SAN ANTONIO – If there a cause to be won or a fight to be fought, it seems Willie Velasquez was there.
In his 44 years of life, the boy his family knew as Billy, then Bill, would go on to champion voting rights for Mexican-Americans or Chicanos as many preferred, at the height of the civil rights era.
Yet for two of his younger siblings, sister Stella Velasquez Aguilar and brother George Velasquez, he was their big brother.
“He was always a protector, always a protector,” said Aguilar, like the time he showed her an apple and an orange, “So that I could learn to speak English and not have problems that he went through in the first grade.”
For George Velasquez, he said, “Willie was my Google.”
Velasquez said when they were kids, their church group went to New Braunfels to swim.
But Velasquez said to their dismay, “The park prohibited blacks or dark-skinned Mexicans to go in.”
Yet his older brother, who was lighter-skinned, stayed back with the other deeply disappointed children.
“As soon as we got back home, he checked with my uncles,” Velasquez said. “What’s going on? How can this be?”
He said the “elders,” as they were called, had all served in World War II, yet faced discrimination when they returned.
“They told us about the struggles,” Velasquez said, paying poll taxes to vote, the redlining restricting where they could live, and other discriminatory practices.
He said his older brother also read and learned about the realities of the world around them.
Velasquez said the family saw their father, a union leader at a meat packing plant, struggle to support his family living in their humble home on the West Side of San Antonio that often flooded when the creek rose.
Yet Velasquez said he and his siblings, including Willie, would pitch in, working whatever jobs they could, even at the meatpacking plant like their father.
“I think Willie held all of those events in his memory,” Aguilar said.
Spurred on by what he’d experienced and to push for change, Velasquez helped create the Mexican American Youth Organization at St. Mary’s University.
Eventually, Velasquez created the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, which will mark its 50th anniversary in 2024.
In 1995, his mother was there as Velasquez was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful feeling, so that he’d never be forgotten,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar said she will always remember her brother whose family always came first.
“He was humble, but he was very strong, strong willed,” she said.
“The voting is the power,” Velasquez said he remembers his brother telling him, “We have to vote.”
It was that message that George Velasquez conveyed in the corrido he wrote soon after his brother died.
“Era Willie que decia, su voto, su voto es su voz,” the corrido says. “It was Willie who’d say, your vote, your vote is your voice.”
You can listen to the corrido below: