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Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice

Stream now or tune in Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Willie Velasquez, former head of the Southwest Voter Registration Project, at...

Credit: Courtesy of San Antonio Express-News file photo by Marianne Thomas

Above: Willie Velasquez, former head of the Southwest Voter Registration Project, at a San Antonio warehouse for voting machines.

Documentary Examines the Pioneering Activist Who Mobilized the Power of the Latino Vote

With his rallying cry of “su voto es su voz” (“your vote is your voice”), the Mexican-American activist Willie Velasquez launched a grassroots movement that forever changed the nation’s political landscape. Through his nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP), Velasquez launched over a thousand voter registration drives in 200 cities, creating a movement that has continued to grow in power each year.

“Today there are over 27 million eligible Latino voters,” said Sandie Viquez Pedlow, executive producer and executive director of Latino Public Broadcasting. “By encouraging Latinos to become invested in the democratic process by registering to vote, Willie Velasquez and SVREP paved the way for the continually increasing power of Latinos at the polls.”

Directed by Hector Galán (“Children of Giant”), “Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice,” a VOCES/PBS Election 2016 special narrated by Luis Valdez.

Trailer | Willie Velasquez: Your Vote is Your Voice

With his rallying cry of “SU VOTO ES SU VOZ," — your vote is your voice — Willie Velásquez started a grassroots movement that would change the nation’s political landscape and pave the way for the growing power of the Latino Vote. Aired: 10/02/16

“Willie Velasquez’s work brought millions of Latinos into the political process, both as voters and as candidates,” said filmmaker Hector Galán. “As we go through this current election cycle, it’s important to look back at how far the Latino electorate has come and how our vote continues to truly be our voice.”

Throughout American history, Latinos were often kept from the ballot box through the use of poll taxes, gerrymandering and outright intimidation. But drawing inspiration from the Civil Rights movement, Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement, and the protests against the war in Vietnam, Willie Velasquez’s Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP) would change the face of American politics by harnessing the power of the Latino vote in unprecedented ways.

A Mexican-American butcher’s son from San Antonio, Willie Velasquez’s political awakening came early. A dedicated student, Velasquez attended St. Mary’s University and spent two summers as a Congressional intern in Washington, D.C., working for San Antonio’s pioneering Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez.

Returning home, he became one of the founders of the Mexican-American Youth Organization (MAYO), a Chicano youth organization focused on improving educational opportunities. In the early 1970s, Willie marched with the leaders of the Chicano movement and became a key player in the formation of the Raza Unida Conference.

But after years of street protests and marches, Velasquez came to the realization that the only true path to empowerment would be to engage Latinos in the American political process. With the founding of SVREP in 1974, Willie Velasquez’s army of community organizers set out to register one million new voters.

The organization also challenged the remnants of Jim Crow and was at the forefront of several court actions against the gerrymandering of political districts and the practice of at-large voting in cities and counties, which often prevented the election of minority candidates.

Non-partisan, SVREP advised both parties on how to reach Latino voters, working with candidates from George H.W. Bush to Ted Kennedy.

Photo credit: Courtesy of George Velasquez

Willie Velasquez with Michael Dukakis at an event in San Antonio, Texas, circa 1980s.

SVREP’s unprecedented efforts resulted in the registration of millions of Latino voters and the numerous “get out the vote” efforts that still exist today. Latinos now make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and Latino voter turnout is projected to be between 13 to 16 million this year.

"PBS is delighted to be presenting this film" said Marie Nelson, Vice President, News and Public Affairs, PBS. "Willie Velasquez changed the face of American politics and his story is an important addition to our in-depth coverage of this election season."

“Willie Velasquez was a Mexican American civil rights pioneer who changed the local and national political landscape forever” said Joseph Tovares, chief content officer of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "His is a great American story that CPB is proud to support."

Photo credit: Courtesy of George Velasquez

Willie Velasquez speaking at a Southwest Voter Registration and Education Event in 1988.

In 1988, at the peak of his career, Willie Velasquez died suddenly of advanced kidney cancer. He was only 44 years old. In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“His name was William C. Velasquez, but everyone knew him as Willie,” said President Bill Clinton at the time. “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.”

Watch On Your Schedule:

This film is currently available to stream with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

Join The Conversation:

"Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice" is on Facebook. Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project is on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and you can follow @SuVotoEsSuVoz on Twitter.


A co-production of Galán Incorporated and Latino Public Broadcasting with major funding from the Corporation from Public Broadcasting. Presented by KLRU Austin and KLRN San Antonio.


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