HOUSTON — Ernest Eguia cherishes an album full of photographs, black and white prints barely faded after a half-century.
"Gosh, they’re both so full of life," he said, looking over the pictures of a vigorous young president and his glamorous wife.
So full of life, on a night that would make political history.
On the last night of Camelot, President Kennedy brought his first lady along as he visited a crowded ballroom at the Rice Hotel. He stayed only 17 minutes and spoke only briefly, introducing his wife for some polite remarks before the mariachi music continued. But this night would become crucial—not only because of what would happen the next day, but also because of the crowd itself.
"Historically, it’s the first time that a sitting American president has ever appeared and spoke before a predominantly Latino organization," said Al Maldonado, the current president of LULAC in Houston.
Indeed, some historians have characterized that evening as the birthdate of Latino politics in America. But Kennedy dropped by that ballroom precisely because Hispanic voters had dramatically demonstrated their importance in the 1960 presidential race. "Viva Kennedy" groups, whose campaign buttons are now a collector’s item, helped the Democratic ticket carry critical swing states—including Texas, California and Illinois—in what was then the closest presidential election in American history.
Kennedy traveled to Texas not only to patch up a rift between feuding factions of the Democratic Party, but also to shore up support among his voters here. Although he picked Lyndon Johnson for his running mate to carry the state—over the outspoken objections of Robert Kennedy, who despised LBJ—the conflict between liberal and conservative Democrats threatened to throw Texas toward the Republican ticket in 1964.
Latino leaders in Texas knew that. So when they heard about Kennedy’s plans to travel to the state, they concocted a plan.
"Can you imagine inviting a president with just 30 days notice?" Maldonado said.
One of LULAC’s leaders wrote a detailed letter to Kenny O’Donnell, one of Kennedy’s closest confidantes in the White House, advising him that the president’s visit to Houston corresponded with the "LULAC State Director’s Ball." Indeed, the letter advised, the president’s itinerary included a downtown Houston dinner just a short drive away from the Rice Hotel where LULAC planned its meeting.
"We can win in Texas," the letter proclaimed. "However, to do it again, the VIVA KENNEDY CLUBS must be re-organized. Most of the membership of the VIVA KENNEDY CLUBS came out of the LULAC membership rosters and all of them will be present at this LULAC affair honoring one of our best known members."
The appeal, complete with its capitalized reminder about the crucial Viva Kennedy Clubs, apparently caught O’Donnell’s eye. A stopover at the Rice Hotel was added to the president’s itinerary.
Mariachi music echoed through the halls of the hotel that Thursday night. Macario Garcia, the Houston Medal of Honor winner decorated for his service in World War II, stood at the door to greet the president. A crowd of veterans, civil rights advocates and political activists roared as the president and first lady walked in.
"Everybody just made more noise," Eguia remembered. "I don’t know why the Rice Hotel is still standing. It should’ve crumbled down with the noise that was there."
"I’m glad to be here today," the president said to the Rice Hotel crowd. "And in order that my words would be even clearer, I’m going to ask my wife to say a few words to you, also."
With that, Jacqueline Kennedy stepped up to the podium. Unbeknownst to anyone in the crowd, the first lady had spent days preparing for the event, repeatedly practicing and rehearsing a brief speech. What she said didn’t matter much—just a few pleasantries—but the crowd was electrified that the first lady spoke in Spanish.
The president spoke briefly about Latin American policy and complimented LULAC. The vice-president from Texas and his wife also appeared on the stage. But it was the first lady’s remarks that resonated strongest among the bilingual crowd.
"I think she stole away the show from the president when she spoke in Spanish," Eguia remembered.
What nobody from the White House knew was that the entire event grew out of a clever ruse, a political trick designed to draw the president’s attention.
"Actually, it came about when LULAC discovered the president was going to be in town," Maldonado said. "LULAC got together and decided, ‘We need a reason for the president to come visit us.’ So they came up with the idea of having a state director’s ball here at the Rice Hotel hoping that that would influence the president to come by and visit them."
A day later, Camelot had come to an abrupt end.
But on the last night of his life, the doomed president had illuminated the Latino vote in a spotlight that would never die.