Page 6


Cisneros on \(Editor’s note: On a recent trip to San Antonio, we asked Mayor Henry Cisneros to share a few thoughts about Willie Velasquez. The following interview was conducted on June I I , a week before Observer: I wanted to ask you about Willie and some of your recollections about him. Cisneros: Well, Willie went to the same high school that I did, although I didn’t know him in high school. I guess my first knowledge of Willie was in the late 1960s. I was on the staff of the Model Cities program in 1969 and Willie was beginning to be active with MAYO and some of the other early Hispanic organizations in the area. And Willie was in the news, because at that time he was defining an ideology that was opposed by many in the more traditional Hispanic leadership. And so it was news. I have known Willie also because one of my best friends, Narciso Cano, is very close to Willie. So I knew him more then on a personal level as well. Then of course we all came to know Willie’s work through the Southwest Voter Registration project. And I have watched him intensify and bore in on the mission and [he] really has done a marvelous job of it. Has changed the politics of the country, pure and simple. Observer: Why the country? Why not just the Southwest? Cisneros: Because the Midwest Voter Registration Project in Chicago is a clone of the Southwest Project. And because people in the Puerto Rican and the Cuban community look at his efforts and chart them. . . . Because the Ford Foundation and other national organizations have Velasquez regarded this as the best of its kind and support it on the national scale. And because the politics of the Hispanic community is essentially national. When I go to St. Paul, Minnesota, and they take me to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, and when I go to Seattle and they’re running a council member there with a good chance to win, and when I go to Milwaukee and run into leaders of the Hispanic community on a very active basis there in the mayor’s office; it’s a national phenomenon. Observer: What about the specific impact on Texas? Cisneros: Well, of the 3,000 Hispanic elected officials in America, 1,500 of them are in Texas. And you would think that that would be odd, given Texas’s history over a long period, but it’s not an accident. It’s directly attributable to Willie’s leadership role. And Willie’s understanding that the incubators of power are the school board and the county commission and the city council and from there come the state representatives. And from there come the state Senators and the future Congressional leaders, etcetera. That strategies that focus simply around big macro politics fail to capture the importance of preparation and education and training and experience building. One only needs to look at the Dukakis strategy in the Presidential campaign to understand the role the Hispanic community plays in the Democratic Party primary today, and that is going to be evidenced in every election from now until forever. And it will only grow in importance and much of that is attributable to the voter registration and to the voter awareness dimensions of Willie’s work. erable potential in determining who will reside in the White House the next four years. FOLLOWING THE INITIAL success of the SVREP, Velasquez broadened the scope of the organization. The was created to work with Hispanic leaders on policy development. According to Velasquez, “Now that substantial numbers of Hispanics hold elected and appointed office [3,317 elected officials in five Southwestern states, as of April 1988], we must widen our horizon to include the important public policy questions facing the nation.” This includes both domestic and foreign relations issues. On the domestic front, the SVRI just released a study documenting the fact that the number of Hispanics falling below the poverty line increased dramatically during the first half of the 1980s. One in four Hispanics was poor in 1986, only slightly less than the rate among Blacks, and two and one-half times the proportion of whites. The SVRI report did not please Republicans as it documented that the increases in Hispanic poverty during the 1980s have been accompanied by decreasing effectiveness of anti-poverty programs. Cash benefit programs lifted some 13 percent of all poor Hispanic families out of poverty in 1979, but only eight percent in 1986. The most severe poverty and the most dramatic increases in poverty are found among children. In 1979, 28 percent of Hispanic children were poor. By 1985 the poverty rate for Hispanic children in families in general had increased to 40 percent, the highest level ever recorded. Two out of three Hispanic children living in female-headed households are poor. Quoting a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the SVRI noted that the median net worth of all Anglo households twelve times that of Black households median net worth of Anglos was $54,184, of Blacks, $13,061, and of Hispanics, $10,823. When the SVRI produces such studies and utilizes them in education workshops and programs for elected Hispanic officials, the result will be new public policy proposals supported by most of the 3,317 Hispanic officeholders local, state, and national elected officials. Willie Velasquez felt strongly that “because of its geographic proximity and a vast complex of cultural and economic ties, Latin America is the paramount foreign relations issue facing Hispanic leaders” in the U.S. To address Latin American policy Velasquez developed the Latin American Project. The goal of Willie’s most recent project is to develop, through a program of seminars, regional tours, polls, and publications, a large group of Hispanic leaders who will understand the key issues of U.S.-Latin American relations. The Latin American Project began in January with a two-week fact-finding trip to Nicaragua and Costa Rica for North American Hispanic leaders. Why Central America first a region considered by many to be too controversial for an organization like SVREP? The decision was made because “data from … SVRI exit polls consistently indicate that opposition to current U.S. policy in Central America is widespread among Hispanics in the U.S.” After returning from Central America, the delegation held a seminar at the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and reported their findings to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Velasquez’s goal for the Latin American Project is to compile polling data from U.S. Hispanics on Latin American issues and to establish working ties with Latin Americans to promote fair elections and political freedoms. Willie’s fundamental idea is to make polling and voter registration/ education techniques available to citizens of Latin American countries. Ruben Salazar once wrote that a Chicano is a Mexican American with a non-Anglo image of himself. This is a fitting description of Willie Velasquez. And, it is precisely because Willie remained a Chicano that he was so valuable as a Texan and U.S. citizen. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7