Viva Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders! A Brief History of Organizing and Mobilizing the Latina and Latino Vote

By: Jonathan Angulo


Viva Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders!

 A Brief History of Organizing and Mobilizing the Latina and Latino Vote

Photos Courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo Courtesy of

On February 3rd, the Iowa Democratic Party held the first caucus of the Democratic 2020 primary. Caucuses are notoriously “messy” because they require voters to remain within enclosed locations for hours while votes are tallied. However, Iowa introduced satellite caucuses this year which allowed voters to participate in the election process without being physically present. The Sanders’ campaign recognized that this innovation provided an extraordinary opportunity for mobilizing the critical yet often overlooked Latina/o vote. The decision to engage this electorate with satellite voting secured the popular vote in Iowa for Sanders and placed him in a distinguished group of past presidential candidates who wisely assessed the Latinx vote as critical in their quest of obtaining the highest office in the country.


In 1960, Mexican Americans supported John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s campaign with a statewide partisan organization, Viva Kennedy. Ethnic Mexicans overwhelmingly supported JFK when he began to meet with leaders from the G.I. Forum—a Mexican American veteran organization. In 1959, his staff met with Hector P. Garcia, the forum’s founder,  to organize Spanish-speaking populations. Thus, the Viva Kennedy drive arose. Ethnic-Mexicans also supported JFK because of the Democrats’ 1960  platform. Its agenda called for civil rights, school desegregation, fair housing, and voting rights. The campaign proved to be successful. Kennedy won 85 percent of the Hispanic national vote and 91 percent of it in Texas. The President-elect vowed to appoint more Hispanics—at the time Mexicans were referred to as Hispanics; today they are also referred to as Latina/o—to his administration. Despite this promise, the President failed to appoint Spanish-speaking people to significant political positions.

Courtesy of Button Museum

Lyndon B. Johnson’s relationship with ethnic-Mexicans allowed him to continue the political association with them that Kennedy established. Before becoming Vice-President in 1960, LBJ was a Texan congressman and senator. Johnson began his career teaching ethnic-Mexican students in the town of Cotulla, Texas. There he witnessed the lack of education and economic opportunities that ethnic-Mexicans endured. Upon his first Senatorial term, he organized the burial of a Mexican American veteran, Felix Longoria, at the Arlington National Cemetery. A funeral home in Three Rivers, Texas refused to bury the veteran due to segregationist beliefs. Longoria’s funeral motivated other ethnic-Mexican communities, like those in Cotulla, to fight for integrated cemeteries. When Johnson ran for president in 1964, ethnic-Mexicans knew that LBJ had been present during tough moments for members of their community, and they supported his successful campaign for the presidency.

Ultimately, Johnson’s presidential administration delivered material gains for Spanish speaking people like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Economic Opportunity Act, and Medicare in 1966. Despite these accomplishments, the legacy of  LBJ is somewhat undermined by his  choice to side with agribusiness interests against ethnic-Mexicans,  the Vietnam War (LBJ’s administration disproportionately sent ethnic-Mexicans to fight), and his reluctance to appoint Hispanic members to senior positions.

George W. Bush and Obama

 Four decades later, between 2008 and 2016, President Obama improved the lives and status of Latinas and Latinos within the United States. The Great Recession between 2007 and 2009 decreased the wealth of Latina/os by 66 percent. Obama’s administration worked to decrease unemployment which helped the community acquire some of their lost fortunes. President Obama also made sure to appoint Spanish-speaking officials within his administration. Notably, he appointed the first Latina, Sonia Sotomayor, to the Supreme Court. Additionally, in 2009, he appointed Hilda Solis as the first Latina Secretary of Labor and when she left the position in 2013, Tom Perez replaced her.

While his administration kept major promises to the Latina and Latino community, Obama’s record on immigration was more controversial. Obama allowed the United States’ legitimate concerns regarding terrorism sway him towards hyper-vigilant — and arguably unnecessary –support for deportation.

Before the Twin Tower attacks on September 11, 2001, undocumented immigrants were temporarily allowed to remain in the country if they were married to a citizen or if their children were U.S. citizens. However, this changed once President George W. Bush led the country into war against major nations in the Middle East—formerly known as the War on Terror. Although the Bush administration attempted to use the War on Terror as a means for protecting the citizens of the United States from further terrorist attacks, this conflict led to stronger national and border security initiatives. As a result, Bush’s administration created the Immigration and Custom Enforcement Agency (ICE) in 2003 which paved the way for the separation of families with mixed immigration statuses.

ICE began to deport more immigrants, and by 2012, the Obama administration continued the practice of the Bush administration by  expelling  400,000 undocumented immigrants, 90,000 of which were undocumented parents of U.S. citizens. In 2014, the Obama administration’s record of deportation led the country’s largest Latino organization — the National Council of La Raza and its president, Janet Murguía — to identify Obama as the “deportation president.” Many of those who were deported were part of the Latina and Latino community.

Activists and the Obama administration worked together to provide benefits to the undocumented community after immigration reform failed in 2010 due to a bipartisan coalition of Senate Democrats and Republicans voting against immigration reform. This had been the case since 2001, and undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children—Dreamers—continued to fight for progress. Their initiatives proved to be successful when, on June 15, 2012, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security determined that it would not deport individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children under an undocumented status.

That same year, the President signed an executive order—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—which established that some undocumented immigrants could apply for a driver’s license, open a bank account, and would not be deported as long as they continued to renew their status. Individuals were eligible as long as they were sixteen or under 31 years of age, resided in the U.S. before June 15, 2007, had graduated from high school or were enrolled in a school, and had not been convicted of a felony. DACA therefore protected families from being separated. This initiative significantly impacted the Latina and Latino community as some came to the U.S. under an undocumented status to work in sectors like construction, hospitality, and agriculture.

Courtesy of Univision

Bernie Sanders and the 2016/2020 Democratic Primary

Between 2015 and 2016, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigned against one another for the Democratic nomination.  Throughout the election, Sanders enhanced his relationship with Latina/os and was challenged for his previous stances. Sanders infamously voted against Immigration Reform in 2007 arguing that bringing thousands of immigrants into the U.S. lowered wages for American workers. Additionally, organizations like the League of United Latin American Countries (LULAC) encouraged Senators to vote against the bill. LULAC argued that the legislation lacked a pathway to legal residence under its guest-worker program, eliminated numerous family-based green card classifications, and that the guest-labor initiative lacked many worker protections. One year later, in January 2008, Bernie traveled to Immokalee, Florida, to witness the working conditions of tomato laborers.

After two months, the Senator convinced his peer Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to hold a press conference regarding the conditions of these workers. Two years later, the laborers, employers, and tomato purchasers agreed to increase tomato pound rates, improve working conditions, introduce health and safety programs, and make it easier to address complaints of sexual abuse. While Politifact states that Sanders did not entirely ensure these outcomes, his visit to Immokalee placed a spotlight on the workers’ issues who were undocumented and people of color.

The Senator’s campaign created an ad about the event which resonated with the community during the 2016 campaign. Despite this, Sanders lost ten out of eleven states where Latina/os made up much of the population. Since 2016, some of Sanders primary platform issues such as a single-payer health care program and tuition-free colleges/ universities reverberated with Latinas and Latinos. Yes, immigration policy is important to the Latinx community, but so is health care and education.

In 2019, Sanders decided to seek the 2020 Democratic nomination and has continued to solidify his relationship with Latina/os. For example, Bélen Sisa—a dreamer—has become the deputy press secretary for his team. Additionally, Sanders also hired Chuck Rocha-an ethnic-Mexican Texan—as his Senior Policy Advisor. Moreover, Carmen Yúlin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, became a co-chair for the Senators’ team. Throughout the campaign trail, Bernie has spoken at the National Association of Latin Elected Officials (NALEO) and the League of United Latin American Countries (LULAC). His appeal to the community has motivated supporters to create the group, Unidos Con Bernie. There is even a shirt on the campaign store that reads, “Tío Bernie” (Uncle Bernie). Additionally, The New York Times reported that Sanders polls well with Latina/o voters. Additionally, a Texas Lyceum Survey stated that the Senator garners 36 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Courtesy of Latino Magazine

Sanders was able to close his electoral deficit in the 2020 Iowa caucus because of his collaboration with Latinas and Latinos. The state had four Spanish-language satellite caucuses, and the Senator almost unanimously won them. Out of the 442 votes in the sites, Bernie’s campaign acquired 428 of them. This accomplishment would not have occurred without the help of volunteers like Marlén J. Mendoza who was one of the precinct captains in a satellite caucus. Throughout mass-Latina/o neighborhoods in Iowa, Bernie won 66.5 percent of the vote.

Courtesy of The Intercept

On February 20th, the Senator’s campaign won a decisive victory in the Nevada caucus because of Latina/o support. The official results reported that Bernie won 46.8 percent of the general electorate. According to entrance polls, he won 51 percent of the Latino vote and placed a strong second with African American voters. 27 percent of the African American community supported the Senator, and 39 percent voted for Vice-President Joe Biden.

After Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020 where fourteen different states voted, Joe Biden effectively beat Sanders in ten states while Sanders won crucial elections with large Latina/o electorates. The vice-president won Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas due to his strong African American support and endorsements from ex-presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg. Additionally, Biden’s strong finish in South Carolina and Democratic House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s endorsement gave him a strong momentum leading up to Super Tuesday. However, Bernie Sanders won Colorado, Utah, Vermont, and California. According to California exit polls, the Senator won 49 percent of the Latina/o vote. Sanders narrowly lost to Biden in Texas by a 4.5 percent difference,  but he won 45 percent of the Latina/o vote in that state.

As some of his predecessors who sought the presidency,  Bernie Sanders’ is making a collective effort that engages, understands, and organizes the Latina/o community. Numerous states have voted in the 2020 primary cycle; nevertheless, Latinas and Latinos will continue to make their voices heard.  As a Mexican American, I am convinced that even if Sanders does not win the nomination, the Latinx community will make sure that future candidates and administrations continue to listen to us. We are a growing demographic, and politicians who sincerely fight for health care, the environment, education, criminal justice reform, immigration, and affordable housing will have our vote.

Echoes of the Bracero Program During California’s Primary Election Debate

By Jonathan Angulo

Before California’s gubernatorial primary election, four Democrats and two Republicans faced off in a televised debate on January 25, 2018. Moderators Jorge Ramos and Ilia Caldéron asked candidates Antonio Villaraigosa (D), Delaine Eastin (D), Gavin Newsom (D), John Chiang (D), John Cox (R), and Travis Allen (R), about many issues, including immigration in general and in particular—they asked questions on sexual assault against undocumented women, on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and on immigrant farm work. Candidates Chiang and Cox alluded to the Bracero Program, a guest-worker program enacted between 1942-1964, during the debate. The discussion demonstrated how the program is remembered and how guest workers should be treated. The comments suggest the United States should remember workers’ hardships, so they are treated humanely when legislators propose immigration policies.

A fourteen-year old, Benjamín Zepeda, asked the candidates, “How can you help families like mine that are scared to be separated due to deportation?” this prompted Chiang’s indirect reference to the Bracero Program. As he highlighted immigrants’ contribution to California’s development, he recalled that during World War II the nation invited Mexicans to labor in our farms. Acknowledging the country’s failure to advocate for fully just immigration policies, he declared that our economic future would be shaped by immigrants. In recalling braceros’ contributions, the candidate pledged his support for immigrants because our country should represent dignity, decency, and respect for all people. He accordingly vowed to solve such issues with all governors by pushing Washington D.C., to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Thus, Chiang’s comments alluded to the significance and importance of the Bracero Program. 1

Candidate Chiang is seen answering a question during the debate.


Chiang’s statement referring to this country’s failure in advocating for just immigration policies had merit even in regard to the Bracero Program, whose resurrection is sometimes promoted as a solution to current immigration problems. The binational agreement originated when the agribusiness and railroad industries lobbied Congress for a guest-worker program. President Franklin Roosevelt subsequently signed an executive order which caused Mexico and the United States to create the Bracero Program from 1942-1951; Congress later extended the program from 1951 to 1964. Contracted Mexican workers, known as Braceros, traveled from their homes to migratory stations in Mexico before reaching the border. Then, they traveled from the stations to U.S. reception centers where they were formally contracted. Braceros were to be paid a minimum wage, provided with housing, given food, and promised a small pension from deducted funds in their paychecks.2

The program brought numerous laborers to the United States; however, there were not enough jobs for them, which led the applicants to take desperate measures. For example, on June 13th, 1958 a bracero bought a peer’s identity, so he could move up in the waiting list. Contracted by the Ventura County Citrus Growers Committee, the bracero, after his six-month contract, used the peer’s name again. Migratory officials, however, found that he was using the fraudulent identity. Thus, Mexicans who could not attain a contract through formal measures used such informal means and increasingly crossed the border as undocumented immigrants. The Eisenhower administration, subsequently, enacted Operation Wetback in 1954 which resulted in the deportation of over a million Mexicans. Mexican officials were upset at the deportations as they argued that the U.S. had invited workers to cross the border, then punished undocumented workers, instead of the employers who hired them.3

Moderator Ilia Caldéron later in the debate asked John Cox, “Do you know that more than 60% of the people harvesting fruits and veggies here in California are undocumented immigrants? Isn’t it pro-business to give them a legal status?” The candidate answered by sympathizing with Central Valley Farmers. According to Cox, the farmers advertised higher wages; however, they continued to endure labor shortages. The candidate then argued for a labor importation program, basically another Bracero Program already shown to be flawed. He claimed that Latinos came from dysfunctional and corrupt countries such as, Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, and Guatemala. Cox continued by describing them as nations where special interests, cronies, and monopolists receive government favors. The candidate ended by stating that Latinos come to the United States because it is a country of laws. But some farmers’ actions during the program tell a different story.4

Candidate Cox addresses Trump’s comments about African Nations and Third World countries.


The Bracero Program demonstrated that the United States often acted as a nation without laws, as the government frequently served farmers’ interests despite written agreements. For example, in November 1942, a frost damaged pea crops in the Imperial Valley of California. At the time, braceros were contracted to harvest peas, but were instead ordered to tie carrots. In addition, farmers paid braceros and domestic workers six cents per bushel instead of the normal eight-cent piece rate which challenged the prevailing wage agreement in the program. Objecting against such “cheap” labor, discontented domestic workers organized a strike on January 9, 1943 advocating for the original rate. In response, the California Farm Labor Transportation Program and the Imperial Valley Farmers Association worked together to deport braceros who refused to be strikebreakers. Thus, forty workers were deported between January 9 and February 3. The tying season finished before the strike gathered momentum.5

The United States, nevertheless, continued to break laws. Before 1952, the U.S president and the Mexican government informally re-approved the Bracero Program. Once President Harry Truman signed Public Law No. 78, the program required Congress’s approval every two years. The next renewal was accordingly discussed in 1954. Although both countries had failed to come to an agreement in early 1954, U.S. Border Patrol officials encouraged Mexicans to cross the border under an undocumented status. Tony Gose, a resident from the Imperial Valley, verified this claim in a House Agriculture Committee report. On one occasion, he witnessed a Mexican official grab a former bracero to prevent him from being hired as an undocumented laborer. A U.S. official, however, in a tug of war fashion, grabbed the laborer in an attempt to take him from the Mexican agent. Finally, both governments after tense negotiations agreed on a new renewal in 1954.6

Los Angeles Times Photographer Frank Q. Brown’s Imperial Valley Border Picture, 1954.


After the program, society has demonstrated that braceros have been remembered, but policymakers need to study their experiences more closely. Providing assistance for such study, the National Museum of American History has created the Bracero History Project to tell the complex history of braceros. Also, the Bracero Justice Movement has sought to recognize the exploitation and injustices guest workers faced, as well as to recuperate pensions and wages withheld from them. Policymakers should remember that braceros often found ways to alleviate the wrongs they experienced. They also developed agency when confronting state power in ways that might give politicians pause in promoting new guest worker programs As Mireya Loza argues in Defiant Braceros, braceros participated in deviance and defiance when they participated in the vice and sex industries along the border. Their shared leisure experiences gave them agency but also demonstrates that the importation of temporary male workers might be less preferable than admission of permanent residents in families.7

Policymakers, nevertheless, must agree that the United States and California was built on the backs of immigrants, that our country represents dignity, decency, and respect for all people, and that our nation should recognize and avoid repeating historical injustices when composing new immigration laws.


  1. Univision Noticias, “Forum with California’s gubernatorial candidates 2018.” YouTube video, 1:36:14, January 25, 2018,
  2. Henry P. Anderson, The Bracero Program in California. (New York: Arno Press, 1976),43, 108.
  3. Peter N. Kirstein, “Agribusiness, Labor and the Wetbacks: Truman’s Commission on Migratory Labor,” The Historian, vol. 40. no. 4 (1978): 651; Richard B. Craig, The Bracero Program Interest Groups and Foreign Policy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 4.
  4. Univision Noticias, “Forum with California’s gubernatorial candidates 2018.”
  5. Don Mitchell, They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle Over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 35-36; Warne D. Rasmussen, A History of The Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program 1943-47(Washington D.C., Agriculture Monograph No. 13, U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Agricultural Economics, 1951), 202.
  6. “Valley Hopes for Border Labor Pact,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 1, 1954; “Violence Halts Wetback Crossing,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 25, 1954; “Policy Shift Traps Mexican Farm Workers,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26, 1954; Robert S. Robinson, “Taking the Fair Deal to the Fields: Truman’s Commission on Migratory Labor, Public Law 78, and the Bracero Program, 1950-1952,” Agricultural History84, no. 3 (Summer-2010): 394-398.; House of Representatives, Committee on Agriculture, Mexican Farm Labor. 83rdCong., 1954, 67, 69.
  7. Mireya Loza, Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial Sexual and Political Freedom, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 17, 173, 182.

Crosspost: Some Thoughts on the First Ever Mexican American Civil Rights Tour

SMU PhD Alum Ruben A. Arellano wrote a post about this exciting Spring Break trip, in which he collaborated with fellow SMU history PhD Carla Mendiola:

Carla contacted me only a few weeks ago to help her find Dallas activists who could speak to the students surrounding issues relating to the Chicano movement.  Due to the suddenness of the request, I found it difficult finding speakers, but with the help of Evelio Flores (long time Chicano activist and jefe de danza azteca), we were able to track down Luis Sepulveda to speak to the students.  Sepulveda grew up in West Dallas, a neighborhood that he cares about deeply, and he’s been fighting against lead contamination and radiation pollution in that part of the city since the 1980s.  In addition to all of his accomplishments, he served as Dallas County Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, for many years.  There was no doubt in our minds that he was the perfect candidate for the job.  Moreover, when Carla discovered that I was part of a danza group, she asked if the group could do a brief presentation for the kids—we did and they loved it!

The resonated with Arellano’s own background as an SMU student, when he participated in the school’s famous Civil Rights pilgrimage, led by Dennis Simon.  Read the full post here:

Some Thoughts on the First Ever “Mexican American Civil Rights Tour”