Willie Velásquez: Your Vote is Your Voice, A New Documentary Revisits Struggle to Overcome Voter Suppression

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Willie Velasquez, standing beside a voting booth, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, by President Bill Clinton.
Willie Velasquez, standing beside a voting booth, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, by President Bill Clinton.
Southwest Voter Registratio Education Project Collection

Much has been said about the growing political clout among Latino Americans. With over 27 million eligible to vote in the United States, it’s almost a given that the 2016 presidential election will be won or lost, based on Latino turnout on Election Day. Although it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Latinos carried no political weight whatsoever.

Renowned filmmaker Hector Galán remembers those days. As a boy growing up in San Angelo, Texas, he recalls how voter suppression in the Mexican American community was common practice.

“In those days, you voted the way the people in charge told you to vote,” Galán explains. “If you didn’t, you would lose your job. A lot of ranch owners would say, ‘Look Juanito, you’re going to vote this way and you’re going to get your family to vote this way.’ Not only that, they had Texas Rangers to intimidate you, so you weren’t about to risk voting any other way except the way they told you. We struggled to have representation.”

Onto the scene came Willie Velásquez, the Mexican-American son of a butcher. Perhaps not as familiar a name as Cesar Chávez, Velásquez was a leader in the Chicano Movement who believed that the only power was in having a vote.

He is the subject of “Willie Velásquez: Your Vote is Your Voice,” a new one-hour documentary from Galán Production, Inc and Latino Public Broadcasting presented by KLRU and KRLN for PBS, scheduled to air October 3.

Born in 1944, William C. Velásquez helped found the Mexican American Youth Organization and joined Cesar Chavez’ cause as a boycott coordinator for the United Farm Workers, organizing strikes in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He worked, too, to improve education opportunities for Latinos.

“Willie grew up in the south at a time when the country was in upheaval,” Galán observes. “It was the time of the Vietnam War, the war on poverty, and the Civil Rights Movement, which helped to inspire the Chicano Movement. We wanted a voice and Willie realized that true change comes in the battleground.”

In 1974, Velásquez started the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the largest, non-partisan Latino voter drive, with a goal of registering one million Latinos.

“Willie would ask, who are we and what do we want,” explains Galán. “He started with a card table and an empty room, and began combing the phone book for Latino names. He recruited volunteers who started canvassing, knocking on doors and collecting data. They also collected exit-polling data, which nobody had done before.”

In 1988, at the age of 44, Velásquez was diagnosed with terminal cancer, just as he was preparing to begin work on the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign. He died within weeks.

“Everyone freaked out,” says Galán. “He had been sick but he never took care of himself. He was on the go so much. Michael Dukakis probably would have won, had Willie been involved in his campaign.”

Telling Velásquez’ story was a particularly personal journey for Galán.

“This documentary is special to me because I lived it,” asserts Galán who in 1983 had the opportunity to interview Velásquez. “I was part of that time period so it’s like I’m telling my story. I want people to know where the power of the Latino vote came from and what it took to have this honor. That is the most powerful thing you have in your hands. Willie was afraid young people wouldn’t exercise their right to vote and have their voice heard, and he was afraid that they’d let it slip away.”

The Willie Velásquez documentary is part of a full PBS lineup of election specials.

“We have a very robust election season strategy in which we’re bringing content from various producers to our schedule,” says Pamela A. Aguilar, director of programming and development at PBS. “Hector makes films with rich archive and interviews, but in the end what matters is the engagement and how we get people talking about these subjects. As a conversation starter, the Willie Velásquez story is powerful and there are certainly parallels to today that will resonate.”

Galán, who is a prolific documentarian and has won countless awards for his work, sees himself as little more than a microphone. He admits to having had some trepidation in profiling Velásquez.

“What I’ve gathered through the years as a filmmaker is that I can share, as a microphone, and tell these stories,” he explains. “Willie was a very outgoing and committed man, yet I have a fear of turning him into a saint. There’s always that danger in death to say, ‘Oh they were the greatest.’ But this guy was for real and his health paid for it. If I inspire through stories like Willie’s, then I think I’ve done my job, especially in telling Latinos about their own history. It makes me proud.”

Independent filmmaker, Hector Galan, has produced more than 40 hours of programming for PBS.
Independent filmmaker, Hector Galan, has produced more than 40 hours of programming for PBS.
Patrick Zimmerman

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