William C. Velásquez: 1944-1988
William C. Velásquez was the founder of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in 1974. He envisioned a time when Latinos would play an important role in the American Democratic process. His legacy began in Texas.
Velásquez was one of the founding members of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO); a Chicano youth organization aimed at social action. His role in MAYO led to becoming Texas' first statewide Coordinator of El Movimiento Social de la Raza Unida, the precursor of La Ram Unida Party.
His involvement with Latino organizations was extensive. In 1968 as Boycott Coordinator for the United Farm Workers (UFW), he organized strikes at the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. After leaving the UFW he became the founder and director of the Mexican American Unity Council in San Antonio, Texas. In 1970 he was named Field Director of the Southwest Council of La Raza.
From 1972 to July 1974, he concentrated his efforts on building the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP). Little notice was taken when Velasquez opened the doors to SVREP in 1974, seated on a folding chair; behind a small desk calling from a borrowed rotary telephone to spur Mexican Americans into politics.
He enlisted the aid of Community organizers, together they launched hundreds of voter registIaIion and get-the-vote-out (GOTV) campaigns throughout the southwest. The legacy of Velásquez is apparent-since its inception, SVREP has cultivated 50,000 community leaders, successfully litigated 85 voting rights law suits and has conducted 2,300 non-partisan,voter registration and GOTV campaigns. Consequently, voter registration has grown over the years from 2.4 million registered Latinos in 1974 to 7 million nationwide in 1998.
But his vision involved more than just getting Latinos to the ballot box, Velásquez sought to bring into the democratic process an active and informed Latino electorate.
Charted in 1984, the Southwest Voter Research Institute was established to seek the opinions of the Latino electorate and to make those findings known. He felt Latino leaders should be held accountable to their constituencies. As part of the institute, he set out to collect and distribute information on public policy issues ranging from income and poverty to U.S. and Latin America relations.
In 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded Velásquez The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor any civilian can receive - and only the second Latino ever to earn that honor.
In 1997, the Southwest Voter Research Institute was changed to the William C Velásquez Institute (WCVI) as a way to honor and perpetuate Velásquez' vision and legacy.
But Velásquez did not get to see the fruits of his dreams, he passed away on June 15, 1988 of complications from kidney cancer. The ongoing activities of SVREP and WCVI serve as proof of the continued strength and merit of Velásquez.
The Life & Times of Willie Velásquez
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This is the story of both parts of the man: the public and private. Velásquez’s biography sheds light on the nature and price of public leadership in American politics.
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About the Author
JUAN A. SEPÚLVEDA, JR. is the author of The Andean Highlands: An Encounter with Two Forms of Christianity (Conseil Oecumenique des Eglises, 1997). He graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in Government; completed a combined degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at The Queen’s College, Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar; received his law degree from Stanford Law School; and has been admitted to the Texas Bar. Sepúlveda, a San Antonio resident who grew up in... read more
William C. "Willie" Velásquez, Jr. founded the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP) and was an influential participant in other leading Latino rights and justice groups, including the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) and the Mexican American Unity Council (MAUC). From the late 1960s until his untimely death in 1988, Velásquez helped Mexican Americans and other Hispanics become active participants in American political life.
Though still insufficiently appreciated, Velásquez holds a unique status in the pantheon of modern American civil rights figures. Velásquez’s work on voter rights and registration triggered an unprecedented mobilization of Latino voters in pivotal electoral states across the U.S., including California, Illinois, and Texas. Today, as Latinos emerge to constitute America’s new minority of record, with growing reach into other major states, such as New York, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and North Carolina, Hispanc American political influence, drawing on Velásquez’s legacy-can only become more significant in the years to come. Former Rhodes Scholar and Velásquez protégé Juan A. Sepúlveda, Jr.’s biography provides a first, definitive glimpse into Velásquez’s life and times. Based on Sepúlveda’s close personal relationship and exchanges with Velásquez during the SVREP founder’s final years, and over a dozen years of research and writing, the book chronicles Velásquez’s influences, his landmark contributions to American civic culture, and his enduring legacy.