The Kennedys’ 1962 Visit to Mexico

At the northern end of Mexico City, the streets Avenida John F. Kennedy and Adolfo López Mateos sit parallel with each other. The proximity of these two streets highlight the close relationship between their namesakes cemented fifty-eight years ago.

In the summer of 1962, US President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy visited Mexico during a 48-hour momentous state visit that captured the rapt attention of the Mexican people and symbolized the president’s new focus on Latin America in the midst of the raging Cold War. During the trip, President Kennedy held important discussions with his Mexican counterpart, Adolfo López Mateos, over bilateral matters and Kennedy’s new “Alliance for Progress” initiative, the US government plan to bring economic development to Latin America and sway the region away from the Soviet Union. In between official meetings and dinners, the Kennedys toured different parts of the capital to meet the citizens of Mexico and experience the culture of their neighbor to the south.

On Friday, June 29, 1962 at 11 a.m., Air Force One touched down at Mexico City’s Central Airport (now Benito Juárez International Airport) to begin the state visit. President López Mateos and his wife, Eva Sámano de López Mateos, greeted the Kennedys. Within minutes of stepping off the plane, President Kennedy stated that the “presidents of Mexico and the United States would freely meet and freely communicate upon their common responsibilities and common opportunities.”

On the way to Los Pinos, the official residence of the President of Mexico, the official motorcade zig-zagged through the colonial-era streets of historic Mexico City, passing the spacious National Palace amidst an extravagant ticker-tape parade.

At Los Pinos, in the vast Chapultapec forest in the middle of the city, the two presidents held talks after an official exchanging of gifts. Kennedy gave López Mateos a painting of Benito Juárez and the Mexican president gave his American counterpart a painting of a volcano. The chiefs of state headed back to the city center for lunch and more discussions at López Mateos’ office in the National Palace. At the National Palace luncheon, President Kennedy noted that “As cotenants of the same great continent, we cannot meet our mutual needs in disarray, but working together we can face the future with confidence for there is much to be done in that future.” While Mr. Kennedy met with López Mateos, the two first ladies visited the nearby National Museum of Anthropology (prior to the movement to its current location in 1964) where Mrs. Kennedy saw the famous Aztec Calendar or Piedra del Sol (“Sun Stone”).

After the presidential talks, Kennedy met with Mexico City Governor Ernesto P. Uruchurtuto at the Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento (City Hall) near the National Palace to receive the key to the city. Afterwards he headed to the US Embassy residence to rest with the First Lady and enjoy a private dinner. At 8 p.m., the two were invited as guests of honor to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City’s premier theater and ballet hall, with President López Mateos and his wife to watch a performance of the legendary Ballet Folklórico.

The next day, the Kennedys parted ways for separate cultural excursions. The President navigated the broad, Paris and Champs-Élysées-inspired Avenida Reforma to lay a wreath at the Angel of Independence, built in 1910 to commemorate the centennial of Mexico’s independence from Spain. After the visit to the Angel, Kennedy went to a housing project in the city to socialize with residents. Across town, Mrs. Kennedy toured the National Institute for Infants, an organization founded by the Mexican First Lady.

That afternoon, President Kennedy attended a Fourth of July celebration hosted by the American Society of Mexico before heading to the Hotel Maria Isabel for a lunch reception. There, Mrs. Kennedy thrilled guests by delivering a speech in Spanish. After the lunch, Mr. Kennedy briefly toured the Museum of Anthropology, getting his turn to take a picture with the Piedra del Sol.

After greeting US Embassy staff and their families at the residence, the Kennedys rested until 8 p.m. for a black-tie buffet dinner reception held in their honor at the Foreign Ministry building in the capital.

On the morning of Sunday, July 1, the Kennedys woke early for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Monument to the Revolution. The vast structure, originally the dome of a proposed Porfiriato-era legislative hall, houses mausoleums to many of the leading figures of the Mexican Revolution. The Kennedys laid wreaths at the tombs of former Revolution-era presidents Francisco Madero and Venustiano Carranza.

The most symbolically important event happened after the ceremony where the Kennedys attended mass at the Basílica de Guadalupe led by the Archbishop Primate of Mexico City, Dr. Miguel Darío Miranda. As the first Catholic president, President Kennedy’s attendance at the mass in Mexico served as a signal to the people of Mexico and Latin America that he respected them and was a friend.

After mass, Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy rode to the airport for the departure ceremony. President López Mateos, his wife, and a legion of Mexican officials escorted the presidential couple to Air Force One. Over forty-eight hours after their arrival, the President and First Lady departed Mexico.

The visit cemented the personal connection between the people of Latin America and the figure of John F. Kennedy. Years later, despite the failure of the Alliance for Progress, and discontent with US diplomatic policies in the region, Latin Americans still view President Kennedy with respect and awe. His positive and aspirational rhetoric, Roman Catholic faith, and trips to Latin America during his short, but eventful presidency shaped his legacy in the region. The trip to Mexico City is important to understanding the popular memory of Kennedy in Latin America.