Activist Who First Championed the Latino Vote Celebrated in New PBS Biopic

As November 8 looms large, PBS is taking a moment to celebrate the activism of a movement that could decide this election. 


"Su voto es su voz” (your vote is your voice), Mexican American activist Willie Velasquez once said. The San Antonio leader of a grassroots movement forever changed our American political landscape through his nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP). Now, his story is being retold through a new documentary, Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice, which airs on PBS on Oct. 3, 2016.

Velasquez is responsible for over 1000 voter registration drives in 200 cities and launching a nationwide political movement that continues to grow. 

Watch an exclusive clip from Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice:

“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."

Poll taxes and gerrymandering have both contributed to low voter turnout among Latinos throughout American history. But unlike immigrant groups before them, Latinos did not reap the benefits of political machines. 

"Tammany and its kindred organizations in immigrant-heavy cities would never win good government awards; their efforts were a main reason why voter participation—in an electorate restricted to white males—reached heights in the late 19th century that the nation hasn’t come close to since," according to the American Prospect

After attending St. Mary’s University, Velasquez spent two summers as a congressional intern in Washington, D.C., working for San Antonio’s pioneering congressman Henry B. Gonzalez.

He was inspired by the civil rights movement, Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement and the protests against the war in Vietnam to launch the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP) in 1974.

"From 1972 to July 1974, [Velasquez] concentrated his efforts on building the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP). Little notice was taken when Velasquez opened the doors to SVREP in 1974, seated on a folding chair; behind a small desk calling from a borrowed rotary telephone to spur Mexican Americans into politics," according to the William C. Velásquez Institute

The non-partisan SVREP's unprecedented “get out the vote," helped millions of Latinos get registered to vote; a project which continues in many ways today. 

In anticipation of the general election, PBS is celebrating the potential Latinos, 17 percent of the U.S. population, have on elections. 

“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." 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, by President Bill Clinton.

“His name was William C. Velasquez, but everyone knew him as Willie,” Clinton said. “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.”

“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.”

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