DEATH IN DALLAS, et tu OSWALD
By Felípe de Ortego y Gasca
Fifty years ago on November 22, 1963, I was the French teacher at Jefferson High School in El Paso, Texas. That day, a death in Dallas changed the course of American history. Airwaves, view-waves, but print waves, in particular, glutted America’s conscience asking “Why?” Why would anyone want to kill the 35th president of the United States, in the prime of life, barely 46 years old with a trophy wife and two small children? We’re still troubled and grappling with the “Why?”
The “Who?” came rather quickly. The news announced that Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone gunman, was the killer. That he had done the deed, firing a rifle from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building at the corner of Houston and Elm streets, near Dealey Plaza in Dallas. The Texas School Book Depository Building had served as a plow factory, a wholesale grocery warehouse, and textbook distribution center, and (most recently) a museum. The presidential limousine had turned left onto Elm Street. After passing the Texas School Book Depository Building shots rang out (from a grassy knoll, it is said), killing President Kennedy almost instantly. He was pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital at 1 pm.
As Americans, that day we lost more than our innocence and Camelot; we lost our sense of “trust.” That’s what that “death in Dallas” took from us, conjuring up President Lincoln’s assassination and the assassination of Julius Caesar. What surprised me that day is that the U.S. government closed off the border with Mexico. Why? Oswald was not a Mexican. Why was Mexico cordoned off as the usual suspect? After 9/11 that kind of suspicion again fell on Mexico as the usual suspect even though the pilots of the planes that crashed into the twin towers were Islamic terrorists, not Mexicans. Again, the U. S. government closed off the border with Mexico, this time erecting (what was thought to be) an impregnable fence rife with technology [see “Bridges not Walls: The ‘Great Wall of China’ in the United States,” The National Hispanic Forum: Perspectives on National Hispanic Issues, July 14, 2007. Posted on Newspaper Tree, July 18, 2008. A shorter version published by Hispanic Link as “The Great Wall of the United States,” March 6, 2008, and distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, March 7, 2008. Reprinted by El Paso Times as “Building a Wall Will Worsen U.S.—Mexico Relations, April 27, 2008].
If not in the eyes of Mexicans, in the eyes of Mexican Americans, John F. Kennedy was a noble and heroic figure. His candidacy for President of the United States inspired “Viva Kennedy” clubs throughout the Hispanic Southwest and other American enclaves of Mexican Americans. In the 1960 election, Kennedy garnered 85% of the Hispanic vote. Co-Chairmen of the Viva Kennedy Clubs were Senator Dennis Chavez of New Mexico (the first Hispanic to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate, following two terms as a Representative, serving continuously until his death in 1962) and Representative Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, as well as Dr. Hector P. Garcia, founder of the American G.I. Forum, a Mexican American veterans organization. The Viva Kennedy Clubs are considered the turning point in the election of John F. Kennedy.
As a result of the Viva Kennedy Clubs, JFK’s victory, and his assassination, John F. Kennedy’s foto is still displayed prominently in Mexican American homes alongside a wall-hanging of the Virgin de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Kennedy’s ascendance to the presidency augured much for Mexican Americans and other Latino Americans, though the real heat of the civil rights movement for African Americans was still in the offing despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 nullifying the “separate but equal” ruling of the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.
Though limited, the Kennedy presidential legacy is significant: the stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union over the Cuban Missile Crisis averted a conflagration of apocalyptic proportions; and America’s flight to the moon and subsequent dominance in space was inspired by Kennedy’s stirring “we choose the moon” comment in his address on September 12, 1962 at Rice University in Houston.
Kennedy’s legacy is not slight, however much it was eclipsed subsequently by LBJ’s aggressive civil rights agenda. Digitizing the Kennedy Presidential Library for better access to the Kennedy’s legacy, Kennedy Library Director Tom Putnam remarks that digitized access to JFK’s papers and realia and the “simple ceremony” honoring the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death focuses on the President’s life rather than on the way he died (Timothy Inklebarger, “Digitizing Camelot,” American Libraries, November/December 2013, 26-29).
Digan lo que digan (no matter what anyone says), Mexican Americans and other Latino Americans have held JFK in high esteem, despite political imbroglios like the 1961 Bay of Pigs (with sincerest empathy to Cuban refugees, emigrés and Cuban Americans). Oswald and “conspiracy theories” abound despite the fact that the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald had acted alone in the assassination. As Bob Schieffer (host of Face the Nation) puts it, “it will always be a mystery—one of those things that we may never know the answer to” (“The Turning Point,” AARP Magazine, October/November 2013, 54).
Despite the tragedy, the death of John F. Kennedy was a galvanizing moment in the progress of Mexican Americans particularly and Latino Americans generally, a conclusion not necessarily shared by all Mexican Americans and Latino Americans. Nevertheless, the Kennedy legacy resonates resoundingly in the memories of Mexican Americans and Latino Americans who lived through the days of Camelot. In New Mexico, those memories are exceptionally vivid for those Hispanic New Mexicans who came of age politically during Kennedy’s presidential tenure.
The night before the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963, he addressed Tejanos at the League of United Latin American Citizens at their event at the Rice hotel in Houston, Texas, commenting that
“This organization has done a good deal for this state and for the country, and I’m particularly glad that it emphasizes, not only opportunity for all Americans the chance to develop their talents, education for boys and girls so that 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.”
The Huffington Post | Posted: 05/29/2013 5:40 pm EDT
*Associated Press reporter Russell Contreras unearthed a recording of the remarks and uploaded them to YouTube.
What is more important, perhaps, about the Kennedy legacy are the dendritic outcomes it produced or spawned. In conversations I had with Cesar Chavez before he died, for example, he often mentioned his regard for President Kennedy and how his own work was spurred by the JFK legacy. Raymond Telles, the first Mexican American elected mayor of El Paso, Texas (1957-1961 and the first Mexican American of a major American city) was appointed in 1961 by President Kennedy as U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica. As a close personal advisor to President Kennedy, Telles was one of the highest-ranking Mexican Americans in the federal government during the Kennedy administration.
Of all that can be attributed to the Kennedy legacy is my own pursuit of the American dream. I pushed to complete a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in English, ultimately producing Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971), first study in the field; and also teaching the first course in Chicano literature in the country in 1969 at the University of New Mexico. In 1973 when I was Associate Publisher of La Luz Magazine in Denver I was invited to speak about Chicanos in the Hispanic Southwest at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, an invitation I’ve treasured all these years.
In memory of John F. Kennedy, there have arisen over the years many Mexican American corridos about him. A corridor is a genre of Mexican music that recounts the heroic life or struggle of an individual encountering formidable challenges. Oftentimes, it’s hard to assess a legacy—its manifestations, for they can emerge ephemerally without notice, without horns and drumrolls.
Felípe de Ortego y Gasca can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org