Requiem For a Working-Class Hero

Author Juan Sepúlveda's long-awaited biography of Mexican-American voting rights activist Willie Velásquez is being published by Arte Público Press this spring. Sepúlveda, for whom Velásquez was both a friend and mentor, writes about the political and private struggles of the man who founded the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Willie Velásquez spent his life in the trenches fighting for Mexican-American voting rights. A new book gives him his due.

ost Latinos have never heard of Willie Velásquez," Juan Sepúlveda says, adding, "or the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project." But within the political world, under the guidance of Velásquez, the organization's founder and executive director from its inception in 1974 until his untimely death from cancer in 1988, San Antonio-based SVREP became the most successful voter registration and education program in the country.

Thirty years ago, when Mexican Americans were virtually non-existent in politics, "We couldn't elect anybody to save our soul," Velásquez' younger brother George recalls. To counter this lack of representation, SVREP pioneered a local, grassroots approach to voter registration, and worked to proactively influence the national conversation around Latino issues.

Today, according to Sepúlveda - author of The Life and Times of Willie Velásquez, which will be published this spring by Arte Público Press - in terms of raw numbers, there's still more potential in the Latino vote than actual influence, as Latinos increasingly constitute a larger portion of the voting age population. Now the states with the most electoral clout - those along the border and the Sun Belt - also happen to be where Latinos live, Sepúlveda observes. "We've got a responsibility to talk about our issues."

Velásquez saw an opportunity to elect more Latinos in the wake of the 1964 Voting Rights Act. Prior to that landmark legislation, in the era of so-called "good government," many cities were run by city councils who were elected at-large rather than by single-member districts. While at-large elections undermined the power of political bosses such as the infamous Richard Daley of Chicago, they also left minorities without the means to elect a candidate of their choosing.

"`Willie` believed people will vote if they get a chance to elect someone who represents them," George Velásquez says - whether through La Raza Unida, an all-Chicano political party that reached its zenith as a spoiler-party in the 1972 gubernatorial election, or in the long run by means of a voter registration and education project, SVREP.

In 1977, SVREP, along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, took on redistricting - as contentious an issue then as it is today - and found numerous instances throughout Texas where Mexican Americans (as with blacks and Native Americans) had been systematically denied the franchise - in violation of the law. Medina County, for example, had not redistricted since 1896, despite being required to do so every 10 years; other exclusionary measures used for the better part of the 20th century included requiring literacy tests, charging a poll tax, purging voter rolls, or simply under counting votes cast in minority areas.

Once they broke through the legal barriers, Velásquez' strategy was simple: voter registration, voter education, election. In the beginning, his efforts were focused on building a base of supporters that could be mobilized to turn out at the polls, but his overall goal was to elevate the level of discourse. "Willie was constantly asking, 'How are we going to help our people?'" George Velásquez recalls.

He demanded accountability from elected officials, and this threatened a lot of people, Sepúlveda explains. "`Velásquez said` 'our job is not just to replace Anglos but to elevate the level of discourse.' It was a challenge to our people. A challenge to our folks: You got the power, you cut a deal - you get in trouble."

Velásquez the man lies at the center of Sepúlveda's book, but the scope of the story is much greater, encompassing both SVREP's early years, the growth and development of San Antonio's Chicano movimiento, and, throughout it all, the lives Velásquez touched.

"It was a challenge to our people. A challenge to our folks: You got the power, you cut a deal — you get in trouble."
— author
Juan Sepúlveda
Sepúlveda writes about both "the public Willie" and "the private Willie": the difficult aspects of his childhood, the ups-and-downs of his relationship with his wife Janie, Velásquez' at times over-zealous and emotionally charged handling of the organization's internal affairs, and his private resolve to see it flourish. Although those who knew Velásquez well may be surprised or even uncomfortable with some of the more personal anecdotes that appear in the book, by including the private moments - times of great success and happiness contrast with moments of doubt and withdrawal - Sepúlveda humanizes Velásquez. "We wouldn't be doing him justice if we make it seem like he was perfect," he says reflectively.

In Velásquez, Sepúlveda saw a never-ending search for balance in life. "Particularly for activists of Willie's generation, if you weren't giving everything for the cause, you weren't doing what you should have been doing," Sepúlveda observes. Because he was so passionately committed to his cause, "he would get lost for a while." Yet, Sepúlveda points out, at the same time Velásquez threw himself into his work he threw himself into his family - dropping everything to take his children to a mid-afternoon soccer game or bringing them to the office to spend the day him. Velásquez' younger brother, Ralph, agrees. "We saw him at his most vulnerable, and when he was at his political strength, and when he felt the pangs of conviction." He had a "personality of conviction, not imposition."

"People who worked for Willie respected him, loved him, and at times were frustrated with him," Choco Meza, SVREP's Research Director from 1977 to 1981, remembers, "but at the end of the day, you knew the work you were doing for him was going to result in long term changes."

Sepúlveda recalls falling under Velásquez' spell - "You had drank the juice, you're a believer" - at their first meeting, in 1981. During a much-needed respite from his work at SVREP, Velásquez spent a semester at Harvard teaching a course on Chicano politics; Sepúlveda, then an 18-year-old freshman, was hooked. A Kansas native - his family followed the rails north - Sepúlveda says, "I became obsessed with the idea of going to San Antonio" to see firsthand the work that SVREP and Velásquez were doing.

Velásquez extended an invitation to his young protégé to join him the following summer. Sepúlveda followed him everywhere. "I want you to see how it really works," Sepúlveda recalls Velásquez telling him - and the two often stayed up past midnight talking politics. "He was my friend and mentor," he says.

Surprisingly, as a child and through his adolescence, Velásquez was quiet and reserved - a pensive, precocious eldest son who learned about the world of politics through his uncles and from his father, a union organizer in Texas (at a time when it was "dangerously unpopular," Ralph Velásquez remarks).

Velásquez was the first in his family to attend college, where he began to have the experiences that shaped the path he would follow later in life. For better and for worse, the most pivotal of those events was Velásquez' relationship with the legendary Henry B. González, the pioneering Mexican-American congressman from San Antonio's West Side.

What surprised Sepúlveda most in the course of researching the book was the falling-out between Velásquez and his political mentor. "At first I thought, 'This can't be right.' A U.S. congressman saying 'These guys are the ones who are going to destroy the U.S.'," Sepúlveda recalls. After all, he says, Velásquez was a traditional Mexican-American kid, a good Catholic, a member of St. Mary's ROTC, and an exemplary student to boot. Velásquez even took the congressman's daughter to the prom. But at the same time, Velásquez became involved with the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), a barrio-based activist group which challenged the status quo. Velásquez and others in MAYO talked about school improvement, economic development, and political participation, as they related to the people of the barrio in what Sepúlveda calls "typical empowerment language today, but within the Texas context, they were radicals."

González took the floor in congress to call Velásquez and his friends "racists," "architects of discord," and "prophets of doom," and red-baited the young visionaries in countless tirades, letters, and speeches. At the nadir of the conflict, the congressman and the young activist nearly came to fisticuffs at a speaking engagement at St. Mary's, a story Sepúlveda writes with the balanced attention to detail missing from newspaper accounts of the time.

Ralph Velásquez explains that his eldest brother's ideals were tough for politicians - any politician - to meet. "Willie had the courage to challenge the patron system," Ralph Velásquez says. "Instead of accepting leaders `who said` 'Don't worry, I'll take care of everything,' Willie asked, 'Why can't we take care of it?'"

Looking back, Ralph Velásquez believes his brother's biggest disappointment came from seeing elected officials who didn't fulfill their promise to the people. "They could have been great for our people; instead they were great for themselves."

"People say the movement made him poor. The movement was his life. Willie loved what he was doing - empowering people to discuss the future on their own terms." •

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