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Sen. Kennedy, Crooner of Mexican Oldies

Sen. Kennedy, Crooner of Mexican Oldies

By Laura Burton Capps

U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) (R) reads from a book his brother wrote on immigration while U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (L) looks on during a news conference about immigration legislation at the U.S. Capitol, April 7, 2006 in Washington DC. The vote has stalled in the Senate and won?t be taken up until after Congress returns their 2 week spring break.
SourceMark Wilson/Getty


Because all these years after the republic’s founding, we remain a nation of immigrants. 

By Laura Burton Capps

The author was communications director for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy from 2005 to 2007. Last week, President Barack Obama dedicated the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston. 

“They come to our country to work — to work,” Sen. Ted Kennedy would tell me as we walked to and from meetings in the Russell Senate Office Building. He was talking about immigrants, of course, and as his aide in the 2000s, I saw up close the Liberal Lion’s commitment to immigration reform.

For Senator Kennedy, it was personal, inscribed in his family tree. He often carried with him a worn copy of his brother John’s classic monograph, A Nation of Immigrants, which paved the way for 1965’s monumental immigration reform. His brother Robert was a powerful advocate for the farmworkers’ movement led by Cesar Chavez. And in speeches, Senator Kennedy spoke of Boston Harbor’s “Golden Steps, where waves of new immigrants entered this new land of liberty and opportunity, including all eight of [his] own great-grandparents from Ireland.” To him, a young man from Mexico risking everything to pick almonds in Fresno was making the same sacrifices his forefathers had.

In 2006, we had a real shot at passing an immigration reform bill that would have given 11 million people a chance to earn citizenship. President George W. Bush was genuinely committed to meaningful reform. Kennedy put his might into the bill, forging a powerful alliance with Sen. John McCain — a man he usually disagreed with but with whom he built a bond of trust and jovial friendship. Behind the scenes, and putting major differences aside, Kennedy worked with Karl Rove, the architect of the presidential campaign that defeated his friend John Kerry.

The senator’s rendition was both cringe-worthily enthusiastic and a tender expression of his true compassion and zest for life.

While working the internal levers of the Senate, Kennedy also did his part to move public opinion. He headlined massive rallies and took to the airwaves to do battle with opponents like conservative TV host Lou Dobbs and also to rally the base through Spanish-language media. One day I arranged for him to call into the most popular Spanish radio program in the country, El Piolin, which at the time attracted millions of listeners. The distinguished senator was feeling particularly jovial that day; he ended the interview by crooning the classic Mexican song “Jalisco.” The song envisions a kind of romance between the Mexican state of Jalisco and its capital city, Guadalajara, and the senator’s rendition was both cringe-worthily enthusiastic and a tender expression of his true compassion and zest for life. I soon learned this was not unusual: He had a history of unapologetically breaking into Spanish song whenever the magic struck — to the delight of both fans and foes alike.


That year, and the next, we came painfully close to passing legislation yet failed to get it across the finish line. Kennedy set his sights on the 2008 election — and kept his singing in tune. He hit the trail for candidate Obama, and “Jalisco” became a staple when visiting Hispanic areas of the country. He’d beam with pride as he campaigned in Texas alongside his nephew Joe Kennedy — now a congressman — who is fluent in Spanish from his Peace Corps service. They’d assure the largely Latino crowds that, with Obama as president, a fairer immigration system would be on the horizon. 

Kennedy died eight months after Obama’s inauguration. And seven years later, their shared dream of immigration reform hasn’t become reality, despite how hard Obama has worked for it. But as the Senator Kennedy famously said when he addressed the 1980 Democratic Convention, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.” Sí se puede. 

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