SANTA FE – Fifty years later, Nick Salazar – like so many New Mexicans of a certain age – remembers just where he was when he heard the gut-wrenching news. The young technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory had gone into town on his lunch break, and suddenly “people in the streets were crying.”
President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, he was told.
“You couldn’t help but shed a few tears, too. It was very emotional,” recalled Salazar, now 84 and a state legislator from Ohkay Owingeh. It seemed hard to walk; he felt numb all over, and “my legs got pretty wobbly.”
Salazar had been a big fan since seeing Kennedy at a campaign rally in Santa Fe three years earlier.
“There was something about him. He was such an inspiration to everybody,” said Salazar, who has visited the Dallas assassination site and museum at least a couple of times over the years and recently ordered a new book on Kennedy’s legacy.
“He was one of those special persons that comes once in a lifetime,” he said.
The traumatic events of Nov. 22, 1963, and the days following resonated across New Mexico. Even though Kennedy had edged out Republican Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election by fewer than 2,300 votes in the state, the vibrant young president with the storybook family was hugely popular.
That was true especially in the heavily Hispanic northern part of the state, where photos of the late president can still be found hanging on walls.
Revered by Hispanics
In the post office in the tiny village of La Madera, in Rio Arriba County, a large framed JFK poster has a place of honor near a weaving depicting a red chile ristra. The poster hung for decades in La Madera Mercantile, when the post office occupied a corner of the old adobe-and-wood building.
When the new post office was built just down the road several years ago, Postmaster Diolynda Pena took the color photograph with her to the new location, to ensure the tradition continued.
“It had been there for so long, and I just felt it belonged there,” she said. Pena is not certain just when it was first put up; the story goes that, after Kennedy’s death, local teachers took up donations to put pictures of the late president in post offices in their communities.
“I just know that people really liked him as a president,” said Pena, who was only 4 when Kennedy was killed.
Maurilio Vigil, a political science professor emeritus at Highlands University in Las Vegas, says Kennedy’s popularity among New Mexico Hispanics is unparalleled in modern history.
“They had these little nichos, or altar displays, usually in the bedroom. They had a portrait of Kennedy or the Kennedy family, and there would be a santo next to that. That was very common,” Vigil said.
He suggests several reasons: Kennedy’s charisma, his Catholicism, a sense among Hispanics that he was sincere in his concern for the underprivileged.
And, he said, Hispanic men identified with Kennedy because he had served in World War II – as they had.
“They admired the fact that Kennedy probably could have gotten out of serving. … Not only did he not get out of it; he was a hero,” Vigil said. Kennedy, a Navy lieutenant, was decorated for his actions after the sinking of PT-109, his patrol torpedo boat, which was hit by a Japanese destroyer.
The sense of loss at his death was compounded by Kennedy’s youth; he was just 46.
“In those days, we didn’t really know he was as ill as he was,” Vigil said, referring to later disclosures of Kennedy’s myriad health problems. “We saw him as a very vital and vigorous and young and capable man.”
Former state Republican Party leader Edward Lujan of Albuquerque says Kennedy’s appeal was evident when Lujan was campaigning for Nixon in 1960. He describes walking through neighborhoods where the Democrat’s photo was propped up in window after window.
“Among Hispanics, he was idolized,” said Lujan, a retired insurance executive who was instrumental in getting the National Hispanic Cultural Center built.
“He’s still very beloved, and whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you feel something for him, quite frankly. No. 1, he was president. And No. 2, he was assassinated,” Lujan said. “For us old-timers, there is a good feeling about Kennedy.”
Kennedy’s allure stretched into Indian Country as well.
“He made you be proud of who you are,” said Peterson Zah, former chairman and first president of the Navajo Nation, who met Kennedy as a student at Arizona State University when the presidential candidate made a late-night stop at a Phoenix airport. A small group of supporters huddled with him on the tarmac, and Zah hung on his every word.
Zah was impressed with Kennedy’s views on minorities, on tolerance, on poverty and economic development, on the importance of Native Americans’ running their own educational system.
He was seen as sincere and caring, and his death seemed unreal, Zah recalled.
“These things only happen in other countries, other places, not in America. We care more about each other,” Zah – by that time a first-year teacher – remembers thinking on that November day.
Kennedy’s popularity, particularly in southern New Mexico, was fueled by “Viva Kennedy” – a campaign effort to mobilize the Spanish-speaking vote that used the framework of two grass-roots civil rights organizations: the American G.I. Forum, a veterans group, and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“The basic network was there that the Democrats were able to utilize to reach that sector of the Mexican-American community,” said Cynthia Orozco, chairwoman of the History, Humanities and Social Sciences Department at Eastern New Mexico University branch in Ruidoso.
The “Viva Kennedy” movement was established in nine states and marked the first organized, national outreach by a presidential campaign to Hispanic voters.
In an era of an emergent Mexican-American civil rights movement, Kennedy’s Catholicism and his liberal politics “aligned beautifully” with the Mexican-Americans’ goal of first-class citizenship, said Michelle Hall Kells, an associate professor in the Rhetoric and Writing program at the University of New Mexico.
“Viva Kennedy” registered, educated and organized voters, and Kennedy “benefited tremendously from that mobilization,” Kells said.
Kennedy’s wife, Jackie, a fluent Spanish speaker, did television commercials on his behalf as part of the effort.
Overall, Kennedy’s 1,000-plus days in office proved a disappointment to Hispanic leaders who helped him get elected; he was criticized for his failure to appoint Hispanics to major roles in his administration. Easing those tensions may have been one of the reasons that – just the night before he was killed – the president appeared at a LULAC-sponsored gala at a Houston ballroom.
Kennedy made several visits to New Mexico during the campaign and his presidency, including a whirlwind tour on Dec. 7, 1962, of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia Laboratory, now Sandia National Laboratories. It was part of a tour of major defense, space and nuclear facilities.
In Los Alamos – where he was the first president to visit the laboratory where the atomic bomb was born – Kennedy got a classified briefing on Project Rover, a program to develop nuclear rocket engines for space travel, and met with lab officials and Rover scientists.
LANL photographers recorded the event in great detail, reporting that observers said the president took his coffee with three teaspoons of sugar “and much too much cream.”
Schools and businesses were closed, and an estimated 6,000 people – many of them screaming schoolchildren – jammed the high school football field on that bright, sunny day to hear him praise their “direct contribution not only to the freedom of this country, but to those thousands of miles away.”
At Sandia, the president had a closed-door briefing and up-close look at the Vela satellite. Developed by Sandia and LANL, it was created to help verify compliance with the Limited Test Ban Treaty – which the president would sign the following year – by detecting nuclear detonations from space.
Sandia employees stayed after work and lined the roadways inside the installation to greet the president, said Al Hachigian, who as a member of the technical staff helped prepare a room and exhibits for the visit.
The trip occurred shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, and Kennedy’s popularity “was at its peak, and it didn’t make any difference whether you were a Democrat or a Republican or an independent,” said Hachigian, now a retiree.
Hachigian had been instructed to leave the room when Kennedy arrived to greet lab officials, but he saw the president in passing.
“It was a thrilling moment,” he said.