News Column
President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline KennedyThe night before President Kennedy was assassinated, he and the first lady met with LULAC Council 60 in Houston.

JFK’s Last Night: La Celebración
in Houston

Novemberr 18, 2013

Staff —

It was a night that Jim Montero will never forget.

A young officer with the Houston Police Department, Mr. Montero was one of six Hispanic police officers asked to provide security for President John F. Kennedy and the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, when they appeared at a League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) event.

With mariachi music playing and the crowd pressing forward trying to shake hands with President Kennedy, Mr. Montero remembers briefly glancing back to see the president’s outstretched arms over Montero’s shoulders and a smiling Mrs. Kennedy on stage.

Jacqueline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Lyndon Johnson A mariachi band plays for the Kennedys as well as Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

“At that moment everyone was so happy and excited, ” said the 77-year-old Mr. Montero. “You didn’t have an inkling what was next. ”

Less than 24 hours later in Dallas, on Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy died at the hands of an assassin’s bullet.

With the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination next week, a story that has been rarely reported was his historic appearance at the Rice Hotel in Houston for the LULAC Council 60 meeting. Historians believe it was one of the first times a sitting president met with a Hispanic delegation, a formal recognition of the minority voting bloc.

For the few surviving members who attended the event 50 years ago, it was a magical night.

Long Odds

LULAC members John J. Herrera and David Adame had read in the Houston Post that the president would be coming to the area the following month, so the pair hatched a plan to invite him to their event.

Mr. Herrera, who passed away in 1986, wrote the letter longhand and gave it to Tina Adame to type and mail to the White House. Ms. Adame, now 87, thought it was long odds the president would attend their meeting, but a couple weeks later they heard from a local congressman that there was a good possibility.

President Kennedy addresses the LULAC event at the Rice Hotel in Houston President Kennedy addresses the LULAC event at the Rice Hotel in Houston.

“A lot of people were, ‘He’s not going to show’ or ‘he’s not going to come,’ ” said Ms. Adame, 87, noting that those critics were almost right.

LULAC rented the ballroom at the Rice Hotel and prepared to host the Kennedys as well as Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson. It wasn’t until a couple of hours before the event that the president's staff confirmed his attendance.

“Even then we were told he might just come to the door and wave hello, ” Ms. Adame said. “If that had happened, everyone would have been very disappointed. ”

Witnessing History

The men in pressed suits and the women in dresses and freshly done hair crowded into the Crystal Ballroom about two hours before the president’s arrival. Shortly before 7 p.m., the president and his entourage arrived at the Rice Hotel, where they were greeted by LULAC leaders at the ballroom entrance.

As the Kennedys were being led to the stage, the 250 people in the ballroom pressed forward in the receiving line, trying to shake hands with the president and first lady. Once he reached the stage, President Kennedy gave a brief speech to the cheering crowd.

Dignitaries from LULAC greet the president and vice president Dignitaries from LULAC greet the president and vice president.

“My wife and I are very proud to come to this meeting. This organization has done a good deal for this state and for our country, ” President Kennedy said. “And I am particularly glad that it emphasizes not only the opportunity for all Americans a chance to develop their talents, education for boys and girls, so they can pursue those talents to the very end of their ability, but also because you remind Americans of the very important links that we have with our sister republics in this hemisphere. ”

In closing, Kennedy said: “In order that my words will be even clearer, I’m going to ask my wife to say a few words to you also. ”

The first lady stepped in front of the podium and delivered her remarks slowly in Spanish while smiling at the audience. The crowd loved it.

“She was more popular than (the president) was, ” said 94-year-old Ernest Eguia of Houston, who attended the event. “She did steal the show in my opinion. ”

Vice President Johnson seemed to acknowledge that in his brief speech following Ms. Kennedy.

“I know anything I say would be anticlimactic in light of what this lovely, gracious lady has said, but I know that I speak for all of you when I say that we’re very proud and very happy that we can have our beloved president and our first lady with us here this evening, ” he said.

Jacqueline Kennedy delivers her speech in Spanish Jacqueline Kennedy delivers her speech in Spanish.

Then a trio of mariachis played an original song, “Jackie, Jackie, ” behind the seated Kennedys, who were busy signing a guestbook. Their visit to LULAC lasted just 17 minutes, Ms. Adame said, but it was unforgettable for everyone who attended.

“My children as they got older realized Mom and Dad were part of history, ” said Ms. Adame, whose picture appeared in the newspaper the next day standing next to Mrs. Kennedy. “I never talked about it much . . . I don't know why. ”

Nov. 22, 1963

The morning after President Kennedy’s visit to LULAC, Mr. Montero was driving to San Antonio when he heard the news over the radio that the president had been shot and killed while riding in a motorcade in Dallas. Just 17 hours earlier, his job was to make sure no one would bring harm to the president.

He pulled his car to the side of a highway off-ramp and sat there in disbelief. His initial thought was, “Thank God it didn't happen in Houston. ” Then he thought of the smiling Kennedys and the excitement of the night, and the enormity of the assassination struck him.

The Kennedys arrive at the Rice Hotel on Nov. 21, 1963. The Kennedys arrive at the Rice Hotel on Nov. 21, 1963.

“I did have some tears, I have to admit that to you, ” said the retired police officer.

Ms. Adame said her husband, David, who passed away in August at age 91, went immediately to church and prayed with the nuns. Her home phone starting ringing with calls from friends wanting to discuss the tragedy.

“It was utter disbelief, ” she said. “I kept asking how this could happen when security was so tight. How could one person (Lee Harvey Oswald) do this and from so far away? ”

When Mr. Montero was asked about being witness to President Kennedy’s final night on Earth, he paused to reflect on the question.

“I have good memories of that night, but sadness because (President Kennedy) could have led our country to greater things, ” he said.

Voting Bloc

Some scholars suggest that President Kennedy’s decision to meet with LULAC was the first step of political parties courting the Hispanic vote. Although there were just 8.5 million Hispanics in the U.S. in 1963, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the late LULAC president Mr. Herrera noted in a letter to President Kennedy that the minority group would be the difference in winning Texas.

A letter from John J. Herrera asking President John F. Kennedy to attend the LULAC meeting. A letter from John J. Herrera asking President John F. Kennedy to attend the LULAC meeting.

“Frankly, we are in trouble in Texas, but with the repealing of the poll tax in Texas, more Latinos than ever will vote in the coming president election, ” Mr. Herrera wrote to President Kennedy in a letter dated Oct. 24, 1963.

The poll tax, which required eligible voters to pay between $1.50 and $1.75 to register to vote, disproportionately affected minorities.

Mr. Eguia said that over the decades he realizes the importance of President Kennedy’s brief stop at Crystal Ballroom.

“I think most of us recognize that was the starting point, ” Mr. Eguia said of politicians courting the Hispanic vote. “President Kennedy was going all over the state of Texas wanting to cement the Hispanic vote. Because he embraced us, I think he would have won out the Hispanic vote. ”

For Mr. Montero, the night transcended politics and was about a brighter future.

“There was just something magical about them, ” he said. “When they looked into the crowd it was like they were looking at each individual person. It’s something I’ve never forgotten. ”

Source: (c) 2013. All rights reserved.

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