updated 8/31/2004 3:54:50 PM ET 2004-08-31T19:54:50

Willie Velásquez was the charismatic leader behind the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. For 20 years, beginning in the 1960s, he took his cue from African Americans working to secure their full civil rights and applied their tactics to la raza, the Mexican Americans in his native Texas and throughout the Southwest. SVREP did not have the high profile of the politically strong La Raza Unida party or the mainstream organizational pull of the League of United Latin American Citizens, but its impact at the ballot box, through the election of more people of color, has been lasting and is still playing out.

The work might have ended in 1988, the year Willie Velásquez suddenly died. But the mission continued. In 1994 Antonio Gonzalez, 48, took over as president. In the crowded Pico de Gallo restaurant in San Antonio, Gonzalez spoke with special correspondent Joe Nick Patoski about how the institution has survived in the absence of the man who founded and personified it.

What’s the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and the William C. Velásquez Institute?
Gonzalez: Southwest Voter Registration Education Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan that is dedicated to increasing political participation among minorities, particularly Latinos, throughout the United States.

The William C. Velásquez Institute is another nonpartisan, nonprofit, organization that is dedicated to policy and research towards supporting effective governance by Latino voters and Latino-elected officials and leaders—sort of a spinoff of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Tell us about Willie Velásquez.
Gonzalez: Willie Velásquez was a radical youth from San Antonio of working-class origin who was a student at St. Mary’s University, which was a hotbed of political activism at that time. The Chicanos were influenced by the black Civil Rights Movement, by Martin Luther King, particularly by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, by Malcolm X, and by their own homegrown heroes in Mexican American politics, which had a history, particularly in Texas and New Mexico, that antedated the Civil Rights Movement.

Willie was one of the founders of La Raza Unida, an independent Latino-Chicano third political party that was successful in many places in South Texas. He left Raza Unida [around 1970] to create Southwest Voter. It was finally founded in 1974. It was a tough row to hoe, getting it funded.

"Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and Willie Velásquez are key elements in the transition of the condition of the U.S. Latino community."

Latinos’ numbers were declining in political participation until around the time Southwest Voter was founded. The numbers since have gone up consistently and dramatically. Hispanics have been the fastest-growing group in registration in voting in America since 1980, measured by every presidential election, without exception. Willie’s contribution was to create the vehicle for that and to believe that we could stimulate this.

What was the initial impact of SVREP?
Gonzalez: Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and Willie Velásquez are key elements in the transition of the condition of the U.S. Latino community from utter and complete powerlessness to where we are today, which is having some power, but not enough. Clearly, we have changed our condition from being outside the power. Willie Velásquez’s context was the era of powerlessness. That’s why people were militant and protesting, organizing third parties. They were utterly excluded by policies, practices, barriers, laws, and institutions. Velásquez led the charge. He opened those doors.

Willie died in 1988. He had just begun to reinterpret Latino politics. I remember Willie beginning to agitate that we had to equip ourselves to govern because we were winning. When Southwest Voter started, there were about 1,300 Latino-elected officials in the country and about 2.3 million Latino voters. Ten years later, we nearly doubled the number of Latino-elected officials to about 2,500 and nearly 4 million Latinos were registered to vote.

Willie’s whole team was a group of intellectuals, so they would think about these things. Willie agitated to create the capacity to train candidates and train elected officials and come up with new policy strategies, do opinion surveys, the sort of things that 20 years later we all do. Willie saw the Latino community governing. Henry Cisneros was mayor of San Antonio and on Mondale’s short list for vice president. The Hispanic caucus of Texas was very powerful. Tony Anaya was governor of New Mexico.

How did the Institute come about?
Gonzalez: Willie was wrong [to think] that we had broken through and were in a condition of exercising power. It certainly wasn’t true across the country, though it was true in Texas and New Mexico. That’s why he created the institute, which was called the Southwest Voter Research Institute. We renamed it after Willie died to honor him. The institute started polling and doing international work to take delegations of Latino-elected officials and leaders to Central America. Willie went to Nicaragua and El Salvador. He was interested in revolutions. Willie was a global thinker.

That was the later stage of Willie’s career and lifework, pondering "how do we govern?"

Willie saw the immigration reform in 1986, but he didn’t get to see the big wave. None of us predicted the impact it was going to have in speeding up our political empowerment.

Was his death a surprise?
Gonzalez: Totally. He was only 44. He got sick and a month later he died. I was a member of his staff. I’d been there for four years. I came in 1984, and I was involved with the ’84 presidential campaign. Then I worked on special projects—an immigration bill, the ’87 Texas Legislature, and an international project called the Latin America Project.

How did you deal with the sudden loss of your charismatic leader?
Gonzalez: I’m from California. When Willie died, I was sent back to California to help [keep] us from collapsing. We were on the verge of bankruptcy. We had the test of fire.

"There’s a debate being argued…They say voting rights is a black-oriented program and Latinos are not excluded like African Americans are."

Willie had a number two named Andy Hernandez, who had been with Southwest Voter from the beginning. Fortunately, he was there and was able to step in. He had 14 years of experience with the organization, so he became the president when Willie passed away. We weathered everything that happens when you lose your charismatic superstar. We had to retool the fundraising and reassure the leadership. People thought we were going to disappear. We had a tough couple of years.

How did you keep on going?
Gonzalez: We had a hard-core group of staff who basically dedicated themselves to Willie’s memory and said, "Not on our watch. We’re not going to be recorded in history as the group that couldn’t make it after Willie died."

It took a lot of hard work. The hardest part was figuring out how to raise money without the superstar doing it. [Before,] Willie would pick up a phone and we’d get money. We had to reestablish relationships with foundations, start raising money from corporations and unions who used to give us nothing, zippo.

Willie enjoyed the largesse. He was the darling of the New York liberals. When he went away, they went away. We had to go to our base. For at least a couple of years there was goodwill, meaning, "We’ll do this for Willie. We’ll help Southwest for Willie." By the 1990s, we were able to get into "the self-interest cycle," meaning people have a self-interest in seeing the Hispanic vote grow. Once we got past the ’92 election, people saw Southwest Voter was going to make it. So they came back.

Andy Hernandez stepped down as SVREP president in 1994. What happened after that?
Gonzalez: I was surprised when he stepped down. You know, I don’t think Andy ever reconciled himself to being Willie’s successor and being the head of Southwest Voter without Willie because they were like brothers. [Willie’s death] was a personal tragedy for him. I was sort of in position because I was [Andy’s] number two, although more focused on the Velásquez Institute, which had grown quite a bit and had a big international program. Andy sort of popped it on me. I didn’t really have a choice. He said, "I’m leaving, you’re in." The board said, "Yeah, that’s right." Been there ever since.

How did you lead the organization out from under Willie’s shadow, when SVREP had been so much about him?
Gonzalez: I will tell you, it’s the reverse. Southwest Voter now is much bigger than Willie ever was. This year we’ll quintuple the budget of Willie’s biggest year. We do work in many more states. We’re in 16 states, with partnerships that get us into 26 states. When Willie was alive and the institute and Southwest were together, they raised $1 million. When they were separate under Andy, he raised about $2 million. We’ll do $5 million, maybe $6 million, between the two organizations this year.

We’re clearly the preeminent Latino vote organization, bar none, registering and turning out people. We’re going to hit 10 million [registered voters] this year. We were two-and-a-half million when Willie started. We’re at eight-and-a-half million now, and we’ll hit 10 million [by the fall 2004 elections], maybe nine-and-a-half, 9.3—it depends.

"You can’t ask for a better situation. Both parties say they have to have your vote to win."

Our challenge is to keep Willie’s memory alive. We’re going to pay a lot of attention to that this year. It’s our 30th anniversary. There’s a book coming out about Willie in April: The Life and Times of Willie Velásquez (Arte Publico Press) by Juan Sepulveda.

We’re going to push to create a Willie Velásquez archive. We’re preparing to start the process to build a building, maybe a statue, in his honor on the West Side here in San Antonio. There’s a Velásquez education building at St. Mary’s University and Velásquez mural. There’s a Velásquez [Walk]. There’s Velásquez schools. We’re going to do more because Willie is not known to the younger generation.

What are top priorities for the project?
Gonzalez: We’re setting up voter registration campaigns. We have active projects right now in Little Havana, Kendall, Hollywood, Tampa, and Plant City in Florida; in Hobbs and Las Cruces, New Mexico; four different ones in Maricopa County [Phoenix] in Arizona—it’s a big county—and setting up in Tucson and Casa Grande. Seattle, Yakima Valley, the Tri-City area of Washington state, and about 20 more on the drawing board. We’ve still got to get into Albuquerque, got to get into Santa Fe.

We’re shaking and baking. We’ve got offices of people moving all around. We’re setting up the coalitions, contracting organizers. There’s training going on in Albuquerque next weekend, and then two weeks after that, trainings in Miami-Dade and in Tucson. We have to set up 300 of these. Our partners are setting up another 150.

The Velásquez Institute is on a separate but complementary track, getting into the field in April with a national opinion survey. Through our leadership program, we’re sending a religious delegation to Cuba. Through our community development program, we’re conducting a solar retrofitting initiative with Hispanic businesses in urban Southern California as a policy response to the energy crisis. Energy’s very expensive. Through our international program, we do Cuba, Central America. We have a drug policy reform initiative. We’re co-sponsoring a national conference in Houston. We have a major research project going in anticipation of the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] reauthorization fight. It’s a longitudinal study looking at 30 years of census data. We’re seeking to measure the level of social, economic, and political inclusion of native-born Latinos.

There’s a debate being argued from these neoconservative academics and Latino academics. They say voting rights is a black-oriented program and Latinos are not excluded like African Americans are. Therefore, the Voting Rights Act should not apply to Latinos, because Latinos are inevitably on a path of social, political, and economic inclusion. It’s just a matter of time and overcoming our own cultural barriers; that there are really no substantive barriers to inclusion.

We obviously disagree. And so we have to demonstrate that, based on the data on Latinos. We’re looking specifically at native-borns because foreign-borns do show increased inclusion, because they become citizens. So it’s a false positive when you look at immigrants.

You had a golf tournament?
Gonzalez: We do golf tournaments, we do annual banquets—six of them: Miami, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. We’re doing a small-dollar endowment that we’re launching this year where it’s basically working folks. We’re going to sign up ten thousand $1,000 donors from our network, where they give us $30 a month over three years. It’s like dues, but it goes into an endowment.

You have to figure out something for each sector. What do we have? We have a lot of working folks. So that’s that sector. And we have a professional sector; you have golf tournaments and fundraisers. Fundraisers include your corporate donors. We have a lot of people in anticipation of the money. Willie had to ask five people. It got harder. So you spend more time raising money, but we raise a lot more.

You can’t ask for a better situation. Both parties say they have to have your vote to win. And when your vote is big enough to make a difference, and when you look like you’re going to have the resources to mobilize the infrastructure to make a difference, issues that matter to our community are going to bubble up because we have these other things in place. This is the kind of context and scenario that I live for. And it’s one that Willie lived for. He didn’t get to see it, but a generation after his passing, it’s here today.

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