The surprise visit came after Mexican Americans in Texas and 5 other states helped Kennedy win critical swing states in 1960. His stop in Houston 3 years later was a last minute addition to his fateful tour of Texas. But his appearance at the Rice Hotel ballroom marked a key event for Latinos. Ignacio Garcia is professor of Western and Latino history at BYU.
“Mexican American leaders came to the National Convention to talk to the Kennedy people and say ‘Look, you’ve got to make an effort to try to get the Mexican American vote.'”
Garcia says Kennedy and the First Lady found an enthusiastic crowd of WW II veterans, civil rights advocates and future elected officials, people he could identify with.
“He’s ethnic, he’s Irish, and Irish we know how Irish were treated at one time. He can relate to the idea of being the other. His wife speaks Spanish, he’s liberal, he’s a veteran.”
It also marked the first time a president had ever acknowledged Latinos as an important voting bloc.
“By then, Democrats had started losing the white since 1960. And in Texas, Kennedy lost it by 150,000, but Mexican Americans gave him a 200,000 plurality, and he won Texas by 50,000.”
Garcia says Kennedy encouraged the growth of the Latino vote. The Pew Research Center says voter participation for eligible Latino voters has grown from 3.7 million in 1988 to an estimated 12.5 million in 2012.