Viva Kennedy Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot
Mexican-Americans circa 1960
It seems hard to look back on the campaign of 1960 with anything but pure nostalgia. It was different then. The Kennedy campaigners tended toward an optimism that challenged contemporary belief systems. All kinds of organizations and factions wanted to get on board, including Mexican-Americans, whom the Kennedy-Johnson ticket sought to woo anyways. The liveliness of this period of time has never been duplicated. The ensuing success of the post-Eisenhower democrats never fulfilled its promise. Instead of the Kennedy regime, the Reagan administration became the most successful of the Cold War era. What transpired in twenty years' time, from '60 or so to '80, is hard to decrypt. But the one movement that overarches all is the universal turn to the Right. Reagan may have been the first to catch on, but the others fell quickly enough in line. Today the Left is a virtual vacuum. A fascistic Left that dictates what to think, monitors the use of words, and condemns differences of opinion is utter nonsense. Not even the faint echo of a huge sucking noise can be heard. They are gone, those brave souls who once fueled the engines of progress. Gay activism has stepped up into militancy. So has feminism and almost every single cause that purports to expand upon peace and tranquility. Eco-terrorism is a fact, not science-fiction. Associations that promote laudatory aims are apt to be consumed by the techniques of getting even. Co-existence, it seems, only means allied right-wingers. The Kennedy years, which raised hopes and sharpened awarenesses ultimately set in motion the swan song for the use of diplomacy in the interests of reform. The new beginning of 1960 ended abruptly in the finality of 1963. That was that. Today's attention-grabbers relate to war and rumors thereof -- Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya . . . it hardly matters. Seldom do people get excited anymore about being who they are, right now, in the USA. Granted, it takes an extraordinary personality to make this happen. Sadly, since America's greatest liberals left the stage, many by gunfire, everybody, including yesteryear's most ardent demonstrators and protestors, has swung in lockstep toward the Right. From there, movement continues rightward, from one extreme to another.
That said, Mexican-Americans continue to advance their interests within a system that might, might not, be moribund. They began to stand up for themselves long before the sixties. As Ignacio M. Garcia, the author, points out, in 1920, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was formed. A sense of identity sparked brotherhoods and sisterhoods. One might think that when the Kennedy candidacy commenced, Mexican-Americans would have immediately joined. Not so. Since 1956, Adlai Stevenson had been their hands down favorite. Mexican-American leaders like Albert Pena, Jr. and Hector P. Garcia only very reluctantly endorsed Kennedy. Dennis Chavez, the New Mexican U.S. Senator in 1933, had been a Johnson supporter who, as a consequence, shifted to Kennedy. Robert Kennedy certainly prized the Mexican-American vote, and valued the use of Spanish and those familiar with Latin America in the fight against communism. The Kennedy-Johnson and Mexican-America bond was agreeably mutual. The grass roots clubs that arose out of the opportunities this union afforded were named Viva Kennedy by their adversarial Nixonites.
It had not been a snap for the Kennedys. At the state and local levels, Democrats were not always so warm toward Mexican-Americans. At the national level, Democrats were friendlier. That was where Kennedy, the candidate, fit in. With panache and disdain for privilege, he fought unfair hierarchies within the various chains of command. For instance, he promised to end 2nd class citizenship across the board. This may have been good politics, but no one doubted the sincerity. Kennedy's Irish roots, moreover, distanced his image from that of an Anglo. His Catholicism bridged yet another gap. To be sure, Mexican-Americans struggled to rise up in terms of affluence and clout. To do so they had to overcome tough problems. Their veterans were often denied adequate medical care. Mexican-American tuberculosis rates were unacceptably high and an assortment of other statistics, such as those dealing with health, wealth, education, and welfare, were also discouraging. Even harder to believe, fifty years ago the plight of wetbacks was just as desperate as it is today. There were those who felt that in comparison the down-and-out in The Grapes of Wrath had it good.
The Kennedys also made Mexican-Americans feel that participation in the system was important. Campaigning for the Democratic ticket, Chavez said that the choice was to either vote or put up with police brutality, discrimination, and all the negatives endemic to the barrios. Viva Kennedy outposts helped win the election. Afterward, feelings turned sour. Mexican-Americans did not get the amount of appointments they thought they deserved. However, many Spanish-speakers were sent to Mexico, Central and South America, and the aforementioned Garcia to the West Indies. Naturally, everyone wanted more. The good thing is that all agreed that government was the solution, not the problem. Needless to say, this sentiment seems to have run its course.
Viva Kennedy was succeeded by Viva Johnson, Viva Humphrey, Viva Mondale, and Adelante Clinton. Republicans also actively searched Mexican-American communities for appointees. A strong America no doubt is one that exists in harmony with its neighbors. Mexico is its main concern. But all countries in the Americas are significant in the quest for a united hemisphere. For the US, Mexico is the geographical must-win. It cannot be skipped over. Not to worry; the task is do-able. Spanish is essential, which goes without saying. And kinder, gentler treatment of Mexicans, legal or illegal, is critical. Looking ahead, strengthened ties with the Americas can only result in greater benefits for all concerned. Men like Castro and Chavez as well as others are troublesome to American regimes. Such leaders are considered dangerous, but they are also loved by those whom this country needs to reach. In any event, the zero-sum game of insults and accusations is completely futile.
Viva Kennedy is a good read. In it there is a lot to ponder, not the least of which is the fact that the Lord giveth and taketh: blessed is the name of the Lord. Without JFK and Camelot, however, it is still possible to make changes, move ahead, and attack problems in a civilized, forthright fashion. Higher walls and fever-pitched xenophobia cannot be the way toward a better world within one's own domain. Particularly disheartening is the closed ear, eye, and heart of the powers that be to the needs and wants of America's closest southern neighbor. Mexico can use a helping hand. The same goes for many other nations south of the border. And, truth be told, America could also use the friendship and esteem of Latin and South America. No matter who is at the helm, in the White House or State Department, this country remains a shining, global hope to the entire world.