Ten years after Mexican-American activist Willie Velasquez died, then-President Bill Clinton awarded him the posthumous honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, declaring: "No person in modern America who has run for public office wherever Hispanic Americans live has failed to feel the hand of Willie Velasquez. His appeal to the Hispanic community was simple, passionate and direct: “Su voto es su voz” (“Your vote is your voice”).
If the name doesn't ring a bell, don't feel bad. Unless you have a few Latino studies courses under your belt, Velasquez is another unsung American hero you've never heard of but should know.
For the anecdote about the presidential honor, we must thank Hector Galan, the producer and director of the new VOCES/PBS documentary "Willie Velasquez: Your Vote is Your Voice," which premiered last week and is available to stream free on the PBS website.
Galan, a longtime chronicler of Mexican-American history, takes viewers through a crash course on the long and still-in-progress road to Hispanic political empowerment through the story of Velasquez, who grew from a poor kid living in a barrio on the west side of San Antonio, Texas, to the leader of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. That organization became the nation's largest Hispanic voter registration effort at the time and helped increase the number of Hispanic elected officials in the U.S. by 82 percent between 1974 and 1987.