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How JFK’s ‘Viva Kennedy’ Campaign Galvanized the Latino Vote

August 26, 2020 in History

By Benjamin Francis-Fallon

When JFK faced a tight race for the White House in 1960, he turned to a group of Americans who had long been overlooked by political campaigns.

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

Edward Roybal, circa 1978.

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 …read more