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From Voter Drives to Viva Kennedy: The Mexican American Vote in Houston, 1930s - 1960s

The power of the Latino vote today has its roots in Mexican American engagement of the pre-World War II era. In 1935 the Latin American Club of Houston held voter drives aiming to reach 10,000 qualified Hispanic voters. Over the next 25 years, despite a $1.50 poll tax designed to prevent minority voter participation, Houston organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens Council 60 (LULAC), the Civic Action Committee (CAC) and the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (PASSO) sought to empower Latino Houstonians to use their voice and their vote. By the 1960 presidential election Latino voters would come out in unprecedented numbers to influence politics on the national stage electing John F. Kennedy to the United States Presidency. His visit to Houston three years later would officially acknowledge Latinos as an important voting bloc.

Political cartoon “A Giant Awakening (No Longer the Sleeping Giant)”, 1964. Houstonian and political cartoonist Alfonso Vazquez captured the political optimism of Mexican Americans during the 1960s. -MSS0093.114 Alfonso Vazquez Collection

A Giant Awakening, 1964

 “…what we were trying to do was to let the word spread like when you drop a rock into still water and let the little waves begin to spread out, and it was just exactly what happened. Although we were just a little rock, we were making waves.” –  Interview with Alfonso Vazquez, September 26, 1978

Listen to the full interview and more

John J. Herrera Speech, Feb. 13, 1971

Excerpt from a draft of a speech by John J. Herrera given during National LULAC Week on February 13, 1971 at Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas. Herrera recalls the status of the Hispanic community in Houston in the 1930s. - MSS0160 John J. Herrera Papers

John J. Herrera, President LULAC

John J. Herrera (1910-1986), past President of League of United Latin American Citizens, practiced law in Houston from 1943 to 1986 and was a leading civil rights advocate for Mexican Americans in Texas.

Latin Sons Endorse Pickett

News clipping “Latin Sons Endorse Pickett” circa 1940. According to a November 1940 article in the Houston Chronicle this was the first endorsement ever by a Mexican American organization in Houston. -MSS0161 Juvencio Rodriguez Collection Box 1, Folder 5

Buy Your Poll Tax

LULAC poster “Buy Your Poll Tax”, circa 1949. -MSS0328 Ernest Eguia Collection Box 1, Folder 24

Pay your poll tax drives

From 1902 to 1964, Texas law required payment of a poll tax in order to register to vote. This tax was effective at keeping minority groups from voting. In response, Latino organizations in Houston and across the country organized “pay your poll tax drives” to register Latino voters.

Henry B. Gonzalez

Henry B. Gonzalez (1916-2000) fought segregation battles in the Texas legislature throughout the 1950s. By the time of his visit to Houston in 1958 he inspired Houston Mexican Americans to support his campaign for governor. While unsuccessful, he would later become the first Mexican American from Texas elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Civic Action Committee (CAC

CAC evolved from the support of several Houston Hispanic leaders for the candidacy of Henry B. Gonzalez for governor of Texas. Between 1958 and 1959 the CAC launched a systematic poll tax drive. This grassroots effort included speaking at churches, local night clubs, theater lobbies and food markets.

Viva Kennedy (and Viva Johnson) clubs

Viva Kennedy (and Viva Johnson) clubs were originally partisan groups of Mexican Americans who supported the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency. The Viva Kennedy clubs were the first statewide partisan organization of Mexican Americans in Texas.

Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (PASO)

Inspired by the Viva Kennedy Clubs Latino leaders from organizations across the Southwest met to discuss the effort to effect political unity within the Latino community. The Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (PASO) was formed as a result of these discussions and in 1961 the Civic Action Committee evolved to form the Houston chapter of PASO.

PASO headquarters, circa 1960s

Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (PASO) headquarters, circa 1960s. -MSS0093.74 Alfonso Vazquez Collection

LULAC banquet at Rice Ballroom, November 21, 1963

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson at Houston LULAC banquet at Rice Ballroom, November 21, 1963. -MSS0255.022 Alex Arroyos / John F. Kennedy Collection

50TH Anniversary JFK/LULAC Memory Project

For more images from this historic night in Houston browse the Alex Arroyos / John F. Kennedy Collection and Listen to interviews from the 50TH Anniversary JFK/LULAC Memory Project