On September 29, 1995, voting rights advocate Willie Velasquez is posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Velasquez and the organizations he founded are credited with dramatically increasing political awareness and participation among the Hispanic communities of the Southwestern United States.
The son of a union organizer, Velasquez was one of five founders of the Mexican-American Youth Organization, or MAYO. Beginning with voter registration drives and walkouts on college campuses around San Antonio, MAYO expanded to organizing high school students and even succeeded in electing several candidates to local school boards. Inspired by groups like the Black Panthers and leaders like Malcolm X, some of MAYO’s members went on to form the Raza Unida Party, a party that aimed to elect Hispanic candidates without relying on either the Republican or Democratic establishments.
Velasquez worked as a boycott coordinator for the United Farm Workers, a union that organized farm workers across the Southwest and drew national attention to their working conditions in the late 1960s. He then went to work for Raza before embarking upon the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in 1972. SVREP, whose motto was “Su vota, su voz” (Your vote is your voice), sought to address the poor voter turnout, voter apathy, and institutional disenfranchisement that affected the Hispanic-American community—Velasquez believed that the Hispanic community had much to learn from the civil rights movement and sought to address many of the same systemic issues as prominent leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though he would not live to see the full effects of his work—he died suddenly of cancer at the age of 44—Willie Velazquez certainly achieved his goal of activating the Hispanic electorate. Today, SVREP claims to have registered over 2.7 million voters, trained over 150,000 political activists, and won over 100 civil rights lawsuits. Though Hispanic voter turnout is often significantly lower than turnout among whites, it has risen sharply in recent decades, increasing tenfold from 1.3 million in the 1994 general election to 13.5 million in 2016. In his White House speech honoring Velasquez, then-President Bill Clinton called Willie “a name synonymous with democracy in America.”