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Willie Velásquez: the pioneer in the fight for the right to vote for Latinos in the US

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  • On September 29, 1995, voting rights advocate Willie Velásquez is posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Willie Velasquez and the organizations he founded are credited with dramatically increasing political awareness and participation among Hispanic communities in the southwestern United States.

The son of a union organizer, Velasquez was one of the five founders of the Mexican-American Youth Organization, or MAYO.

Beginning with voter registration drives and walkouts on college campuses around San Antonio, MAYO expanded to organize high school students and even managed to elect several candidates to local school boards.

Inspired by groups like the Black Panthers and leaders like Malcolm X, some of MAYO’s members formed the Partido Raza Unida, a party that aimed to elect Hispanic candidates without relying on Republican or Democratic institutions.

Velasquez worked as a boycott coordinator for the United Farm Workers, a union that organized farmworkers throughout the Southwest and brought national attention to their working conditions in the late 1960s.

He went on to work for Raza before embarking on the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in 1972. SVREP, whose motto was “Su vota, su voz” (Your vote is your voice), sought to address low voter turnout. , voter apathy, and institutional disenfranchisement that affected the Hispanic American community.

Velásquez believed that the Hispanic community had much to learn from the civil rights movement and sought to address many of the same systemic issues as prominent leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although he would not live to see the full effects of his work, as he died suddenly of cancer at the age of 44.

Willie Velázquez certainly achieved his goal of activating the Hispanic electorate. Today, SVREP claims to have registered more than 2.7 million voters, trained more than 150,000 political activists, and won more than 100 civil rights lawsuits.

Although Hispanic voter turnout is often significantly lower than turnout among whites, it has risen sharply in recent decades, increasing tenfold from 1.3 million in the 1994 general election to 13.5 million in 2016.

In his White House speech honoring Velasquez, then-President Bill Clinton called Willie “a name synonymous with democracy in America.”

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