Willie Velasquez and President George H.W. Bush attend an hispanic voter registration campaign event. Photo courtesy of UTSA Libraries Special Collection.

Sometime around 6 p.m. Friday evening along the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, UTSA President Ricardo Romo and Antonio González, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and William C. Velásquez Institute (formerly Southwest Voter Research Institute), will sign a formal agreement deeding the Latino voting rights group’s papers to the university.

The SVREP collection of papers is drawn from the organization’s first 20 years, 1974-94, and includes “redistricting maps, voter exit surveys, campaign planning materials, pre-election surveys, office files, research files, research publications, newsletters and audiovisual materials.” It’s an important acquisition for UTSA Libraries’ Special Collections housed at the main campus’ John Peace Library. The collection will be available for scholarly research once it is catalogued.

SVREP, founded by Willie Velásquez  and other civil rights organizers in San Antonio in 1974, is “the largest and oldest non-partisan Latino voter participation organization in the United States.” Velásquez rose to prominence as a civil rights leader and field organizer in the farm workers movement in the 1960s and then as an early member of what became La Raza Unida Party in the 1970s. He died at the age of 44 in 1988 from complications related to kidney cancer, leaving behind a remarkable legacy for someone so young.

Willie Velasquez gives a speech with Cesar Chavez in attendance. Courtesy Photo from the Willie Velasquez Learning Center.
Willie Velasquez gives a speech with Cesar Chavez in attendance. Courtesy photo from the Willie Velasquez Learning Center.

President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Velásquez The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 2013, the Texas Legislature designed May 9 as Willie Velásquez Day.

The respective missions of SVRP and the Willie Velásquez institute, founded in 1985, are closely intertwined. SVREP was founded to protect the voting rights of Mexican-American citizens in the Southwest in an era when minorities were routinely prevented from participating fully in the political process. SVREP fought for equal rights under the law and actively worked to register Latino voters  and turn them out to participate in elections.  The WCVI is a non-partisan think tank focused on improving Latino political and economic participation

Gonzalez was traveling back to San Antonio from the organization’s West Coast offices Friday, so I was unable to interview him for this article. I wanted to ask him what he thinks Velásquez would think, were he still alive, of the dismal level of Latino participation in elections more than 40 years after he founded SVREP. Of course, it’s not only Latinos. Across the city and suburbs, less than 56,000 out of more than 820,000 registered voters went to the polls over the early voting period April 27-May 5.

Election officials expect a 12-13% turnout in total by the time polls close in the Saturday, May 9 General Election in San Antonio. The Latino turnout is expected to be even lower than that. The race for mayor tops the ballot for San Antonio voters, and two of the four leading candidates, Leticia Van de Putte and Mike Villarreal, are hispanic. A third, Ivy Taylor, is the first African-American and only second women in city history to hold the office. Even if she is serving by appointment for a term that is less than one year, her place in history ought to drive higher African-American turnout, but early voting numbers at Eastside poll sites suggest otherwise.

Overall, every registered voter ought to take a keen interest in a ballot that includes fundamental changes to the 1951 City Charter, as we well as propositions intended to continue aquifer protection and extension of the city’s linear trailway system.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of citizens have dropped out of the process seems to me to be nothing less than a civic crisis, even if it isn’t regarded as such by government and society. I wonder: What would Willie think?

Note: The Friday signing event will be held at 6 p.m. at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, 103 9th St. on the Museum Reach. 

*Featured/top image: Willie Velasquez and President George H.W. Bush attend an hispanic voter registration campaign event. Photo courtesy of UTSA Libraries Special Collection.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.