By Mercedes Olivera
Special to The Texas Catholic
Like many Mexican-Americans of her time, Leanor Villareal remembers well the hope that President John F. Kennedy brought to those like her.
As Dallas prepared for the president’s visit on Nov. 22, 1963, many Mexican-Americans were primed to pay homage to one they believed would deliver them from hopelessness.
In Villareal’s home, JFK’s photo was on her home altar, hanging alongside an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and a crucifix – a Hispanic Holy Trinity, if you will, that was a common sight in so many Mexican-American homes.
“They saw him as someone who would do something for la comunidad,” Villareal said.
It was a common sentiment in Mexican-American communities across the country.
The fact that JFK was Catholic, and his wife spoke Spanish, made an impact on Mexican-American voters. More important, though, Mexican-Americans seemed to have made an impact on Kennedy.
He was the first presidential candidate to recognize the importance of the now so-called Hispanic voter: Jacqueline Kennedy’s political ad asking Hispanics for their votes was the first one done in Spanish by a presidential campaign.
“He was Catholic, and an ethnic with an immigrant history,” said Andy Hernandez, a Latino politics analyst.
The similarities were striking. The Irish weren’t considered Anglo even as late as the 1960s and were known for being part of an immigrant group that had also battled discrimination similar to what Mexican-Americans had experienced.
It would prove to be a narrative that won over Mexican-Americans and may have helped push Kennedy into the winner’s column on Election Night.
Hispanic votes were crucial in several swing states, such as Texas, New Mexico, Illinois, and California, where the margin of victory ranged from less than 1 percent to 2 percent.
“Kennedy got 90 percent of the Mexican-American vote – something unlikely to be matched ever again,” said Ignacio García, history professor at Brigham Young University and author of “Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot.”
“Mexican-Americans had never gone out to vote in these numbers before,” García said.
Yes, Kennedy’s religion and ethnicity pulled at the heartstrings of many Latino Catholics. But timing also played a role: most Latino leaders were Democrats and wanted greater political participation in our democracy, García said.
Hernández said Hispanic organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American GI Forum, evolved almost overnight into Viva Kennedy clubs. Whether or not it was by design or spontaneous, it was reminiscent of “old Irish political machine politics.”
“It was ethnic-based and immigrant-based,” he said.
Anita N. Martinez, the first Hispanic elected to the Dallas City Council, said she, too, felt a special connection between Latinos and John F. Kennedy back then.
“There was a stigma for being Irish, just like there was for mexicanos,” she said. She believed the Kennedys had a lot of empathy for Hispanics.
Josefina Torres, 86, shared that same sentiment.
“I thought he would help Latinos,” Torres said, and help end discrimination that still plagued parts of the city.
Back then, West Dallas still had three separate recreation centers – one for whites, one for blacks, and one for Hispanics, where Torres volunteered.
The same segregation had existed with schools for decades, until a desegregation order in 1971. It would be 1970 or later before any Hispanics worked at Dallas City Hall, according to a study done by the then-Institute of Urban Studies at Southern Methodist University. A Mexican-American police officer was a rarity.
And yet, Dallas Latinos had helped build the city’s economy into the thriving business engine it became in the early 1900s, transforming itself from an agricultural to financial center.
Dallas saw the arrival of Mexican immigrants – many of them fleeing the Mexican Revolution – in the early part of the 20th century. They came with the same dream that all immigrants have come with.
And, with a strong back, they came to work to make it come true.
They settled in the area just north of downtown Dallas, where streets were unpaved and had no sidewalks. La colonia, as it was called by the mexicanos who lived there, would eventually be called Little Mexico.
Latinos labored in the railroads, some even living in the boxcars behind Pike Park – a gathering place for the neighborhood fiestas.
They worked in the sewing factories, like Torres.
The Neuhoff meat packing company was known for hiring many Mexican-Americans, both men and women. The city’s hotel kitchens, where my own grandmother worked to develop her own love for cooking, launched the careers of several Mexican food restaurateurs.
But then the segregation these early Mexican immigrants encountered in housing, employment, and education forced many of them to form their own businesses, social organizations, mutual self-help groups, and, especially, their own churches. Their small colonia helped to insulate them from a larger community that would often reject them socially.
“Life was good on North Pearl Street,” which ran through the heart of Little Mexico, Villareal said. The homes were close enough to each other for the mothers to watch the kids playing in the street.
She and her family and friends often went to the Panamericano movie theater on Maple Avenue to watch Mexican films. Going to the fiestas patrias in September and Cinco de Mayo celebration in May at Pike Park was also a community event that few failed to miss.
A community spirit
Starting in the 1920s, Mexican business leaders began organizing celebrations that would bring the memory of their homeland to their community. There, long poetic oratories would extol the history and sacrifice of Mexico’s leaders in the fight for independence from foreign rule.
But there was also a lighter side to life in la colonia.
The jamaicas at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church were the social events of the summer – mom-and-pop shops and families would set up booths to sell food and games to make a little extra money on the side.
The church’s cafeteria sold enchiladas to raise funds. But the social exchange raised spirits and self-confidence.
“Those jamaicas were never to be equaled,” Villareal said.
Many friends and relatives would also spend a lot of free time at the church and on the grounds of St. Ann Catholic School, both no longer around.
“We liked hanging around the sisters. We helped clean the blackboards, the erasers, or their laundry room,” she said. “No, we were not working for our tuition. We just liked their community life.”
Sitting around the schoolyard on newspapers to watch an outdoor movie was a treat.
“Our people were good, hard-working and proud,” she said. “Some say we were poor. I disagree; we didn’t have money, but most of us had the basic things in life – a roof over our heads, clean clothes, food on the table and parents to nurture us.
“In some homes, the grandmother took care of the children’s needs, and that was an added bonus.”
These memories gave these early immigrants a sense of community and direction in a new environment that was often hostile and unwelcoming.
Nevertheless, the early settlers had a profound survival instinct and were highly entrepreneurial – the right skill in a town that welcomed entrepreneurs.
By 1961, Dallas was changing. City leaders had begun a peaceful desegregation plan. They hoped to avoid the type of civil unrest and riots experienced by the rest of the country during court-ordered desegregation of the late 1950s-early ‘60s.
But social progress would be slow in coming for Latinos in Dallas.
“We had hoped,” Villareal said, “that change would come at a faster pace.”
Mercedes Olivera, who was raised in Little Mexico, attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School and graduated from Ursuline Academy of Dallas, writes a weekly Hispanic affairs column for The Dallas Morning News.