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Latinos remember Kennedy
Leo Cßrdenas (Photo courtesy: Leo Cßrdenas)

By Leo Cßrdenas

For two glorious moments Ś less than twenty-four hours before an assassinĺs bullet ended Americaĺs Camelot Ś John F. and Jackie Kennedy mingled with Hispanics in Texas. Thousands of Latinos lined the downtown streets of San Antonio to watch the presidential motorcade. A few hours later Jackie Kennedy spoke in Spanish before a packed League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) audience in Houston.

That San Antonio was added to the three-day Texas campaign trip and that the First Lady addressed LULAC was, in part, the result of the growing power of the Hispanic electorate. Hispanic leaders, who had formed Viva Kennedy clubs in the 1960 election, had been hammering the Kennedy administration for more appointments, visibility and inclusion.

For some eight hours, Latinos were not disappointed. Then the unthinkable happened in Dallas and the San Antonio and Houston appearances lost their growing significance for some time.

I was a police beat reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and rode in the police pilot car driven by deputy police chief in the motorcade, and even 50 years later, vividly recall that the majority of the estimated 125,000 spectators were Latino. At the time, I did not find this so unusual, for Hispanics in those days had pictures of President Kennedy next to one of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

What I did not expect at 28 years of age and a ôveteranö reporter with all of four years of big city newspaper experience, was to be overwhelmed when the president and the first lady emerged from the blue-and-white Air Force One and walked down the ramp at the San Antonio airport. Flanked by the police chief and the deputy police, I stood in awe at their physical presence and glanced long enough at the top Alamo City police officials to note, to myself, of course, that they too were taken aback.

Just about then, Congressman Henry B. Gonzales, riding with the president, stepped onto the ramp. This was a sure sign that all of this was real in one of the countryĺs most Hispanic cities.

Some 15 minutes into the motorcade, an alert from the police chief interrupted the police radio channels to be on the look out for a man driving a specific car. The alert was repeated every five minutes until Air Force One departed from Kelly AFB at 3:45 that afternoon. Constable Bob Garcia, who issued the initial alert, told me that while handling traffic in downtown he overhead a man say that the president would not ômake itö through the San Antonio visit. Secret Service Agent Luis Benavides told me later that agents have to ôexpect things like these where the president is involved.ö

In Houston, LULAC members were anxiously waiting when Kennedy and the first lady entered the grand ballroom of the Rice Hotel at 8:20 p.m. Their biggest surprise came minutes later when Kennedy asked Jackie to speak. In Spanish she had practiced aboard Air Force One earlier in the day, she told LULAC:

ôEstoy muy contenta por estar aquÝ especialmente con ustedes que forman parte del la noble tradiciˇn espa˝ola que tanto ha contribuido a Texas.ö

This hotel appearance lasted just 17 historical minutes Ś a lifetime of memories that hold a very special place in the hearts of those Latinos in attendance that evening.





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