By Patricia Guadalupe
Few people have had as profound an impact on the political empowerment of America’s Latino electorate as Willie Velásquez. His grassroots work registering and mobilizing Latino voters, starting in his home state of Texas, parlayed the frustrations, hopes and pride of a diverse, fast-growing segment of the U.S. population into a powerful force at the ballot box.
He became especially 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 garnered wide national attention at the time, Latino voting rights efforts in the American Southwest flew 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 fostered hundreds of Latino political candidates, organized countless nonpartisan voter drives to engage poor, disenfranchised Latinos and successfully litigated more than 75 lawsuits to help reverse gerrymandering, eliminate language barriers and other suppressive voter practices.
“He understood that there’s 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, that our voice be counted.”
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An Activist Youth, Modeling Black Voting Rights Leaders
William C. Velásquez, “Willie” to his friends and others 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 hotbed years in 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 United Farm Workers in South Texas. In 1970, he helped create a third, independent political party in the region—La Raza Unida—that focused on issues affecting its burgeoning Mexican American community.
Like many young Latinos of his era, Velásquez was influenced by the efforts of then-student leader John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to foster empowerment and political participation among Black communities nationwide. Indeed, one little-known aspect of Velásquez’s early work was securing Lewis’ involvement to help expand Latino voter participation.
Velásquez and his fellow Latino activists had been looking for ways to get the Latino community more engaged, but they faced obstacles. Like African Americans, many Latino citizens still battled the pernicious remnants of Jim Crow segregation. But their activism didn’t receive the same national attention and support that Dr. King’s movement did. 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 all across 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 about 25 years old. All these folks were very young, trying to figure out ways to change the world. He [sought] technical training from Lewis after it was clear that we didn’t have anyone teaching us and helping us how to figure this out,” says Camarillo.
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Growing Voters, Elevating Candidates
But figure it out, 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 voter campaigns in areas with low registration. In 1984, they chartered a polling and research arm to systematically study Latino voter patterns that eventually became the William C. Velásquez Institute. And together with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, they successfully pursued lawsuits to undo unfair partisan redistricting and other discriminatory practices.
“It’s important to understand that no one was doing this work, except us,” says Camarillo.
One big push was to start electing Latino officials at all levels of government, from school boards and city councils to the halls of Congress. When SVREP began, 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 in 13 southwest states. Velásquez was in the process of taking the organization national when he died.
“His legacy is the political empowerment of Latinos at a time when the community was a smaller population and we’re now over 60 million [with an expected voting power of] 15 million, [up from 11 million in 2018],” says Camarillo. The growth is phenomenal.”
Camarillo tells HISTORY.com that she met—and was inspired by—Velásquez long before she herself became involved in the group’s work. “I was in Watsonville, California for an event [in the early 1980s] where…I got to hear him speak, and he was extraordinary,” she says. “Whenever he spoke, you could…visualize the vision he was putting forth. It was very energizing.”
In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Velásquez, saying in his speech, “Willie was and is now a name synonymous with democracy in America.”