Page 10


Willie Velasquez, 11440.14 “1-`? Mentor BY JUAN SEPULVEDA \(The following reminiscence of Willie Velasquez is adapted from the eulogy by Juan Sepulveda at Velasquez’s funeral June 18. Sepulveda made his remarks in the WHEN I FIRST found out your cancer was terminal, I didn’t know what to do. At first, I refused to believe it. It just wasn’t happening. It couldn’t happen! Then, I just cried and cried and cried. At the same time, a relentless train of memories and flashbacks began. It made me feel like I was in a complete daze. I needed to clear my mind so I went and shot some baskets. That didn’t help so I took a shower and decided to watch TV. I put on the local Spanish station, and they were having a special on Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Chicanos. When they got to the segment on Chicanos, they began by interviewing an elderly woman from Cuero, Texas. The reporter asked her to describe what she was doing. She said that she had never held a job outside her home; she had raised ten kids and 30 grandkids, but now she was out in the streets, going door-to-door registering people to vote. Why? the reporter asked. Because it was crucial in order to make sure her children and grandchildren could get a fair chance in society. I knew what was coming next “You know,” she said, “su voto es su voz.” Two seconds later, you were on the screen, talking from your office with that goofy old picture of Janie and the kids in the background. It was just too much for me. Watching that elderly woman speak those words with a fire in her eyes made me recall those countless times I saw that same expression and heard those identical words as I travelled with you to different parts of the Southwest. It sparked various emotions in me. Part of me was so proud to see your influence empowering people and part of me was burning up and aching with pain from the fact that you wouldn’t be able to do this much longer. Anyway, back to the flashbacks. I still remember the first time we spent time alone together. It was my freshman year at Harvard and you were teaching a course in Southwestern politics at the Kennedy Juan Sepulveda is pursuing a law degree at Stanford University. School. We met at a Chicano student’s group meeting that you spoke at. You asked me if I wanted to get together for brunch. Being the sophisticated 18-year-old from Topeka, Kansas, that I was, I asked you what brunch was. You told me it was a concept created by rich Anglos who couldn’t decide whether to have breakfast or lunch. Anyway, we got together for brunch. We went to a small Parisian-style cafe in Harvard Square. From the exterior, I had a funny feeling I wasn’t going to be ordering Fruit Loops. Croissants, you said, when we Walked in, is what I should try. Cross what? Is this what they eat in Texas? Or, is it just for those Tejanos who teach at Harvard? We net for brunch and talked about everything in the world. Well, we talked and talked about everything in the world. This was also the first of a number of conversations we would have that included a discussion of the Aztecs and British prime ministers. What a combination! I guess that’s kind of like Texas and croissants. You told me that if I ever wanted to work with Southwest Voter just to write you a letter. One year later, I did. The only problem was that you didn’t have the money to hire me for the summer. I was determined to get to Texas, so I raised the funds and you thought that my initiative was great, so you made the mistake of inviting me to live at your home. The school year ended and now it was time to go to Texas. There were a number of questions I didn’t have answers for. I knew you had a family, but what would they be like? I’ll never forget that first weekend in Texas. My parents drove me down and I met the Velasquez family. Janie, Carmen, Cata, Guillermo, Grandma, a scraggly little mutt called Foxy. We also went to your looking forward to eating your fajitas and decided not to munch on any snacks. Janie told me that this was a bad strategy, as it would be hours before the famous Willie Velasquez fajitas would be ready. She was right. I was also conned into playing Risk, a game you and your brothers played occasionally. I knew I was in trouble when you told me that the Velasquez family played by its own rules. Needless to say, I had been in Texas for less than a few days, but something just felt special; even punching on Guillermo felt good. You know, Willie, the reason I am boring you with all these memories is that I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to have lived with you and the family. Most of us who have worked at Southwest Voter have felt that the job was more than a 9-to-5 situation. You learned to carry your commitment everywhere you went. For myself, it became an obsession, a 24-hour-a-day world view. I shared moments with you and the family that I wish all your friends could have experienced. Not only did I work with you, I ate with you, I stayed up with you to all hours of the night talking about all the mysteries of life. I laughed with you, I shared with you, I waited in the mornings for you as Janie struggled to wake you up. I grew to love you. ISAT IN YOUR huge chair, listened to some of your classical music and pondered about what the large areas were that made me think of you. I came up with at least three. First was the importance of political participation and your love for a local politics orientation. The TV program I mentioned earlier about the grandmother who was now pounding the streets is typical of the tremendous impact you had on political participation. These people seemed brainwashed in a certain sense: get the streets paved, fix the sewage system, fight for better schools; somehow I get the feeling that I’ve heard these words many times before. But in traveling with you to different areas and regional planning committees, I saw firsthand what political scientists cannot quantify: workingand lower-class people who were politically astute. They did not lack political sophistication. Just because they weren’t necessarily ready to give up their lives for issues that didn’t affect them that they would merely sit around and allow their schools or communities to be destroyed. A second important area was your vision THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11