(First Lady Jackie Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy, Lady Bird and VP Lyndon Johnson attend a LULAC dinner, November 21, 1963. Jacqueline Kennedy. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Ted Rozumalsk)

Remembering JFK; Latinos recall a relationship cut short

Al Maldonado has been planning since last year to bring back together people who were at the Rice Hotel the night before John F. Kennedy was killed.

That was the night Kennedy did what no sitting president had done, met with and spoke to a Latino organization. His wife Jackie and then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird also were there at the Houston hotel along with a cast of political officials such as Gov. John Connally and Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez of San Antonio.

While Maldonado and others –  like the rest of the nation – mourn the loss of the young president on this 50th anniversary of his death, their mourning is mixed with a sense of celebration that such an important event in Latino political history occurred.

“Putting this together we wanted to celebrate, but we also are going to remember him,” Maldonado said. Plans for the Friday reunion included a candle lighting and moment of silence.

Maldonado was 2 when the president’s life ended  but he said his mother gave him a book about presidents when he was young and it was Kennedy who intrigued him most.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the Kennedy legacy and what could have been. Growing up I wanted to be like him,” said Maldonado, who is the president of the current League of United Latin American Citizens, Council 60.

It was Alex Arroyos who met Kennedy at the door of the ballroom of the Rice Hotel the night before Kennedy was shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.

Kennedy had agreed to stop at the door and was going to wave and move on, Secret Service had told him in a meeting at the hotel earlier.

But when he arrived, he walked from the elevator and into the ballroom, followed by the first lady and Johnson and his wife. They sat down and spent 17 minutes with the crowd. The group found film of the entire event and to play it in its entirety at the reunion Friday.

“One of the mariachis behind them heard (Kennedy) tell (Jackie) ‘I’m really having a good time tonight.’ And the next day he was dead,” Arroyos said.

Arroyos was 27,  and had helped start a council of men and women for LULAC. Kennedy’s visit should have been really big news the next day, but ended up getting little attention and buried in history by the assassination the next day.

Kennedy’s death also brought to a halt what the organizers had hoped would be a relationship that would help in the fight for the civil rights of Latinos in the U.S.

“I was thinking, the door is open, all we need to do is follow through nationally . . . and push our agenda . . . The next day, when he was shot, we could forget about that,” he said.

Dr. Ignacio Garcia of Brigham Young University and the author of “Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot,” describes how the “Viva Kennedy” clubs after 1960 started detailing a Latino platform. Though Kennedy’s first term was disappointing for some Latino groups, toward the end of 1963 the Kennedy camp recognized that overlooking the Hispanic constituency as well as others could potentially cost them the 1964 election.  The 1963 evening, according to Dr. Garcia, was almost a “re-set button” for Kennedy and Latinos. “[Kennedy] realized that whatever he got from Latinos [in 1960], he needed to enhance that.”

RELATED: Fifty years after “Viva Kennedy” and its political impact on Latinos 

Many credit the “Viva Kennedy” clubs as mapping the way for the Chicano movement and groups like the Mexican American Political Association.

But for Latinos who were there 50 years ago, the political is also the personal. And there is always the question of how different things would have been if tragedy would not have struck.

Tina Adame, 86, typed the letter that was sent to Washington inviting Kennedy to the LULAC event.

Her husband David, who passed away in August, had been one of the key organizers, so when she sees the old photos and film, there are many memories.

She shook hands with the Kennedys and Johnsons who did a receiving line. She remembers telling Jackie how beautiful she was.

“I thank God I can still close my eyes and still picture that so very, very well,” Adame said.

NBC Latino contributor Jessica Montoya Coggins and NBC Latino Managing Editor Sandra Lilley contributed to the story. 

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