Texas is a far more democratic and progressive state today because of Willie and his voter registration project, his voter research institute and his Latin America Project. Norman Cousins, the eminent humanist, once said, “When it is darkest, the stars shine brightest.” Cousins also said that “No one person could possibly know enough to be a pessimist!” In a way, these lines describe Willie’s commitment to a life of political activism. At a time when many of us who had worked in the War on Poverty were becoming frustrated and pessimistic about the possibility of making the system more responsive, Willie let us know, through his actions, that we had no right to be pessimistic. We had a duty, obligation, and responsibility to be optimists and activists for change. Willie Velasquez spent his entire adult life taking on the status quo and challenging established elites, in an effort to force the United States to live up to its potential as a democratic nation. The goal remains unfulfilled. The way to honor Willie Velasquez is by working as optimistic activists for a more just and democratic society. In this way we honor, as he did, the best ideals of our nation. BY ERNESTO CORTES, JR. WILLIE VELASQUEZ was my friend. He was a man I worked with, argued with, fought with, respected. Willie made an enormous contribution to the quality of life in the Hispanic community of the Southwest. His achievements have been admirably eulogized by others; therefore I will make no effort to detail them other than to say that he was an enormously important and effective spokesperson for the interests of ordinary working people. Ernesto Cortes, Jr., is a member of the national staff of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Saul D. Minsky Institute. He supervises the I. A.F. projects in Texas. The Willie that I would like to reflect upon is the one that I knew over a 23-year period. When I first learned that Willie was seriously ill with cancer, I was of course stunned and dismayed. I finally got up the courage to go see him on Tuesday, June 7. As I made the drive from Austin to San Antonio, I was filled with anxiety. How was I going to say good-bye to someone I’ve known for so long? I imagined the tension, the pain in his home. I could feel the sorrow and grief that surely existed within his family. When I arrived that Tuesday afternoon I was taken aback. Everything about Willie seemed abnormally normal. He was his usual self, talking about politics. People kept Willie Velasquez, Beloved Friend Power and Responsibility BY JAMES C. HARRINGTON FEW PEOPLE in Texas changed state politics and the judiciary as much as Willie Velasquez. The Rio Grande Valley is a good example. When Willie started his work, virtually every school board, city and county commission, and most state representative seats were controlled by the Anglo establishment, even though the Valley is 82 percent Mexican American. The double hammer of single-member district litigation and aggressive voter registration turned that around so that now the school boards, government commissions, representatives, and judgeships reflect the population of the Valley, much more in keeping with the American ideal. The implications go further than that: the enhanced Mexican-American political power makes the election of populist Anglo statewide officeholders more possible than what one would generally expect of Texas. However, the most impressive thrust of Willie’s message, rather than being concerned solely with the dynamic of electoral power, had to do with electoral James C. Harrington is Legal Director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union. He lives in Austin. responsibility. Over and over again, Willie urged Hispanic voters to use their power not merely to elect Mexican Americans in the places won so hard from Anglo domination but to elect Mexican Americans who will excel. His message to Chicano politicians is the same: “We have to be different. We must show intelligence, compassion, and innovation as part of our leadership. It is not enough to be like the people we replace, using patronage for personal ambition. We must be better. Changing the skin complexion of officials is not enough; the community structures must be in place to keep the political leaders accountable. Willie saw a two-stage process. First comes the wresting of power through the ballot box. Then follows the slow process of grassroots organizing to fill those positions with the best possible persons who will work for the benefit of the Mexican-American community. The message is being heeded: the statehouse delegation from South Texas is one of the most respected in Texas; metropolitan areas like Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso have also chosen good legislators; and the caliber of the new generation of Hispanic judges in the Valley is high. The new leaders are not Mexican patrones being substituted for Anglo bosses. Rather they are articulate in foreign affairs \(opposing contra aid, for aggressive in diversifying opportunity throughout the state \(favoring equalized school financing and regional profesMany of these new leaders reflect a background like Willie’s: graduate-level education, participation in the La Raza Unida political movement and its subsequent integration in the Democratic Party, experience with the 1966-67 United Farm Workers’ Strike in La Casita Farms in Starr County. In fact, Willie’s dedication to farm workers led him to leave graduate school to help organize with Cesar Chavez’s troops. But more important than background alone are the values which Willie and the others bring forward dedication to enhancing the political power and participation of the Mexican-American community and the many, many years of effort to improve the lives of one of the economically poorest and culturally richest peoples of Texas. 8 JULY 29, 1988
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