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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.We're about to hear the little-known backstory to one of the major political trends of our time. The trend is the growing power of the Latino vote.

INSKEEP: Democrats won big among Latinos in recent presidential elections. Many Republicans think their future depends on doing better among Latinos.

MONTAGNE: It's no accident that potential Republican candidates for 2016 include two men with Hispanic last names, and a third who's fluent in Spanish.

Now, for the backstory. We can trace back the effort to court the national Hispanic vote a half-century. On what turned out to be the last night of his life, President John F. Kennedy attended a Hispanic event in Texas. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the story.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: On the night of Nov. 21st, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stopped briefly at a formal dinner in Houston held by LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, which made him the first sitting president to attend a Hispanic event.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CIELITO LINDO")

BATES: A mariachi band played the beloved folk song "Cielito Lindo," and a radiant Jacqueline Kennedy addressed the crowd in her boarding-school Spanish. It was reminiscent of her 1960 televised campaign commercial that had charmed Spanish speakers nationwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACQUELINE KENNEDY: Queridos, amigos. Les habla la esposa del Sen. John F. Kennedy...

BATES: The first lady's ability to speak Spanish was widely appreciated. And it didn't hurt that the Kennedys were Roman Catholic, like most Mexican-American families. Her remarks at the LULAC dinner were met with applause, and shouts of "Viva, Kennedy!" and "Viva, Jackie!"For the jubilant Mexican-American audience, it was a long-awaited sign of respect.

Ignacio Garcia is a history professor at Brigham Young University, and the author of "Viva Kennedy: Mexican-Americans in Search of Camelot." He says Mexican-American veterans were the driving force behind John Kennedy's political support. They'd returned from the war with expectations.

IGNACIO GARCIA: They assumed that things would change, just that they would be like they were in the foxhole, or in the military unit. And when they came back and found that things had not changed, they became very much adamant about changing things.

BATES: To effect change, Professor Garcia says, Mexican-American vets became social activists and eventually, the backbone of Hispanic political organization in Texas.

The American GI Forum was started by Dr. Hector P. Garcia, a surgeon and former Army major who worked to get Hispanic vets equal benefits. The forums operated in Texas and several other states, and became the foundation for Viva Kennedy clubs, which supported the senator from Boston. Ted Kennedy was the designated liaison to the Mexican-American community, and developed warm relationships that continued until his death. Here's a ballad, or corrido, lauding him as the lion of the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish)

BATES: The Viva Kennedy clubs operated independently of the Democratic Party. Members fundraised and held events with no oversight or interference. They even had their own logo: John Kennedy, astride a burro - a nod to the Democrats' symbol - wearing a sombrero emblazoned with "Viva Kennedy" across the front. It's now a collector's item.

Dr. Hector Garcia's daughter, Wanda, recalls how drawn people were to the young candidate at rallies, including her very reserved mother.

WANDA GARCIA: Here's my mother, a dignified woman, jumping up and down. And I just looked at her, like, Mama!

BATES: But three years into his presidency, the hope Hispanic voters had had for high-visibility representation had faded. Wanda Garcia remembers how her father irritated Attorney General Bobby Kennedy by pushing him hard to do more for Hispanics.

GARCIA: I can remember hearing many conversations between Bobby and my dad, about this issue.

BATES: Part of the purpose behind Kennedy's swing through Texas in November 1963 was to show he was ready to re-earn Hispanic voters' support. Max Krochmal, a historian at Texas Christian University, says the Viva Kennedy clubs were a political watershed because they showed politicians and Mexican-Americans the power of their vote.

MAX KROCHMAL: The Viva Kennedy campaign really produced a measure of unity among Mexican-Americans that was rarely seen before, or after.

BATES: Several hours after attending the LULAC dinner in Houston, John Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas. But the Viva Kennedy clubs, and that night's event, cemented a relationship between Democrats and many Mexican-Americans that continues today.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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