Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Just a Thought" Column continues in La Prensa of SA, 5-18

Just a Thought: Willie C. Velasquez
By Steve Walker

Nearly 300 Willie C. Velasquez supporters turned out to celebrate his legacy at the 40th Annual SVREP Benefit Dinner at Pearl Stables May 9th. Coincidently, May 9th is now officially Texas Willie C. Velasquez Day. The crowd included supporters, elected officials and dignitaries.

Founder of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) in 1974, the local icon’s vision was to ensure that Latinos would play an important role in the American Democratic process. His journey began here in Texas.

Although I never met him in person, his younger brother Ralph has been a friend of mine for over 20 years. Ralph has shared much about his brother with me over those years. Ralph stays active in the organization to keep his brother’s vision which he also shares, alive. I have been blessed to attend numerous SVREP Annual Benefit Dinners honoring Willie C. Velasquez. I have also covered them for my photo blog the Walker Report as well as sharing my photos with La Prensa.

During the dinner, Ralph reminded me that in 2001 his brother Willie was voted by major Latino organizations as one of the most influential Latinos of the 20th Century. That elite group includes Cesar E. Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers. (UFW)

Velasquez was also 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 the La Raza Unida Party.

His involvement with Latino organizations over the years was extensive. In 1968 as Boycott Coordinator for the United Farm Workers (UFW), Velasquez organized strikes at the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. After leaving the UFW which was headed by his friend Cesar E. Chavez, he became the founder and director of the Mexican American Unity Council in San Antonio. In 1970 he was named Field Director of the Southwest Council of La Raza.

Ralph recalled his brother also enlisted the aid of community organizers and together they launched hundreds of voter registration and get-the-vote-out (GOTV) campaigns throughout the southwest.

Sitting at the Velasquez table with Ralph and his extended family, one of Willie’s daughters Catarina shared with me about some of those GOTV campaigns as a little girl. Unfortunately her father died when she was only 12 years old. She did recall those campaigns were a family affair as she stuffed envelopes and actually helped register voters.

She also pointed out that her dad was very much the family man-- helping her and her two siblings (older brother and young sister) with their homework. She added that he was always home by 6 p.m. for dinner.

The legacy of Velasquez has been recognized as being highly successful. Since its inception, it is estimated 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.

In 1995 President Bill Clinton presented Velasquez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor any civilian can receive. Velasquez was only the second Latino ever to earn that prestigious honor.

Unfortunately, although Velasquez passed away June 15th, 1988 of complications from kidney cancer Ralph says “the ongoing activities of SVREP serve as proof of the merit my brother instilled in all of us that we can make a difference.”

As always, I write just thought.

Steve Walker is a Vietnam Veteran, former Judge and Journalist

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