coming in and out. He was virtually holding court. We began to talk politics; we praised our favorite heros, denounced our favorite villains, and agreed to disagree on which was which. Throughout it all, his spirit seemed strong, although his body had clearly been wrecked by cancer. I remember him even praising his doctor, a generosity of spirit I would not have sustained at that moment. He seemed to be able to talk sensibly about his illness, so much so that I found it hard to accept the awful prognosis that he had less than six months to live. I thought maybe some of the medical strategies that were being attempted just might work. What was really remarkable about that day was Willie’s humor during those painful and difficult moments. At one point in the conversation, we began to talk about how difficult it was to be a Mexicano in the 1980s. The subject got around to child rearing. One of his daughter’s boyfriends came to the door. After he left, Willie remarked how he felt good about the situation as long as his daughter was going out with several young men and not getting serious about anyone in particular. He said, however, that he was going to be very severe about dress codes no earrings allowed for the young men. “Willie,” I said, chastened by my own experience with my 19-year-old daughter, “there is not a whole lot you can do about some of these situations. You really can’t control it.” “You can’t?” he inquired with mock seriousness. “No, you can’t,” I said. “Well,” he laughed, “it sure is tough to be a Mexicano these days.” Afterwards, we continued to talk politics. When I left I hoped that he might be O.K. The following Monday he was dead. When I heard the news, I thought back to the time when we were both young graduate students. Willie was at St. Mary’s; I was at U.T.-Austin. It was a heady time. During the 1960s the strike in Starr County at La Casita Farms generated a wave of activism among young, committed Mexicanos who formed assistance committees throughout the state. I accepted the quixotic task of heading up the statewide boycott for the United Farm Workers. Willie was one of the few people who I could really depend on. I grew to admire his heart and his guts in a word, his courage. One afternoon, Willie and I made an effort to clear out scab melons from a Piggly Wiggly food store in southwest San Antonio. When we approached the store manager with our proposal, he demanded that we immediately leave his property and threatened to call the police. We each took turns berating the young Mexicano assistant manager. \(I remember Willie being particularly effective in getting the young fellow’s goat by chiding him as to how he’d forgotten his roots just because he had a white-collar disgust. “Willie, I said, “I think the store manager called the police.” “Oh,” he said, “well, I guess we’d better wait for them.” We waited, but they never came. During this time we used to have many late-night discussions. We were both young and trying to figure out the most appropriate way to express our commitment to la causa. I would tell Willie about my plans for community organizations throughout the Southwest. He would tell me how he wanted every Mexicano to read Bernal Diaz de Castillo’s History of the Conquest of Mexico. I thought that would be grand, but I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to advance the struggle for justice. Looking back upon our naivete in those days makes me reflect on the wisdom of both our approaches. If Mexicanos wish to make significant contributions to the transformation of American culture and politics, they will have to have the security that comes with confidence in their own identity and history; otherwise far too much precious energy will be spent on matters of little consequence. Later, it was Willie’s turn to hire me. I went to work for him at the Mexican American Unity Council. He would often say that since I had hired him to work with the United Farm Workers and then he had hired me to work for M.A.U.C., we would both have difficult times working together because neither one of us knew who was the boss. But we somehow managed to move forward. I was always struck by Willie’s gumption. During a major statewide political race, an ally of his was revealed to have a less than heroic voting record on behalf of poor people. When the news broke, Willie publicly spoke out in outrage. I remember BY JOSE ANGEL GUTiERREZ ON JULY 11, Newsweek reported that Willie Velasquez, struggling to live within a diminishing budget, had cancelled life insurance policies of Southwest Voter staff members, including his own. That was in March. Three months later he died. Jose Villarreal, now a Dukakis aide, is quoted in the article saying, “That was Willie. . . . The cause was everything.” I disagree. That was not Willie. That was the organizer in Willie. That was not the cause. That was the price to pay for the cause. Some things don’t change. All of us Jose Angel Gutierrez lives in Houston where he is Director of the Texas Rural Legal Foundation. In 1967, Gutierrez, Willie Velasquez, Juan Patlan, Mario Compean, and Nacho Perez founded MAYO. congratulating him, but then asked him why he would risk alienating such an ally for his program. “Facts are facts,” he replied. There are more stories and reflections I can make about Willie Velasquez, but I guess the most important thing to say is that he tried to be a force for justice. Whether it was supporting a need for water systems, schools, health care, or voter registration drives, Willie paid his dues. He may have made some errors we were all pretty zealous at times. But we could not understand why the promise of American life was so slow in coming. We could not accept the low educational attainment level, the high infant mortality rates, the inadequate housing, the bad streets, the high unemployment rates, the low paying jobs and the lousy working conditions that poor people in general and Mexicanos in particular had to live with. If there was anything that Willie understood, it was the dignity of work and the importance of the family’s ability to sustain itself. Willie loved Father Hidalgo because he taught us to be proud to be Mexicanos. He deeply admired the Kennedys because they taught us that to be an American meant to be concerned about justice. He valued and respected and learned from those who had pioneered the movement for justice and dignity: Alberto Pena, Jr., Joe Bernal, Dr. Ramiro Casso, Cesar Chavez, Gilbert Padilla, the late Leo J. Leo and Franklin Garcia, and many others. He was an inspiration to young Mexicanos for his courage, his humor, and his mostly good sense. His loss has deeply saddened me, but I feel enriched in having known him. I will miss him greatly. who think of ourselves as organizers know that fringe benefits remain the fringe. When Willie and the other four of us teamed up to form the Mexican American Youth fringe benefits didn’t even make the list. There have not been, nor are there, wellpaid, well-“fringe-benefited” organizers, except the big names in IAF. The Industrial Areas Foundation pays their people well and provides excellent security and benefits. For some reason, organizers have yet to organize on their own behalf. Cesar Chavez and his organizers remain at the bottom of the pile. ACORN organizers qualify for foodstamps. Independent organizers are worse off; most of us never even hear of them by name. Organizers go along with the prevailing conventional wisdom that the economic package is not for us. The The Organizer’s Lot
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