By Silvia Álvarez Curbelo, Ph.D., curator, Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín
In 1961, John F. Kennedy and Puerto Rican governor Luis Muñoz Marín met to discuss how to transform United States and Latin American relations, after decades of U.S. interventionism.
For Kennedy, embroiled in a bitter dispute with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Puerto Rico’s peaceful transition to industrialization, headed by Muñoz Marín since 1940, represented a viable model for underdeveloped nations. Although the modernization process generated painful dislocations (exodus to mainland cities for displaced peasants, urban explosion on the island, persecution of pro-independence militants among them), Puerto Rico was undoubtedly a success story.
Until the tragic death of the president two years later, both leaders were engaged in developing a democratic agenda for the region and fulfilling a more autonomous relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. And it was art, especially music—both in Washington and San Juan—that sealed their common purposes.
The president held a state dinner in honor of Governor and Mrs. Muñoz Marín on November 13, 1961. Pablo Casals, the noted Catalonian maestro living in exile in Puerto Rico, accompanied the Muñoz Maríns to the White House. A virtual “Who’s Who” of American and Puerto Rican politicians, media, and cultural figures attended the event. Rafael Hernández, the Puerto Rican composer of such classics as Preciosa and Lamento Borincano, sat with conductor Leonard Bernstein of West Side Story fame. Casals’s cello rendition of Canto de los Pájaros (The Birds Song) was the highlight of the evening. The spiritual depth of the traditional Catalonian song seemed to proclaim that world peace was possible in our times.
Kennedy accepted an invitation to visit Puerto Rico as part of a tour that would take him and Mrs. Kennedy to Colombia and Venezuela. The president was promoting new policy for Latin America called Alliance for Progress, and Puerto Rico was a key element in that initiative. Muñoz Marín’s recommendations were welcomed by Kennedy, who named Teodoro Moscoso as administrator of the new program. Both Kennedy and Muñoz Marín recognized also the need to grant Puerto Rico higher levels of self-government.
Upon his arrival at San Juan, Kennedy praised Puerto Rico’s Hispanic heritage. All along the route to the governor’s residence, La Fortaleza, the presidential entourage met with throngs of flag-waving citizens. But there were also groups carrying banners that protested U.S. policy toward Cuba and the colonial condition of Puerto Rico.
That evening the Muñozes hosted a dinner for the Kennedys. Once again, music was a main ingredient. Pablo Casals was among the guests but it was Boston-trained pianist, the Puerto Rican Jesús María Sanromá, who delighted the audience with traditional danzas and his rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
It was a special time for Puerto Rico. An “international hour” for the island in which the experience gained in two decades of modernization led by Luis Muñoz Marín converged with the dreams of a young president trying to transform the Cold War mapping of the world and many decades of neglect toward Latin America. But, like the Camelot White House, it was short-lived. Kennedy’s death, the Vietnam War—and in the case of Puerto Rico, significant socio-political challenges—ended the era of shared dreams.