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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?” 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 [who] have begun to make their voices heard, as a cry, a plea, or a demand.” Amplifying those once-muted voices would become Velasquez’s life work. Born in 1944, he grew up on San Antonio’s West Side. Imagine Crystal City on a much larger scalea sprawling barrio of debilitating poverty, dilapidated housing, and deplorable schools, a lowlying terrain regularly pounded by killer floods. “The Velasquez house looked like it was built on stilts and still under construction;’ Juan Septilveda 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.” While studying at nearby St. Mary’s University, Velasquez was guided by a clutch of radicalizing faculty and sustained by intense interactions with student-activists Nacho Perez, Mario Compean, Juan Patlan, and Jose Angel Guitierrez. Once a diplomat-in-training, Willie started organizing for the United Farm Workers. With his compatriots, he then launched the Mexican Amerithe Mexican American Unity Counfound financial favor with the Ford Foundation. And disfavor with Representative Henry B. Gonzalez. In 1969, the local congressman lashed out at MAYO as “drawing fire from the deep wellsprings of hate,” a play Gutierrez 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 Velasquez, and ended up damaging everyone. Although a Ford representative wrote after meeting the clean-cut Velasquez and Gutierrez that “they really fit no stereotype of the raging dangerous militant,” the foundation cut off their funding. Movement bloodletting was just as insidious, and Sepulveda offers a detailed description of the incessant splintering of factions that consumed precious energy in the early 1970s; never as engage as Gutierrez, an out-flanked Velasquez 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 Velasquez’s fraught marriage to Janine Sarabia, Sepulveda, 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 Velasquez’s work situation had stabilized. He became lead organizer for the Citizen Voter Research Educathe “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, Velasquez 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 Velasquez 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 underfunded 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 Sepulveda, there was only so much they could give. Every in-house dispute or hostile press reportthere were plenty of eachcomplicated SVREP’s mission. No triumph was unalloyed. In the 198384 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 continued on page 30 7/30/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23