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OBITUARIES : Willie Velasquez; Leader of Latino Political Movement

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Times Staff Writer

Willie Velasquez, a butcher’s son who significantly lengthened the stride of the Latino political power movement, died in San Antonio on Wednesday.

The founder of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the nation’s largest Latino-oriented voter registration program, was 44 and had been battling cancer.

A veteran of Cesar Chavez’s campaign in the 1960s to organize farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley, Velasquez moved from the fields of the Southwest to its polling places when he founded the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in 1974.

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Although Velasquez would go on to lecture at Harvard University and become a devotee of the works of British prime ministers, he remained proudest of persuading his fellow Latinos to take political power into their own hands.

He accomplished this, he liked to say, by talking the merits of “pavement.”

“When we got Mexican-American candidates saying, ‘Vote for me and I’ll pave the streets,’ he told Newsweek in 1987, “that’s when the revolution started.”

For 14 years, he cajoled, lobbied and prodded his fellow Mexican-Americans into entering the system by registering to vote and running for office.

Under his guidance, the project launched about 1,000 voter registration drives in 200 cities and Indian reservations and conducted extensive polling, a spokesman said.

“What we’re most proud of is that from 1974, when we started, to 1987, the number of Hispanic elected officials in the United States grew from 1,566 to 3,038, an increase of 82%,” the spokesman added.

Velasquez’s group also was at the forefront of several court actions that banned the gerrymandering of political districts and at-large voting in cities and counties that prevented the election of minority candidates.

Following the project’s successes in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, Velasquez’s organization was training its sights on California, where as of a year ago Latinos held only 466 offices throughout the state.

The project also launched a state voter registration drive that resulted in the registration of 6,000 Latinos in the East Los Angeles area alone.

Most recently, said Bob Brischetto, executive director of the Southwest Voter Research Institute, a branch of Velasquez’s project, Velasquez was considering a staff advisory post with the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign.

Velasquez was also planning a book on the political and social evolution of Latinos in the United States.

Velasquez, a San Antonio native, was a leader of a Latino political party, La Raza Unida, that was active in the Southwest during the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

He led a farm workers’ strike, along with farm worker leader Chavez, in south Texas in 1968. Thirteen years later, he was teaching a course on Southwestern politics at Harvard.

“We’re going to carry on what Willie started,” Brischetto said. “I think we have a clear mandate that he left us with, and we’re not going to stop. His whole career was devoted to his work to empower minorities.”

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