Latinos & Presidential Shootings

Regular readers of Latino Like Me might remember an earlier post on JFK’s last night alive.

In it I discuss how the night before he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, the President spent the evening at an event hosted by the League of Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. Along with LBJ and both their wives, the President spoke before LULAC, the oldest and, arguably, the most successful Mexican American civil rights organization in the U.S.  The long and the short of it is that Kennedy spent his last night as President addressing Latino issues.

Now you can understand why this slideshow from CNN took me by surprise.

The images commemorate the 30th anniversary of the shooting of Ronald Reagan, on March 30, 1981. If you click to the second image you will see a copy of the President’s itinerary printed in a newspaper found in the hotel room of John W. Hinckley Jr.–Reagan’s would be assassin.

Notice anything?

It seems that the morning of the 30th, just before he went to the Hilton Hotel to give a speech, Reagan met with “Hispanic supporters.”  Upon exiting the hotel, after his speech, Reagan was shot by Hinckley in the chest.

Just an interesting little historical coincidence.

JFK’s Last Night Alive

JFK spent his last night alive with a room full of Mexican Americans!

The above photo was taken at the Rice Hotel, in Houston, on the evening of November 21, 1963.  JFK and LBJ and their wives were the guests of honor at an event sponsored by LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens.  Both the President and Vice President addressed the gathering of Mexican American activists.  The First Lady even offered some brief remarks in Spanish.

Considering I am a historian of the 20th century US, with a specialty in the history of Latinos, and with a fixation on the Kennedy assassination that stretches back to my childhood, I am unbelievably surprised that I didn’t know this before!

The story came to my attention because of a man named Roy Botello.  The 88-year-old, Mexican American from Texas was in the crowd that night and took some 8mm home movies of the evenings festivities.  The film was “sitting in a chest of drawers” in his living room for all these years.  Botello recently decided to donate the film to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, the museum dedicated to the assassination.

You can read more about the story here.

The Joker Voted for Nixon

Fifty years ago today, on October 8, 1960, this photo of actors Ginger Rogers and Cesar Romero ran in the LA Times.


By 1960, Rogers was a household name and a Hollywood legend.  An Oscar-winning actress, she had starred in more than 70 movies, and was best known for re-defining the musical genre with her dance partner Fred Astaire.

Romero was no Rogers, but he was no lightweight either.  The New York born cubano had starred in scores of films, ranging from musicals, to comedies, to adventures.  Romero was well-known to movie goers in the 30s and 40s  as the preeminent “Latin lover.”  Later, he played everything from the “heavy” to the comedic foil.

Romero parlayed his initial type casting into a long career, from the big screen to TV.  Six years after this photo was taken, Romero’s name would be forever linked to “Batman” when he was cast as the Joker in the campy TV show starring Adam West.  Today, despite a diverse body of work spanning almost half a century, he is best know for his turn as the warped villian.

In the above photo, Romero and Rogers are attaching bumper stickers to cars.  The stickers are for Dick Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican nominees for President and Vice President in 1960.  One month after the Times published this, Nixon would lose the election to JFK by a mere 112,827 votes, less than 0.17% of the entire popular vote.

The election is particularly well-known in Chicano historical circles because of overt efforts by the Democratic Party to mobilize the Latino vote.  Among their tactics, the Democrats sponsored “¡Viva Kennedy!” clubs to reach out to Spanish-speaking voters in the Southwest and other parts of the nation.

They even enlisted the Senator’s wife in their targeted campaign:

This outreach effort may have been decisive for JFK.  In Texas he won over 90% of the Mexican American electorate, about 200,000 votes.  This helped give him the state and, hence, the presidency.  Overall, Kennedy won an estimated 85% of the Mexican American vote from coast to coast.

To many Mexican American politicos, the results inspired hopes of greater attention from the new administration, if not outright formal appointments.  Their hopes, however, were soon dashed.  JFK paid almost no attention to the issues facing Mexican Americans and other Latinos.

As the above picture reflects, the Republican Party might not have organized “¡Viva Nixon!” clubs across the nation but they didn’t ignore Latino voters entirely.  Romero, whose name and reputation would have been most powerfully regarded among Cuban and older Mexican voters, participated in at least a casual effort to garner some votes for “Tricky Dick.”

In subsequent years, celebrities like Romero and Ricardo Montalbán could help rally religious and conservative members of the Spanish-speaking population to vote for Nixon again and, even after that, Reagan.  Now, fifty years later, Republicans seem to have lost almost all the benefits of these early connections.

As a sustained immigration debate based firmly in racialist ways of knowing nurtures the continual exodus of Latino voters from the Republican side of the fence to the Democratic, it’s interesting to look back and see how the present reality was anything but certain in 1960.

On the death of a warmonger

Robert S. McNamara died this morning at the age of 93. If you don’t know who he is, you can read his obituary in the NY Times, the LA Times, or his Wikipedia page. For more in-depth discussions of his life and legacy you can watch the 2004 Oscar-winning film The Fog of War, or read his 1995 autobiography, In Retrospect.

My first inclination with the passing of McNamara is to say something sarcastic and mean, not out of a desire to hurt his family but out of a need to make a statement against the actions this man took in his life.  But I find myself doing what I just did in that last sentence: thinking about his family, or anyone who might be feeling loss due to the man’s passing today.


McNamara deserves to be understood as a weak and misguided man.  On the latter point, he is no different than any number of government and military officials for more than half a century who were so wedded to the myth of the “domino effect” as to be blinded by the overwhelming evidence they collected that it was nothing but metaphor.

On the first count–on his weakness–perhaps he is also linked to an “army” of so-called leaders who forget to cherish the lives of the people who put their games of war into action, in addition to the lives of those whose deaths are the objects of those games. Robert McNamara served a government in a capacity which brought him tremendous power and responsibility. But, in his crucial moments, time and time again, he traded his obligations as a human being for the exigencies of that master.

A liberal-pragmatist might say men like McNamara are necessary when we need them to do the things we cannot.  I don’t agree.  In the world we have created, in the systems we have made and rely upon to define what is possible and necessary, perhaps. But that human-made reality must always be checked by the greater responsibilities we have to humanity and to the planet on which it resides.

In some ways, he recognized his failures as a human.  His autobiography, his public opposition to further US immorality in war, all these were rooted (at least in part) in his sense that what he did was wrong.  He might have been motivated more by the need to protect his historical memory but, in so doing, he did recognize the primary challenge to that legacy would be his all too-human failings. I think that is what is keeping me from being callous in my assessment of his death.  Maybe he needed to be better and be contrite for those he left behind.  Maybe I can empathize with them.  Indeed, maybe we have the responsibility to do so.

It would be easy to call Robert McNamara “evil.”  Whether or not he was is meaningless to me. The undeniable fact is he caused more human suffering than can be measured and he did so, in the end, for nothing.  But it would also be a disservice to the millions who suffered as a result of his actions to dismiss him so casually.  He was nothing but a man, yes, but a man whose failures were almost pre-determined by a government that would have exiled anyone who struggled for true, human “success” in his position.

This understanding is not meant to be absolution for the soul of Robert S. McNamara. Rather, it should be taken as an indictment of those of us who remain, as we continue to propogate a rationale of this world that necessitates war, that dismisses the tragedy of organized human death, and that, far too often, forgets to remember.


How Do You Get Latino Votes?

Well, in 1960, you get your wife to use her choppy Spanish and promise a “mano firme” kind of leadership from her husband.

Check out this television ad made for the 1960 Presidential campaign, an election that pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy won by the smallest margin in history (up to that point)–less than 113,000 votes! Several hundreds of thousands of Latino voters registered and voted for the first time as part of what were called “Viva Kennedy” campaigns. So, from the perspective of many Southwestern electoral activists of the time, Mexican American voters (in particular) made the difference in electing the President of the United States.

Kennedy then proceeded to ignore many of the issues facing Latinos in the U.S. at the time.

Que Viva Kennedy!