For decades, Latinos in the United States did not have a political voice. At the age of twenty-three, Willie Velásquez decided to change this. He worked to ensure the empowerment and participation of Chicanos in U.S. democracy, a project that would become his life’s work. Velásquez’s motivation to educate Latinos showed his commitment to the values of American democracy. As Henry Cisneros, former Latino mayor of San Antonio remembered Velásquez, “[Willie’s] legacy is large in the hearts and minds of those of us who knew and worked with him.”1
Before becoming a Mexican American political activist, Velásquez attended college at St. Mary’s University. In 1967, he and other Latino-Chicano students, known as Los Cinco (The Five), created the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO).2 MAYO worked to register Chicano youth to vote, and the group defended farm workers’ rights by becoming one of the anchors of the Chicano Movement. The group popularized the motto Su Voto Es Su Voz (Your Vote is your Voice). They spread their message through local newspapers and city-to-city events to bring other young people into the organization.3
As a St. Mary’s student, Velásquez involved himself in volunteer work, where he began to develop leadership skills, offering a helping hand to others while continuing the Marianist heritage of civic engagement. Velásquez signed up to help farm workers who were on strike because he saw the realities of their conditions and their mistreatment by the Texas Rangers. Conditions worsened for the farm workers as the Texas Rangers continued to make discriminatory arrests, and unreasonable beatings on the strikers escalated. Velásquez decided he needed a big political voice to speak for the farm workers. During his third internship in Washington D.C., Velásquez visited Congressman Henry B. González, who became his first political mentor. González’s vision and passion for helping the voiceless attracted Velásquez to the congressman. He wanted González’s support for the migrant workers, yet González declined to help since it was out of his district. From that point on, Velásquez and González became political opponents.4
In 1969, González made his first attack against MAYO. In a speech, he characterized the activists as members of a movement driven by “race hate.”5 José Ángel Gutiérrez, one of MAYO’s founders, held a press conference answering González’s attacks, stating that MAYO was going to take the necessary means to “eliminate their enemies”.6 In contrast, Velásquez answered the congressman’s attacks by appealing to American values, such as equality, unity, liberty, and progress. He stated that in all of their efforts working for San Antonio’s community, they were never called “traitors to our country.”7 After the speech, the public responded by inviting the congressman to observe the good works from these Chicano activists. 8
Early in 1970, several San Antonio students formed the Chicano Coalition of College Students (CCCS). Velázquez’s brother George and soon-to-be wife Janine played major roles in the Coalition. When the students heard that St. Mary’s University invited Congressman González to speak, they planned a walkout. Velásquez attended as a supporter of his brother’s efforts and witnessed the public humiliation of his former mentor. After ten minutes of the congressman’s commentary against the Chicano ideals, the activists started leaving. The congressman noticed Velásquez in the crowd, and he challenged him to a fight. The physical confrontation with the congressman did not end well for Velásquez. After, Velásquez made a public statement proclaiming that every time Henry B. González did something wrong, he was going to be there to make it right. With that declaration, Velásquez launched a lifetime effort to discredit González. While most political quarrels between González and other activists were resolved, González and Velásquez’s feud lasted throughout Velásquez’s life.9
Voting is a fundamental right of U.S. citizens. When Velásquez left MAYO, he created the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) in 1974, and the organization registered 2.3 million Latino voters. Ten years later, it had doubled the number of Latinos registered to vote to about 4 million.10 Velásquez was a light and hope for Latinos in the United States. As Julian Castro, former San Antonio mayor, once said, “I hope that someday when a Latino/a has his/her hand on the Bible getting sworn as the president of the United States that they’ll be thinking about Willie and his work.”11 As Americans, it’s our duty to highlight the importance of the achievements our ancestors attained, as well as the adversities they went through. Citizens owe respect to the activists that have helped shaped our country. Nowadays, registering to vote is as easy as filling out a registration form and sending it by mail, submitting it online, or delivering it directly to the voter registration office. Everyone has a voice and has the right to be heard.