For decades Latinos in America had no political power. That’s the line with which Hector Galán opens his documentary on Willie Velasquez, one of the greatest advocates for US Latino voter registration of the 20th century. Tracing his rise from a butcher’s son to an admired political activist, Willie Velasquez – Your Vote is Your Voice is also a history lesson on the Latino electorate in the twentieth century.
As President Bill Clinton put it while posthumously honoring Willie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, “No person in modern America who has run for political office wherever Hispanic Americans live has failed to feel the hand of Willie Velasquez. Willie was and is now a name synonymous with democracy in America. From the farm fields of California, where he organized workers with Cesar Chavez, to the halls of Harvard, where he taught politics, Willie Velasquez was driven by an unwavering belief that every American should have a role in our democracy and a share in the opportunities of our great nation.”
Given the state of this year’s election and the pivotal role Latinos may yet play, here are 5 things we learned from the doc that should remind you why Willie’s simple political motto — “Su voto es su voz”— is more timely than ever.
‘Willie Velasquez: Your Vote is Your Voice‘ premieres Monday, October 3 on PBS
Only Half of the 55 Million Latinos in the US Are Registered to Vote
Called “the sleeping giant,” the Latino voting block in the United States is one of the most robust political factions in American politics. And yet, as many of the people interviewed by Galán for this film remind us, there has been a historically low correlation between the strength of the demographic and its voting impact. Willie set out to change that. As Choco Meza, who knew and worked with him, put it, “He was looking for a voice in government for Latinos. And he was in a hurry.” At his core he wanted to make a reality the unassailable patriotic idea of empowering Mexican-Americans with the power of their votes.
In the 1930s, up to 2 Million People Were Deported To Mexico
In what will sound eerily familiar to many Latinos in 2016, the United States implemented the “Repatriation” program following the stock market crash of 1929. Using raids as well as legal proceedings (helped in part by President Hoover’s approval of Secretary of Labor William N. Doak’s campaign to assist in the program,) this unprecedented exodus of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans — in many cases authorities didn’t care whether people had actually been born in the US — was one of the most blatant forms of political and cultural disenfranchisement of Latinos in American history.
Latinos Were Not Included In The Original Voting Rights Act
Latinos trying to redress being invisible in American politics goes back to 1929 when the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was created to battle discrimination. During World War II, Latinos (who continued to be segregated in areas of the Southwest) fought side by side with their fellow Anglo citizens. When they returned, many of them earning degrees and jobs with the aid of the GI bill, which brought a renewed interest in mobilizing politically. Unfortunately, many laws were in place to keep Latinos from having any effect on the political process: not only were there poll taxes in Texas, for example, designed to keep poor people from voting, but districts with large Latino populations were gerrymandered to avoid them creating strong coalitions. The message had been clear throughout the twentieth century: “You don’t count. You’re not American.”
It wasn’t until 1975 (a decade after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the the Voting Rights Act) that Latinos were, at least by law, protected within its terms. Willie and his fellow activists made great use of this while hoping to increase voter registration in smaller Hispanic communities throughout the Southwest.
Enter: The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project
Founded in 1974, the Southwest Voter Project (SVREP) is the largest and oldest nonpartisan Latino voter participation organization in the United States. It was created by Willie and his conviction that “when we’re finished, politicians are going to fear and respect our vote.”
From 1976 to 1980, the SVREP registered more people to vote than any other group in the United States. At first it was a grassroots effort, with nothing more than a phone and some clipboards, and they even counted Latino voters manually. That’s before they upgraded to what was then cutting edge IBM technology. But it really fell on the volunteers and the community organizers (most of them women) to knock doors, open dialogue, and file paperwork to get even indifferent people to realize the power of their own vote.
Willie’s Legacy Remains As Timely As Ever
Much of the work Willie did with Southwest Voter as well as with MAYO (Mexican-American Youth Organization), which operated in the 60s and 70s, owed much to the consciousness raising that was also felt in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the farmer strikes as well as the Chicano movement. He was convinced that, by the 80s, the Latino vote could become a real challenge to politics as usual.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the National Hispanic Voter Registration Campaign of 1983 in San Antonio, which had a strong presence from Republicans (who had begun an aggressive Latino outreach) and Democrats alike. As he noted before his death, “California and Texas alone have 28% of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Add on Illinois and New York where Mexican-Americans, Hispanics, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, and all of us have an extraordinary opportunity to have impact. That party who ignores that vote will be punished at the polls. No question about it.”