Few people have had such a profound impact on the political empowerment of the Latin American electorate as Willie Velásquez. His grassroots work to register and mobilize Latino voters, beginning in his home state of Texas, has turned the frustrations, hopes, and pride of a diverse and rapidly growing segment of the American population into a force strong at the polls.
He became best known for his rallying cry, “Su voto es su voz(“Your vote is your voice”).
Unlike the voting rights work of southern black activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and John Lewis, which attracted widespread national attention at the time, the voting rights in the American Southwest have gone much more under the radar. But the impact of Velásquez and the group he founded in the early 1970s, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), is no less impressive. By the time of his death at age 44 in 1988, SVREP had encouraged hundreds of Latino political candidates, mounted countless nonpartisan election campaigns to engage poor and disenfranchised Latinos, and successfully filed more than 75 lawsuits for help reverse gerrymandering, eliminate language barriers and other repressions. electoral practices.
“He understood that there was progress to be made when we are engaged,” says Lydia Camarillo, current president of SVREP and its sister organization, the William C. Velásquez Institute. “His legacy is that it is important to stand up for ourselves in the electoral process, to have our voice counted.”
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A militant youth, a model for black suffrage leaders
William C. Velásquez, “Willie” to his friends and those who knew him, grew up in a working-class family in San Antonio, Texas. As a student on the politically active campus of St. Mary’s University during the hot years of the 1960s, the charismatic Velásquez jumped in with both feet. He joined student government, founded a Mexican American youth group, and then worked with César Chávez to help organize strikes among the United Farm Workers in South Texas. In 1970, he helped create a third independent political party in the region—La Raza Unida—which focused on issues affecting its burgeoning Mexican American community.
Like many young Latinos of his day, Velásquez was influenced by the efforts of then-student leader John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to foster the empowerment and political participation of black communities in the world. national scale. Indeed, a little-known aspect of Velásquez’s early work involved securing Lewis’s involvement to help broaden the turnout of Latino voters.
Velásquez and his fellow Latino activists were looking for ways to involve the Latino community more, but they encountered obstacles. Like African Americans, many Latino citizens were still struggling with the pernicious remnants of Jim Crow segregation. But their activism has not received the same national attention and support as Dr. King’s movement. And despite the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s explicit ban on discrimination against “language minorities”, Spanish-speaking voters still faced significant challenges at the polls.
Velásquez and several Latino activists met with Lewis, who had become executive director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) in Atlanta, an organization created to help register black voters throughout the South. They asked him to expand VEP into Texas and other areas with large Latino populations, including the Southwest and Midwest.
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“Willie was around 25. All of these people were very young, trying to find ways to change the world. He [sought] technical training from Lewis after it was clear that we didn’t have anyone to teach us and help us figure this out,” Camarillo says.
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Raise voters, elevate candidates
But understand, they did.
Velásquez founded SVREP in 1974, with the goal of expanding and mobilizing the Latino electorate, protecting the vote, and training and organizing more Latino candidates. The group conducted door-to-door voter registration drives and Spanish-language election campaigns in areas with low voter registration. In 1984 they chartered a polling and research branch to systematically study Latino voter patterns which eventually became the William C. Velásquez Institute. And with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, they successfully pursued lawsuits to reverse unfair partisan redistricting and other discriminatory practices.
“It’s important to understand that no one was doing this work except us,” Camarillo says.
A big push was to begin electing Latino officials at all levels of government, from school boards and city councils to halls of Congress. When SVREP started, there were some 1,300 Latino elected officials in the country and about 2.3 million Latino voters. Since then, SVREP has helped register 3 million Latinos and trained 150,000 Latino leaders. By 1991, SVREP had been chartered to 13 southwestern states. Velásquez was in the process of taking over the national organization when he died.
“His legacy is the political empowerment of Latinos at a time when the community was a smaller population and we are now over 60 million [with an expected voting power of] 15 million, [up from 11 million in 2018]Camarillo explains. The growth is phenomenal.
Camarillo tells HISTORY.com that she met – and was inspired by – Velásquez long before she got involved in the band’s work herself. “I was in Watsonville, California for an event [in the early 1980s] where…I could hear him speak, and he was amazing,” she said. “Every time he spoke, you could… visualize the vision he was putting forward. It was very energizing.
In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Velásquez, stating in his speech, “Willie was and is now a name synonymous with democracy in America.”