessed to an ascending 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.
Though led by Mexican Americans, all parties had an interest in extending the Viva Kennedy campaign’s reach far beyond its nucleus in the Southwest. In time, two Puerto Rican leaders from New York enlisted as Viva Kennedy co-chairmen. Their inclusion imparted the appearance of a truly national mobilization of the people John Kennedy sometimes referred to as “Latin Americans.”
JFK Speaks in Spanish Harlem
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 fellow people of dignity who, like his Irish ancestors, had sought safety and opportunity in a land of progress. Campaign sound trucks blared through the barrio, and Kennedy buses whisked Puerto Ricans to registration sites.
New York political bosses had long kept the Puerto Rican electorate small, the better to reserve power and patronage for their white ethnic constituents. But thanks to the excitement and resources of the presidential campaign, the number of Puerto Ricans engaged in mainland democracy grew dramatically.
After Kennedy narrowly defeated Nixon, Puerto Rican leaders celebrated their role in the Democrats taking New York, then the largest Electoral College state. For their part, influential southwesterners declared that “Mr. Kennedy rode the Mexican burro into the presidency.”
Kennedy Administration Neglects Promises
While Kennedy acknowledged that Mexican-American votes in Texas were critical to his win over Nixon, he largely neglected the promises made to Viva Kennedy campaigners—particularly Mexican Americans—once in the White House. Without the unifying force of the campaign and its celebrity candidate, the alliance of Latinos that Viva Kennedy represented collapsed.
Nevertheless, the Kennedy campaign of 1960 established the broad outlines of Latino politics in the years to come. It encouraged leaders in various Latino communities to see the presidential election as the foundation of a nationwide Latino political community, even as it appealed to members of those communities in different ways.
It also cemented the urge among Latino leaders to look to Washington as a source of allies and aid in their local political struggles. It gave aspiring politicians from each community a chance to rise in the Democratic Party. Some Viva Kennedy backers, like Edward Roybal, were soon elected to Congress.
In the coming decade, Roybal and other leaders from the varied Latino communities, virtually all of whom had some connection to the 1960 campaign, eventually found each other in the capital. There, they brought coherence to the national Latino constituency that first came into view in 1960. They lobbied to expand the Voting Rights Act to include Latinos, formed groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, fought for a Hispanic census category, and established that the Latino vote was nationwide, permanent—and on the cusp of great influence.