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Late voting rights activist profiled in PBS documentary

Willie Velasquez founded Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project

SAN ANTONIO“Willie Velasquez: Your Vote is Your Voice,” a PBS documentary, chronicles the life and legacy of the voting rights activist whose life was cut short by illness at the age of 44.

Velasquez left behind the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, which was founded in 1974. In 1984, he established the Southwest Voter Research Institute, which was renamed the William C. Velasquez Institute after his death in 1988.

Given the number of Latino voters now registered, Lydia Camarillo, the vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, said she’s asked whether the time has come to end what Velasquez began.

“The day we close Southwest Voter is because our community is treated with respect and dignity. Our community has representation. Our community has a voice," Camarillo said.

Camarillo said the organization's work is still unfinished. She said its success must not be measured just by the number of voters registered. She said the consequences of their votes and what they’ve accomplished for the community also must be taken into consideration. 

The film comes as Latino voters are being courted by presidential candidates, while concerns persist about whether they will actually turn out to vote.

When asked what she thinks Velasquez would say, Geovanie Ordonez, the student government president at St. Mary’s University, said, “If you want change, you’ve got to be part of the change. You can’t just sit back. We can see that through the work he did.”

Last week, Ordonez led a voter registration drive on campus that resulted in more than 500 students being signed up.

As a millennial, Ordonez said, “We’re always told we don’t vote and sometimes told that we don’t care so much about politics.”

Velasquez’s eldest daughter, Carmen Velazquez, a student adviser at Palo Alto College, said her father would first ask them, “What’s your problem?”

Carmen Velazquez said he would want to know, “'Do you not understand the importance?' He would get mad. Then he would say, 'Okay, let’s talk.'”

Carmen Velasquez said her father would then try to educate them about how increasing their voting power wasn’t easy.

She said he would tell them, “Voting was never something that was given to us. We pretty much took it by storm.”