Shout Out

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 Lazarus’ chant democratic: the New Colossus, so unlike “the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land,†rises above “our sea-washed, sunset gates… a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is imprisoned lightning.†From that lofty “beacon-hand, Glows world-wide welcome†to the “wretched refuse.†Those whom the Old World spurned, those lacking privilege and place, were especially embraced: “‘Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she with silent lips.†For the homeless alone did Lady Liberty lift her “lamp beside the golden door.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, Lazarus’ poem tells only part of the story. Its 14 lines are framed for those voyaging from the east, an orientation that the statue’s siting reinforces—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. That’s of little consequence if, like Saul Steinberg’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 east—the region’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 Velásquez, 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 “at Ellis Island and are not European whites.â€

Their roots—physical, cultural, linguistic—reached back to different eras and geographies. Many of those for whom Velásquez labored “have been here for over four hundred years with deep emotional ties to the land,†and others migrated to cities whose names easily tripped off their native tongue—San Antonio, El Paso, and Albuquerque; San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco; this terrain served as “our ancestral homeland where Chicanos were formed as a race.â€

Yet this twist in the usual narration of the history of immigration in the United States, Velásquez vowed, did not disqualify Mexican Americans from pursuing the American Dream. “Whatever immigrant groups have done in the past, whatever has been their contribution, the Mexicans are going to do the same thing.â€

His death-bed oration remains relevant to this conservative age, our Counter Reformation. California’s Proposition 187, key to Governor Pete Wilson’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, he’s hapless). But Harvard don Samuel P. Huntington is not. His latest book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), may be cloaked in academese, but its nativist credo is blunt: The Hispanics are Coming! The Hispanics are Coming!

Willie Velásquez 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 emancipation—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 community’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 men—los cinco candidatos—ran as a slate for city council.

“As election day broke, Anglos’ resentment permeated the town,†Goodwyn wrote, and “a living hostility†erupted. The gas-station attendant who told him that “the Mexicans were trying to take over the town†shared the disdain for those whites dismissed as the “chili-belly, the garlic-eater, the spic, the greaser.†As voting commenced, a distraught woman confided to Goodwyn: “It’s disgusting to see them try to take this power. After the burden we’ve carried, supporting them… they pay no taxes and now they want it all.†When the polling places closed, and the final tabulation indicated that los cinco had swept into power, a blond-haired young man sputtered: “God damn Mexicans. What chance has a white man got?â€

Plenty. But Crystal City nonetheless seemed to toll the death knell for the old order; the town now stood, Goodwyn confirmed, at “the vanguard of a million mexicanos have begun to make their voices heard, as a cry, a plea, or a demand.â€

Amplifying those once-muted voices would become Velásquez’s life work. Born in 1944, he grew up on San Antonio’s West Side. Imagine Crystal City on a much larger scale—a sprawling barrio of debilitating poverty, dilapidated housing, and deplorable schools, a low-lying terrain regularly pounded by killer floods. “The Velásquez house looked like it was built on stilts and still under construction,†Juan Sepúlveda notes; to enter it, “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.†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 husband’s objections. But it was his male elders who schooled Willie in his future preoccupation. “My grandfather, my father, and my uncles would talk passionately and forever about politics of all kinds,†Willie remembered; “It wasn’t until I got into college that I found people who expressed as strong an interest in politics.â€

While studying at nearby St. Mary’s University, Velásquez was guided by a clutch of radicalizing faculty and sustained by intense interactions with student-activists Nacho Pérez, Mario Compeán, Juan Patlán, and José Angel Guitiérrez. 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. González. In 1969, the local congressman lashed out at MAYO as “drawing fire from the deep wellsprings of hate,†a play Gutiérrez fell for, shooting back that it alone would help the people “come together, resist, and eliminate the gringo.†The resultant brawl was ugly: It went national because of Gonzalez’s Capitol Hill bully pulpit, became personal when he unleashed a series of stinging attacks on Velásquez, and ended up damaging everyone. Although a Ford representative wrote after meeting the clean-cut Velásquez and Gutiérrez that “they really fit no stereotype of the raging dangerous militant,†the foundation cut off their funding.

Movement bloodletting was just as insidious, and Sepúlveda offers a detailed description of the incessant splintering of factions that consumed precious energy in the early 1970s; never as engagé as Gutiérrez, an out-flanked Velásquez 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 Velásquez’s fraught marriage to Janine Sarabia, Sepúlveda, 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 Velásquez’s work situation had stabilized. He became lead organizer for the Citizen Voter Research Education Project (CVREP), leaping back into the “hectic, workaholic world of Chicano politics,†a paycheck-to-paycheck life that despite its insecurities offered a “sense of moral superiority in a world where rampant self-interest†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, Velásquez was convinced, would give them a political stake, boost their standard of living, enhance their children’s prospects, and begin to fulfill the nation’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 Velásquez 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 Antonio’s rolls, SVREP could claim a share in Henry Cisneros’ 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 Sepúlveda, there was only so much they could give. Every in-house dispute or hostile press report—there were plenty of each—complicated SVREP’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 Reagan’s 1984 landslide.

Drained, Velasquez admitted that SVREP’s fiscal burdens “chipped away at my efficiency.†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. “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 ‘foreigners.’†Yet the ailing activist was optimistic. “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,†he insisted, recognizing that “It is the very firestorm of acrimony and contention that has transformed the rough iron of immigrants into the polished steel of leaders.â€

Forged in the American crucible, Velásquez emerged a national hero, Bill Clinton averred in 1995 while posthumously awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Willie “restored faith in our ideals and in ourselves,†and by his good and arduous labors “made this a greater country.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 Goodwyn’s “Los Cinco Candidatos.â€

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Published at 12:00 am CST