Emma Lazarus, poet laureate of the steerage class, has top billing at the Statue of Liberty. Engraved on the base of the Mother of Exiles is her ode to those arriving in the New World, huddled below decks, sailing west to give slip to the past. Their hunger to escape historic inequities infused LazarusÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ chant democratic: the New Colossus, so unlike Ã¢â‚¬Å“the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land,Ã¢â‚¬ rises above Ã¢â‚¬Å“our sea-washed, sunset gates… a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is imprisoned lightning.Ã¢â‚¬ From that lofty Ã¢â‚¬Å“beacon-hand, Glows world-wide welcomeÃ¢â‚¬ to the Ã¢â‚¬Å“wretched refuse.Ã¢â‚¬ Those whom the Old World spurned, those lacking privilege and place, were especially embraced: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ã¢â‚¬ËœKeep ancient lands, your storied pomp!Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ cries she with silent lips.Ã¢â‚¬ For the homeless alone did Lady Liberty lift her Ã¢â‚¬Å“lamp beside the golden door.Ã¢â‚¬
Neither the door nor the streets were especially golden, as the millions passing through Ellis Island would discover soon enough. Yet for all its stirring imagery, LazarusÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ poem tells only part of the story. Its 14 lines are framed for those voyaging from the east, an orientation that the statueÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s siting reinforcesÃ¢â‚¬”it faces the Atlantic. It could do no other, of course, but that also means that its back is to New Jersey and all points west. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s of little consequence if, like Saul SteinbergÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s send-up of the map of the United States, you accept that there is nothing beyond the Hudson River. Yet those who live in fly-over country know that western colonization did not begin in the eastÃ¢â‚¬”the regionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s human history, especially in the southwest, is defined by earlier migrations north and south; the Spanish pushing up from Mexico collided with already resident farmers and hunter-gatherers, as well as migrating, horse-riding Plains Indians, and out of these complex cultural encounters have emerged a different set of questions about how to encapsulate the immigrant experience.
Its definition occupied Willie VelÃƒÂ¡squez, founder of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP), at the close of his too-short life in 1988. For 15 years he had roamed across the southwest to register new Mexican-American voters so that they could finally and fully participate in the democratic promise the Statue of Liberty embodied. The New Colossus had little immediate meaning for his constituents, however, because they did not arrive Ã¢â‚¬Å“at Ellis Island and are not European whites.Ã¢â‚¬
Their rootsÃ¢â‚¬”physical, cultural, linguisticÃ¢â‚¬”reached back to different eras and geographies. Many of those for whom VelÃƒÂ¡squez labored Ã¢â‚¬Å“have been here for over four hundred years with deep emotional ties to the land,Ã¢â‚¬ and others migrated to cities whose names easily tripped off their native tongueÃ¢â‚¬”San Antonio, El Paso, and Albuquerque; San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco; this terrain served as Ã¢â‚¬Å“our ancestral homeland where Chicanos were formed as a race.Ã¢â‚¬
Yet this twist in the usual narration of the history of immigration in the United States, VelÃƒÂ¡squez vowed, did not disqualify Mexican Americans from pursuing the American Dream. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Whatever immigrant groups have done in the past, whatever has been their contribution, the Mexicans are going to do the same thing.Ã¢â‚¬
His death-bed oration remains relevant to this conservative age, our Counter Reformation. CaliforniaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Proposition 187, key to Governor Pete WilsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s gubernatorial legacy and presidential ambitions, bans illegal immigrants from a host of public services, including education. Congressman Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) forever rides his anti-immigration hobby horse (happily, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hapless). But Harvard don Samuel P. Huntington is not. His latest book, Who Are We? The Challenges to AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s National Identity (2004), may be cloaked in academese, but its nativist credo is blunt: The Hispanics are Coming! The Hispanics are Coming!
Willie VelÃƒÂ¡squez would not have been surprised at the resurgence of these dark imaginings of a Brown Peril. No one who grew up in segregated south Texas would doubt the resilience of virulent racism. Still, it is dispiriting that anti-immigrant hostility has resurfaced, a disturbing reminder of a world we should have left behind.
Its days seemed numbered in 1963, when Observer editor Larry Goodwyn wrote an engrossing account of that pivotal moment in Mexican-American emancipationÃ¢â‚¬”the Crystal City elections. Mexicanos inhabited a dense barrio of unpaved streets and 1400 privies. When they could, parents sent their children to grossly substandard schools whose classrooms, hallways, and ballfields mirrored the larger communityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rigid social divides, debilitating economic inequalities, and monochromatic paternalism. Voter-registration drives, beginning in 1960, began to rattle the local elite, and in 1963 five Mexican-American menÃ¢â‚¬”los cinco candidatosÃ¢â‚¬”ran as a slate for city council.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“As election day broke, AnglosÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ resentment permeated the town,Ã¢â‚¬ Goodwyn wrote, and Ã¢â‚¬Å“a living hostilityÃ¢â‚¬ erupted. The gas-station attendant who told him that Ã¢â‚¬Å“the Mexicans were trying to take over the townÃ¢â‚¬ shared the disdain for those whites dismissed as the Ã¢â‚¬Å“chili-belly, the garlic-eater, the spic, the greaser.Ã¢â‚¬ As voting commenced, a distraught woman confided to Goodwyn: Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s disgusting to see them try to take this power. After the burden weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve carried, supporting them… they pay no taxes and now they want it all.Ã¢â‚¬ When the polling places closed, and the final tabulation indicated that los cinco had swept into power, a blond-haired young man sputtered: Ã¢â‚¬Å“God damn Mexicans. What chance has a white man got?Ã¢â‚¬
Plenty. But Crystal City nonetheless seemed to toll the death knell for the old order; the town now stood, Goodwyn confirmed, at Ã¢â‚¬Å“the vanguard of a million mexicanos have begun to make their voices heard, as a cry, a plea, or a demand.Ã¢â‚¬
Amplifying those once-muted voices would become VelÃƒÂ¡squezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s life work. Born in 1944, he grew up on San AntonioÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s West Side. Imagine Crystal City on a much larger scaleÃ¢â‚¬”a sprawling barrio of debilitating poverty, dilapidated housing, and deplorable schools, a low-lying terrain regularly pounded by killer floods. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The VelÃƒÂ¡squez house looked like it was built on stilts and still under construction,Ã¢â‚¬ Juan SepÃƒÂºlveda notes; to enter it, Ã¢â‚¬Å“one crossed a dusty yard and a tiny porch, unless it was raining, in which case visitors walked across boards that spanned the driveway… hoping not to fall onto the mud-caked grounds.Ã¢â‚¬ Its rough exterior was matched by its tempest-tossed interior, a family dynamic headed by a domineering father, irregularly employed and frequently unfaithful, and a self-sacrificing mother who fought to secure a better life for her children.
The key to their success, she believed, lay in the opportunities offered at a distant parochial school, to which she sent them over her husbandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s objections. But it was his male elders who schooled Willie in his future preoccupation. Ã¢â‚¬Å“My grandfather, my father, and my uncles would talk passionately and forever about politics of all kinds,Ã¢â‚¬ Willie remembered; Ã¢â‚¬Å“It wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t until I got into college that I found people who expressed as strong an interest in politics.Ã¢â‚¬
While studying at nearby St. MaryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s University, VelÃƒÂ¡squez was guided by a clutch of radicalizing faculty and sustained by intense interactions with student-activists Nacho PÃƒÂ©rez, Mario CompeÃƒÂ¡n, Juan PatlÃƒÂ¡n, and JosÃƒÂ© Angel GuitiÃƒÂ©rrez. Once a diplomat-in-training, Willie started organizing for the United Farm Workers. With his compatriots, he then launched the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) and the Mexican American Unity Council (MUAC), grassroots initiatives that found financial favor with the Ford Foundation. And disfavor with Representative Henry B. GonzÃƒÂ¡lez. In 1969, the local congressman lashed out at MAYO as Ã¢â‚¬Å“drawing fire from the deep wellsprings of hate,Ã¢â‚¬ a play GutiÃƒÂ©rrez fell for, shooting back that it alone would help the people Ã¢â‚¬Å“come together, resist, and eliminate the gringo.Ã¢â‚¬ The resultant brawl was ugly: It went national because of GonzalezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Capitol Hill bully pulpit, became personal when he unleashed a series of stinging attacks on VelÃƒÂ¡squez, and ended up damaging everyone. Although a Ford representative wrote after meeting the clean-cut VelÃƒÂ¡squez and GutiÃƒÂ©rrez that Ã¢â‚¬Å“they really fit no stereotype of the raging dangerous militant,Ã¢â‚¬ the foundation cut off their funding.
Movement bloodletting was just as insidious, and SepÃƒÂºlveda offers a detailed description of the incessant splintering of factions that consumed precious energy in the early 1970s; never as engagÃƒÂ© as GutiÃƒÂ©rrez, an out-flanked VelÃƒÂ¡squez would resign from MAYO, and spend the next several years seeking a new base. That frustration was of a piece with his troubled family life; in probing VelÃƒÂ¡squezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fraught marriage to Janine Sarabia, SepÃƒÂºlveda, who as an unpaid SVREP intern once lived with the family, brings to life an unstable domestic realm not unlike the household in which Willie had been raised. By 1973, at least VelÃƒÂ¡squezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s work situation had stabilized. He became lead organizer for the Citizen Voter Research Education Project (CVREP), leaping back into the Ã¢â‚¬Å“hectic, workaholic world of Chicano politics,Ã¢â‚¬ a paycheck-to-paycheck life that despite its insecurities offered a Ã¢â‚¬Å“sense of moral superiority in a world where rampant self-interestÃ¢â‚¬ reigned.
When the IRS refused to grant CVREP tax-exempt status, it dissolved, and Willie became the driving force behind SVREP, founded in early 1974. Its establishment marked a new stage in Mexican-American enfranchisement. Registering the dispossessed, VelÃƒÂ¡squez was convinced, would give them a political stake, boost their standard of living, enhance their childrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s prospects, and begin to fulfill the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s democratic commitment to the huddled masses.
Since then, his strategy has been largely upheld, but at the time that would have been tough to predict. As VelÃƒÂ¡squez set up his tiny San Antonio office, progressive Mexican-American politicians everywhere were being hammered at the polls. But Willie reasoned such disappointing defeats would be reversed if SVREP registered enough new voters. In 1981, after adding more than 40,000 to San AntonioÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rolls, SVREP could claim a share in Henry CisnerosÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ landmark mayoral victory. Su Voto Es Su Voz.
There were always more voices to liberate, but reaching them was difficult for the chronically under-staffed and under-funded SVREP. Its charismatic leader, for all his whirlwind activism, could only be in so many places; while he fed off the youthful enthusiasms of interns such as SepÃƒÂºlveda, there was only so much they could give. Every in-house dispute or hostile press reportÃ¢â‚¬”there were plenty of eachÃ¢â‚¬”complicated SVREPÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mission. No triumph was unalloyed. In the 1983-84 election cycle, SVREP sponsored 197 registration campaigns across 12 states, marshaling 7,170 volunteers to register more than 430,000 new Hispanic voters; yet that extraordinary accomplishment vanished beneath ReaganÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 1984 landslide.
Drained, Velasquez admitted that SVREPÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fiscal burdens Ã¢â‚¬Å“chipped away at my efficiency.Ã¢â‚¬ His body was part of the problem: In May 1988, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which by then had metastasized to his lungs and lymph nodes; he died on June 15, at 44.
A voluble man, Willie did not go quietly, and from his hospital bed spoke repeatedly about the Mexican-American legacy. Ã¢â‚¬Å“What we are seeing in the Southwest is only the most recent chapter in a long-running drama that is U.S. history. This quite simply is the way America has always treated Ã¢â‚¬Ëœforeigners.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬ Yet the ailing activist was optimistic. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The process has worked surprisingly well. What Mexicans are… enduring is what many other groups have already gone through. We are not asking for the process to be changed,Ã¢â‚¬ he insisted, recognizing that Ã¢â‚¬Å“It is the very firestorm of acrimony and contention that has transformed the rough iron of immigrants into the polished steel of leaders.Ã¢â‚¬
Forged in the American crucible, VelÃƒÂ¡squez emerged a national hero, Bill Clinton averred in 1995 while posthumously awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Willie Ã¢â‚¬Å“restored faith in our ideals and in ourselves,Ã¢â‚¬ and by his good and arduous labors Ã¢â‚¬Å“made this a greater country.Ã¢â‚¬
Contributing Writer Char Miller teaches at Trinity University and is editor of 50 Years of the Texas Observer. Due out in September, the volume contains a half-century of superb reporting, including Larry GoodwynÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“Los Cinco Candidatos.Ã¢â‚¬