Updated at 1:41 p.m.
Willie Velasquez grew up on San Antonio’s West Side, and learned early on that by empowering his fellow Latinos, they could bring change to their own neighborhoods.
In 1974, Velasquez founded the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and organized 1,000 voter drives across the Southwest. His efforts also more than doubled the number of Latino elected officials, from 1,500 in 1974 to 3,300 in 1988.
Velasquez died in 1988 at 44. Writer Bárbara Renaud Gonzalez has resurrected him in her new book, “Dear San Antonio, I’m Gone but not Lost. Letters to the World from your Voting Rights Hero Willie Velasquez on the Occasion of his Rebirth.” In the book geared towards young adults, Velasquez responds to God’s request to reflect upon his life.
Renaud Gonzalez said that Velasquez’s activism often drew the ire of more mainstream Latino politicians, including former San Antonio Congressman Henry B. González.
“(González) was basically a political god – demigod – of San Antonio. … He was a mentor of Willie Velasquez,” said Renaud Gonzalez. “Ultimately, they split. They had a difference of opinion. Willie was very caught up in the Chicano movement, calling himself a Chicano, involved in the farm worker struggle. Henry B. did not appreciate that.”
Renaud Gonzalez has hopes her book and the lessons Velasquez was trying to share with the Latino community will be embraced by teachers and students in Mexican-American studies courses.
She was recently talking to students at a San Antonio high school and was surprised to find they did not know about the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in voting.
“I cannot impress enough that our democracy fails or succeeds depending on how young people in the inner city schools understand democracy, understand voting,” said Renaud Gonzalez. “It’s essential. It’s tragic. Hopefully the story of Willie Velasquez … will give them a sense of purpose. We need to have meaning in our lives.”
Local release date is Oct. 28. National launch date is Nov. 2 at the Guadalupe Cultural Center.