The Southwest Voter Research Institute’s Latin America Project: A Vehicle for Latino Empowerment

By: Michael Gray

Department of History, The University of Texas at San Antonio


William Velásquez died at forty-four. Even though he had a short life, he profoundly impacted American democracy and the advancement of Latino rights. As Bill Clinton said when he posthumously awarded Velásquez the presidential Medal of Freedom, “No person who has run for public office, wherever Hispanic Americans live, has failed to feel the hand of Willie Velásquez at work…Willie is now a name synonymous with democracy in America.”[1] Throughout Velásquez’s short career, he founded, co-founded, and led multiple Latino organizations to pursue his ultimate goals, the empowerment of his community, the advancement of working-class people, and the strengthening of American democracy. Velásquez spent his career pushing the message Su Voto Es Su Voz, your vote is your voice. That message became the official slogan of his most influential creation, the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP.)

Velásquez created SVREP to remove the barriers preventing Latinos from fully participating in the US democratic system and organized those Latinos through voter registration drives to become a powerful electorate. After witnessing a massive rise in Latino electoral participation and representation in government over the first decade of SVREP’s existence, Velásquez felt it was time to expand his organization’s aims. Despite Latino’s gains in other areas, Velásquez thought that Latinos lacked a voice in shaping the US’s foreign policy. In 1987, Velásquez created the Southwest Voter Research Institute’s (SVRI) Latin America Project (LAP) to address Latinos lack of voice by mobilizing them on foreign policy issues. The LAP used the Reagan and Bush administration’s support for the Contras in Nicaragua and the El Salvadoran military’s fight against the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) as a focal point to galvanize Latinos in foreign policy.  Velásquez’s decision to form the LAP raises the question: why did a Latino organizer known for his voter registration drives engage in foreign policy debates? If Velásquez’s goal was to empower the Latino community, how did the LAP serve this agenda? 

Understanding the LAP without discussing Velásquez’s life and vision is almost impossible.  Velásquez spent his activist career empowering Latino and working-class people; the LAP was another tool for advancing that agenda. During Velásquez’s time with Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), he centered his efforts on education reform for the Latino community. Velásquez moved on to empowering Latinos at the ballot box by forming SVREP. SVREP’s massive success in registering Latino voters and the corresponding rise in elected officials only made Velásquez hungrier for new opportunities. MAYO and SVREP built Latino power, but SVRI and the LAP enabled them to use that power. Velásquez never got to see the heights of success the LAP reached in the 1990s, but his vision for the organization continued to guide it under the leadership of his successors. This project argues that Velásquez’s primary motivation for creating the LAP was his lifelong vision of Latino empowerment. Despite the Latino community’s gains in political representation, they were still being left out of the shaping of foreign policy. Velásquez was confident that the Latino community opposed the U.S.’s policies in Central America and that he could use that issue to engage them in foreign policy. 


This research paper contributes to the expanding scholarship on the Latin American Solidarity movement by examining how Latinos linked their struggle for social justice and political rights to their counterparts in Central America. This work is based on research conducted at UTSA’s Southwest Voter Registration Education Project 1974-1994 archives, a resource that holds SVREP, SVRI, and the LAP’s records. This essay focuses on Velásquez’s vision for Latino empowerment, his activist career, and the LAP’s activities up to 1990. Additionally, a brief section before the conclusion discusses former SVREP president Antonio Gonzalez’s writings about his perceptions of the LAP’s organizing that stretches into 1994.

William Velásquez and MAYO

William Velásquez cofounded his first organization in 1967, when he and four associates, Jose Angel Gutierrez, Mario Compean, Ignacio Perez, and Juan Patlan (Los Cincos), started the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) as part of the Chicanx movement.[2] The Chicanx movement was a social/political movement that emerged in the 1960s; it was led by young Mexican-Americans that challenged the U.S.’s structural racism, embraced a Chicanx identity, promoted Mexican culture, and advocated for the general empowerment of the Chicanx community. Activists chose to identify as Chicanx rather than Mexican-American to emphasize pride in their identity and as a rejection of the calls to assimilate into U.S. culture at the expense of their traditions.[3] During his time with MAYO, Velásquez began to articulate his vision for Latino empowerment.

MAYO’s main influences came from within the Latino community and signaled the first signs of Velásquez’s concern for working-class people. MAYO was most directly inspired by the United Farm Workers (UFW) strikes led by Cesar Chavez.[4] Organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American G.I. Forum influenced MAYO and created opportunities for the Latino community after WWII by organizing against segregation and discrimination at the ballot box, but Los Cincos were dissatisfied with their leadership.[5] Los Cincos saw previous organizations as indifferent to the plight of working-class Latinos and thought Chavez’s mass mobilization of farmworkers against their Anglo employers was a more inspiring model.[6]           

The Chicanx community’s socio-economic situation in the 1960s led Los Cincos to make economic reform a major part of MAYO’s agenda. While poverty in the Chicanx community declined in the 1960s, 24% of people with Spanish surnames still lived below the poverty line. The Chicanx middle-class was on the rise, but racial discrimination precluded them from rising to the level of Anglos.[7] MAYO categorically denied that it was a communist organization, but Marxism influenced its ideology, and it developed a quasi-anti-capitalist doctrine that sought to overturn the Anglo-dominated economic system that impoverished Latinos.[8] Velásquez demonstrated his commitment to including working-class Latinos in 1968 when he organized the third La Raza Unida conference. Velásquez mandated that all the moderators and coordinators for the conference come from the barrios.[9] Velásquez maintained his preference for the poor until his death and carried that principle with him when he started the LAP.

Los Cincos were particularly concerned with education reform; they believed that the racism of the Southwest created a school system that left Chicanxs unprepared to
succeed in American society.[10] MAYO demanded that the US reform its education system by: ending de facto segregation, hiring more Chicanx educators, acknowledging that Mexican language and culture were equal to Anglo’s, and increasing opportunities for Chicanx students in higher education.[11] MAYO coordinated 39 student walkouts and boycotts to fight for their demands, the most of any Chicanx group in the period.[12] Velásquez maintained his commitment to Latino education throughout his career; it was an essential element of his later projects.

Although Los Cincos shared enough values to form MAYO, Velásquez’s divergent vision for Latino empowerment led to his departure from the organization. The other four members of Los Cincos singled out the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers as the most significant non-Chicanx influences on MAYO.[13] Velásquez’s disagreements with his peers over tactics indicate that the Black Panthers were not the model for his vision. Velásquez thought that the more radical tactics employed by MAYO, like its confrontational rhetoric and militancy, were counterproductive. Velásquez argued they should focus on working with, rather than antagonizing, moderate Latinos to organize voter registration drives.[14] Velásquez also opposed Gutierrez and Compean’s plan to form a Chicanx third party and proposed that it would be more effective to work with the Democrats.[15] All of Los Cincos wanted to empower the Latino community, but as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, they worked towards the same goal on different paths.

SVREP: Building Latino Power Through the Ballot Box

Velásquez resigned from MAYO in 1971 and moved forward with his plan to focus on voter registration drives in 1974 when he founded SVREP.[16] During Velásquez’s time with MAYO, he fostered relationships with members of the African-American civil rights organization the Voter Education Project (VEP), whose voter registration model was the basis for SVREP.[17] Velásquez created SVREP as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, which precluded officially partisan organizing, and received guidance from VEP’s leadership on the process.[18] Velásquez served as president of SVREP from its inception till his death, with a few small gaps, and his ideology defined the organization.[19]  

SVREP’s initial challenge was to engage the Latino community in electoral politics and remove the last institutional barriers that disenfranchised them. By 1974, many of the institutional obstacles that limited Latino electoral participation were eliminated through the efforts of the Latino Civil Rights and Chicanx movements. Still, electoral practices like at large election systems, racially driven gerrymandering, and restrictive voter registration procedures remained and limited Latino participation.[20] The other major problem that SVREP had to address was the abysmal electoral participation rates among Latinos.[21] A fully mobilized Latino electorate had the power to swing elections across the Southwest, and Velásquez wanted to mobilize them. Between 1974 and 1984, SVREP organized over 500 voter registration drives in seven states and litigated over 80 cases against discriminatory electoral systems.[22]

SVREP consciously kept a low public profile during its early years, but the success of its registration drives meant that by 1980 it could no longer remain invisible. Initially, SVREP accepted virtually all requests to aid voter registration drives, but by 1980 it became overwhelmed with more requests than it could respond to.[23] SVREP maintained relationships with Democratic officials throughout the 1970s, but their reputation as a premier organization for information on the Latino community had Republicans like Lee Atwater and Vice-President George Bush Sr. seeking their advice.[24] Keeping a low profile was no longer an option for SVREP, and the organization expanded the scope of its activities over the 1980s.

Velásquez’s anguish over the rise of the New Right and the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 was another major motivation for expanding SVREP. Velásquez was deeply troubled by Reagan’s victory and viewed him as a threat to the gains won by Latinos over the preceding decades. Velásquez had good reasons for concern; the 1980s saw the return of the English Only Movement, and SVREP finally began to receive the backlash from the Anglo press that they consciously tried to avoid.[25] Velásquez felt the Latino community agreed with his progressive views, and their inclusion in the democratic process would moderate the U.S.’s economic policies and uplift the working class.[26] The Reagan administration’s plan to cut welfare, reduce government spending, and deregulate the economy was antithetical to Velásquez’s vision for the United States.

While Velásquez viewed Reagan’s victory as a disaster, it was also an opportunity. Liberal foundations poured funds into organizations whose efforts undermined Reagan’s chances in 1984, and SVREP was a recipient of that funding.[27] SVREP spent its first ten years focusing on local elections, but Velásquez concluded that the organization needed to think bigger. SVREP never abandoned local initiatives, but Velásquez knew that Latinos could not solve problems like unemployment or immigration reform at the local level.[28] SVREP’s voter registration campaign in the 1983-1984 election cycle dwarfed all its previous drives and signaled the organization’s rising stature.

SVREP’s efforts in the 1984 election demonstrate that while it was ostensibly a non-partisan organization, its leader’s politics were left of center and that its efforts benefitted the Democratic party. SVREPs 1984 election registration drive is a clear example of how a non-partisan organization can target its campaigns to benefit a particular political party without violating its 501(c)(3) status. In 1983, SVREP started its first national voter registration drive after exporting its model to mid-west and northeastern Latinos.[29] While Velásquez exported SVREP’s registration model to Latinos across the U.S., he consciously avoided organizing Florida’s Cuban community because any efforts there would benefit the Reagan campaign.[30] While SVREP’s organizing always remained officially non-partisan Velásquez’s years of experience as an organizer taught him how to target its efforts towards partisan goals.

SVREP’s national registration drive failed to stop the re-election of Reagan, but it was a success in many other regards. SVREP hoped to register 680,000 Latino voters but only achieved 430,000.[31] The Ad Hoc Funders’ Committee’s 1983-1984 Interface report recognized SVREP as the country’s most significant voter registration organization.[32] While SVREP massively undershot its projections, it gained experience exporting its registration model to the national Latino community, experience that it later used in the LAP.

For its first ten years, SVREP’s organizing efforts centered on building the power of the Latino community; with its strength now established, it expanded its efforts to hold politicians accountable to that power. Velásquez was concerned that even though the Latino electorate was increasing in size, they were still being taken for granted by their representatives. Velásquez was also frustrated by Latino politicians who got into office on the back of their community’s support, who, once elected, continued to represent the interests of the Anglo politicians they just replaced. SVREP wanted to empower the Latino community and promote the progressive politicians that represented their interests.[33] Velásquez concluded that SVREP needed a dedicated research wing to quantify the Latino perspective on policies so they could use that information to lobby politicians.[34] To achieve that end, Velásquez founded SVRI in 1985. SVRI conducted polls and surveys of Latino policy preferences and used the results to lobby their representatives to legislate according to their demands.[35] The 1983-1984 registration drive and the formation of SVRI demonstrate Velásquez’s lack of complacency; he was always searching for the next opportunity to empower Latinos.

The Central American Solidarity Movement and the Institutionalization of Latino Power

While Velásquez focused on expanding SVREP in the early 1980s, he also became interested in the U.S.’s role in the wars engulfing Central America. In El Salvador, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was fighting a guerilla campaign against the U.S.’s allies in the military.[36] In Nicaragua, the Central Intelligence Agencies (CIA) backed Contras forces who carried out a terrorist campaign against the reformist Sandinista government.[37] Velásquez believed that the U.S.’s foreign policy in Central America undermined the moral authority of the nation and sought to mobilize Southwestern Latinos to develop a more humane alternative.[38]

The State Department’s policies towards Nicaragua and El Salvador over the 20th century are defined by consistent support, through military and economic aid, for authoritarian rulers that protected the U.S.’s strategic and financial interests in the region. While the US was backing the Contras in the 1980s its support for right-wing forces in Nicaragua went back much further. The US occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 and created the Guardia Nacional to promote internal stability, with Anastasio Somoza García as its head.  The U.S. intended the Guardia Nacional to be an apolitical police force without anticipating that Somoza would seize power for himself, turning Nicaragua into his own personal fiefdom with the backing of his own personal army.[39] El Salvador was ruled by “the fourteen families” and their collaborators in the military for a century by the 1980s but became dependent on U.S. aid later than Somoza.[40] During the Kennedy administration, El Salvador was the largest recipient of Alliance for Progress funds of any Central American Nation.[41] The Kennedy administration created the Alliance for Progress to improve the lives of the impoverished masses of Central America through economic reforms with the hope of creating long-term stability and a country free of Communists.[42] Predictably, the military elite complex used the program’s funds to advance their financial interests, further exacerbating the conditions that engendered poverty.[43] While policymakers were often uncomfortable with the despotism of their Central American allies, the State Department supported the Somoza and El Salvadoran regimes to protect the U.S.’s interests.[44]

The biases of Anglo policymakers towards Latinos influenced the creation of policies that supported authoritarian regimes and repeatedly resulted in unforeseen consequences. The Eisenhower and Truman administrations conducted assessments to determine why Central American countries constantly suffered from instability; they concluded that economic inequality and an alliance between elites and military officials led to horrible conditions for large swaths of the population that inevitably resulted in revolution.[45] After each report, policymakers determined that the only path forward was to continue supporting authoritarian leaders like Somoza to protect the U.S. interests in the region.[46] U.S. policymakers justified their support for dictators by arguing that Latino people were culturally inferior to Anglos and incapable of managing their affairs under a democratic government.[47] U.S. officials thought they could manage and improve conditions in Central America through their support for military strongmen, but they repeatedly misjudged their allies, as Somoza’s seizure of power and the El Salvadoran’s pilfering of the Alliance for Progress funds clearly demonstrated.[48]

Velásquez saw an opportunity to correct the folly of U.S. policymaking in Central America by supporting the FSLN and FMLN. The FSLN and FMLN both started as broad coalition guerrilla movements that sought to overthrow the dictatorial regimes in their respective countries. Although both organizations included groups from across the political spectrum, they also included Marxist-Leninists, making them prime targets for Cold Warriors in the State Department.[49] The Sandinistas took over Nicaragua in 1979, and the U.S. responded by reforming the remnants of the disbanded Guardia Nacional into the Contra army to overthrow the new regime.[50]  The Contras used brutal tactics against the reformist Sandinista regime, raping women, executing prisoners, attacking civilians, and killing tens of thousands of Nicaraguans before they surrendered in 1990.[51] The Carter and Reagan administrations did not want a repeat of what happened in Nicaragua in El Salvador, therefore military and economic aid poured into the country, even after the army was implicated in the assassination of Archbishop Romero.[52] Velásquez later said that the U.S.’s policy of arming Central American militaries to butcher civilians was representative of U.S. values.[53]

In the early 1980s, Velásquez began to engage in the Central American Solidarity Movement (CASM). The CASM was characterized by the mass mobilization of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens in support of Central Americans in response to the U.S.’s brutal foreign policy in the region. Activists hounded their representatives, signed pledges to oppose any invasion of Central America, and sheltered refugees in their churches to show their solidarity with the people of nations like El Salvador and Nicaragua.[54] Velásquez entered the CASM by joining the boards of the Central American Peace Campaign (CAPC) and Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America (PACCA) in 1984.[55] Velásquez enlisted Antonio Gonzalez, a former SVREP member, and its future president, to pressure Texas politicians to oppose any further aid to the Nicaraguan guerillas.[56] Velásquez thought that the only way to stop the cycle of bad policymaking in Central America was to end the Anglo monopoly on foreign policy. Still, his scattered efforts to help the Sandinistas were not going to achieve that goal. To insert the Latino voice into foreign policy, they had to become organized. In the summer of 1987, Velásquez formed the Latin America Project.[57]

While Velásquez participated in the Central American solidarity movement throughout the 1980s, his visits to Chile and Central America in 1986 motivated him to start SVRI’s LAP. In 1986, Velásquez was invited by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a non-profit NGO that promoted international democracy, on a delegation to Chile. In Chile, Velásquez met with opposition leaders to share his expertise on voter registration drives.[58] A month later, the famous Quaker Vietnam veteran and peace activist Dr. Charlie Clements asked Gonzalez to put him in contact with Latino leaders for an upcoming delegation to Central America. Gonzalez recommended Velásquez and convinced him to join Clement’s delegation.[59] Velásquez saw firsthand how the U.S.’s policies devastated Central America, and this encouraged him to continue his involvement in the CASM and officially bring SVRI into the fold.[60]

Entering foreign policy debates was unusual for Latino politicians, and Velásquez was keenly aware that he was engaging in controversial territory. While MAYO engaged in Vietnam protests, they never committed to the issue because of the relatively high levels of support or indifference within the Chicanx community.[61] Latino organizations were historically reticent to enter foreign policy debates in the heated climate of the Cold War, where any critique of the US inevitably resulted in red-baiting.[62] SVREP’s Executive Director Richard Martinez opposed the idea of creating a LAP, arguing they should continue to focus their resources on voter registration.[63] Velásquez knew that the Latino community was primarily concerned with local issues when he started the LAP but thought that they “need to understand that with the growth of power there is also the growth of responsibilities. And one big part of the responsibilities is that as we grow in power, we simply must get involved with foreign policy questions.”[64]

SVRI articulated a multifaceted strategy to use the LAP to expand the Latino community’s power in the foreign policy sphere. The LAP engaged in four main activities: fact-finding and consulting delegations, polling and surveys, seminars and briefings, and publicizing its findings.[65]  All four activities pushed forward the goal of empowering the Latino community in foreign policy debates and are discussed separately in the following section.

Assessing the Community: Polling Latino Foreign Policy Preferences

Polling was an essential plank of the LAP’s efforts; the organization wanted to keep politicians accountable to the Latino community’s wishes, and they had to quantify those preferences. SVRI’s pre-LAP polling showed that Latinos opposed the Reagan-Bush administration’s policies in Central America.[66] Once the LAP was formed, they began to employ the polling infrastructure SVREP, and SVRI developed to create statistics on the Latino community’s views on the U.S.’s foreign policy. Each poll that SVRI conducted returned the same result; most Southwestern Latinos opposed the U.S.’s foreign policy in Central America.[67]

SVRI’s polling confirmed one of the LAP’s other assumptions going into 1987; regardless of the Latino community’s position on foreign policy issues, it was not a high priority. The polls indicated that issues related to Central America were a low priority for Latino voters behind issues like homelessness, hunger, and the federal budget.[68] But Latino voters’ disinterest in foreign policy issues was one of the reasons for the formation of the LAP, and further engaging them with the topic was another element of the project.

A New Generation: Educating the Community and Institutionalizing the Latino Voice

Velásquez and the LAP thought that Latino’s disinterest in foreign policy and its representative’s lack of experience in the matter was a serious hurdle to advancing the project’s agenda. Its publications and seminars were vital instruments for solving the Latino disinterest and its representative’s lack of experience. Gonzalez said that the seminars “would train our delegates to share their findings with their constituents or members in their home cities, states, or districts. We wanted them to become testimonial-giving Raza evangelists spreading the ‘anti-intervention gospel’ via Latin America Project seminars, of which there were to be many.”[69] Between 1987 and 1991, the LAP held over a dozen conferences across the Southwest, where they invited leading and aspiring Latinos to learn about foreign policy and its effect on their community.[70] The seminars discussed a range of topics, including the implications of Nicaragua’s 1990 election, the consequences of the US’s policy on Mexico and Central America, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the causes of the influx of refugees from Mexico and Central America, and the condition of free elections in El Salvador.[71] One of the purposes of the training seminars was to share the findings of the LAP’s delegations to Latin America.

The Suffering of War: Central American Fact-Finding Delegations

Inspired by his previous fact-finding missions to Latin America, Velásquez made Latino delegations to Central America a significant organizational activity for the LAP. The 1988 mission to Central America was the last to include Velásquez before his untimely death, but the LAP sent further delegations in 1989, 1990, and 1991.[72] The delegations were primarily concerned with accessing the U.S.’s role in Central America, the state of human rights, and establishing relationships with the leaders of different countries.[73] The LAP’s delegates met members on both sides of the political spectrum to get their perspectives on the wars tearing apart the region. Eddie Cavazos, a Texas State Representative, was pleased to find that even Alfonso Robelo, a member of the Contra’s directorate of the Nicaraguan resistance, appreciated that Latinos were reaching out to him even though he hoped that “maybe the next group will be on my side.”[74] As the prospects for peace in Central America brightened at the close of the 1980s, the LAP also took on the role of election monitoring.  

The LAP conducted its first international election monitoring mission during Nicaragua’s 1990 election at the request of the Sandinista party. The LAP initially applied to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to monitor Nicaragua’s 1990 elections. Unfortunately, the Organization of American States (OAS) announced that it would not allow U.S. citizens to participate through the IFES.[75] Fortunately for the LAP, they had amassed several contacts in the Latin American Solidarity movement, including Roberto Vargas. Vargas was a Nicaraguan refugee who spent his early life in the U.S. before returning to his home country to work with the FSLN. After seizing power, the Sandinistas sent Vargas back to the U.S. to use his connections with the Latin American solidarity movement to lobby on their behalf.[76] Velásquez met Vargas in 1986 while he was touring Texas with other CASM activists.[77]  In 1989, Gonzalez told Vargas that the LAP wanted to observe the 1990s election but needed a request from the Sandinista government, which they promptly received.[78] 

The LAP’s first election monitoring mission was a tame yet disappointing experience for most delegates. Gonzalez led the delegation and was dissatisfied, although not surprised, that the Sandinistas lost to the Unión Nacional Opositora (UNO) coalition.[79] The delegates were universally pleased that the Sandinistas agreed to accept the results of a fairly conducted election.[80] The representatives voiced their concern that U.S. officials would see the policy of funding the Contras as a successful example of how to deal with other nations who defied their hegemony in the future.[81] Conversely, the delegates pointed out that the concerted efforts of Latin American countries and the Central America peace plan led the Sandinistas to hold the 1990 elections.[82] LAP delegates learned a great deal from their missions to Latin America, and they brought that information back to their constituents.

The LAP sent delegations to Latin America to gain new insights into the region that delegates shared with other Latinos through seminars and publications. The LAP produced handbooks, articles, and talking points, distributing the materials through SVREP and SVRI.[83] The majority of the material for the publications consisted of summaries of the LAP delegations round table discussions, which are discussed in the following section.

Latino Leaders Speak: Understanding the Motivations of the LAP

The LAP’s post-mission round table discussions allowed delegates to collectively discuss the implications of U.S. foreign policy on the international Latino community. The meetings give insights into the delegate’s, most importantly Gonzalez and Velásquez, views on the folly of U.S. foreign policy, the importance of including Latino voices in the State Department, and the interconnectedness of the international Latino.

The roundtables gave insights into the delegate’s argument that Latino’s shared culture was a strength and a rationale for their representation in foreign policy. Michael Hernandez, a Latino businessman from California, argued that “the white Cadillac of our top diplomat [in Nicaragua]… represents the gulf between the United States and the Nicaraguan people” but that the cultural affinities between Latinos ranging from a shared language to a love of baseball can bridge the divide.[84] A summary of the delegates’ findings argued that:

Latinos in the United States have been and continue to be victims of economic injustice and violations of their human and civil rights. Such problems are also common among Latin America’s poor people…For these reasons, participants in the roundtable clearly believed that Hispanics in the United States should be particularly interested in democracy, human rights, and promoting social justice in Central America.[85] 

The delegates argued that it was not just culture that connected Latinos but a shared experience of exploitation and injustice that linked their struggles across national boundaries. The Latino community’s experience in the U.S. is largely a story of overcoming Anglo’s denial of their fundamental rights, and the delegates encouraged their community to continue that struggle in Latin America. Gonzalez later explained that solidarity essentially ran in Latino-American blood since they “continue to carry the ‘political gene’ of solidarity with the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean and of resistance to racist or interventionistic U.S. policies whether at home or abroad.”[86] The delegates did not limit their justification for including Latinos in foreign policy to a shared culture and struggle; they argued that Latino-Americans needed to assert themselves to protect their interests at home.

The roundtable discussions are insightful for understanding how the LAP’s delegates connected the ramifications of the U.S.’s foreign policy to their Latino constituents. Abelardo Valdez, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas-San Antonio, argued that the Reagan administration’s policies in Latin America caused the large influx of refugees into the U.S. and caused the return of the English Only Movement. The English Only Movement threatened to undermine all the Latino community’s gains regarding respect for their culture and to promote bilingual education.[87] Alicia Torres, who served as a member of the Cuban American Committee, expressed her concern that the U.S.’s policies could lead to a war in Central America, and Latino Americans would serve on the frontlines of that conflict due to their Spanish-speaking skills.[88] Torres also expressed her concern that the U.S.’s policies in Central America caused the entrance of refugees to the Southwest, and they were competing with Latinos for employment and causing social problems.[89] These discussions demonstrate that while the LAP was deeply concerned with the plight of Central Americans, they were equally worried about how the U.S.’s foreign policy affected Latino-Americans.

The LAP wanted to promote accountable Latino leaders, and the delegate’s assessments highlighted issues that were a priority for their constituency. SVRI polling consistently showed that majorities of Latino voters were heavily opposed to the English Only Movement, any wars in Central America, and that unemployment was one of the Latino community’s greatest concerns.[90] By connecting the foreign and parochial, the delegates demonstrated to Latino-Americans that their local concerns were inseparable from the U.S.’s foreign policy. Their struggle was inexorably linked to that of the international Latino. Torres expected opposition and allegations of bias when Latinos gave their input on foreign policy, but maintained they must assert themselves. She argued there was too much at stake, that Latinos disproportionately suffered the consequences of the U.S.’s foreign policy, and that “Latinos have a natural right to policy input on such matter.”[91] The LAP delegates made it clear that their constituency could no longer be ignored in foreign policy.

Delegates articulated a Latino vision for foreign policy in Nicaragua, which diverged drastically from tradition. Several delegates asserted that the U.S. should deliver aid to Nicaragua but on the condition that the UNO government be held to the same human and civil rights standards applied to the Sandinistas.[92] Rejecting half a century of the U.S.’s foreign policy, Valdez said that the U.S. should respect the choices of Nicaraguans and stop pushing its economic and democratic models on the nation.[93] In Valdez’s vision, If the people of Nicaragua wanted a socialist economy and a different form of government than the U.S. it was their right, and his country would no longer use force to stop them. Fidel, who participated in the roundtable discussion but did not have his last name given, agreed with Valdez, “the gringo idea of democracy may not be appropriate here.”[94] Hernandez wanted Latinos to play a positive role in Latin America as neutral parties and to “avoid serving as power broker[s] for the domination of Nicaragua.”[95] The LAP’s delegates were essentially calling for a revolutionary change in the U.S.’s foreign policy.

Latino Leaders Speak: Understanding the Motivations of the LAP

Velásquez’s statements in the 1988 roundtable discussion reveal that political ideology was a central factor in forming the LAP. Velásquez geared his life’s work towards benefitting working-class Latinos and sympathized with leftists in Central America who shared the same vision. Velásquez came away from the delegations with the firm belief that the Sandinistas were the only organization in Nicaragua worth supporting.[96] Velásquez jumped to their defense when Mario Obledo, former president of LULAC,  criticized the Sandinista’s heavy-handed tactics against opposition parties and its Marxist-Leninist policies.[97] Velásquez responded that the Sandinistas might be communists, but they were communists who baptized their children and allowed a free market. Velásquez praised the reforms of the Sandinistas and that their form of government was “communist, Latino style.”[98]  While Velásquez sang high praises for the Sandinistas he was not afraid to express his contempt for the Contras.  One of the roundtable’s topics was the delegate’s perceptions of the Nicaraguan opposition. Velásquez’s met with several Contra representatives and said, “Never has any one of them ever mentioned what their vision was for the working people.”[99] Velásquez’s meetings with Robelo reinforced his belief that cutting the rebel’s aid was a top priority as “[Robelo] admits if there is no more contra aid, they vanish.”[100]

Velásquez accused UNO’s leadership of being just as disinterested in the working class as the Contras. Velásquez sympathized with the Sandinistas because of their pro-working class agenda; his meetings with UNO representatives left the impression that their only agenda was regaining power.[101] While UNO members spoke of restoring the rights they had lost under the Sandinistas, Velásquez thought what they truly wanted was a return to the exploitation of the Somoza regime.[102] Velásquez’s statements demonstrate that ideological sympathies with the Sandinistas were a primary motivation for creating the LAP. Gonzalez’s series of articles from 2018 shows that Willie was not the only one who held those sympathetic feelings toward leftist Central Americans.

Gonzalez’s accounts demonstrate that he was deeply sympathetic to the FMLN and antagonistic towards their opposition. Gonzalez recounted that the 1990 delegation to El Salvador secretly met with the FMLN in Mexico City. Gonzalez described how “these gruff comandantes turned out to be just like us and we really connected with them talking family, justice, revolution…and U.S. intervention.”[103] Gonzalez described Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), the ruling party in El Salvador,  as “a fascist party founded by the father of the infamous ‘escuadrones de muerte’ death squads, Roberto D’Aubuisson.”[104] Gonzalez’s attitudes towards the different factions of El Salvadoran politics played a significant role in SVRI’s organizing under his leadership.

Gonzalez’s articles also reveal that Velásquez was not the only organizer who used a non-partisan organization to promote partisan goals. Between 1993 and 1994, Gonzalez oversaw the LAP’s efforts to export its voter registration model to local partners in El Salvador. The LAP received most of its funding for the El Salvador project from the U.S. Agency for International Development (US-AID), with the condition that their efforts were strictly non-partisan.[105] While the LAP stuck to non-partisan guidelines, Gonzalez said its efforts were geared toward benefitting the FMLN. SVRI had to contract partner organizations from both sides of the political spectrum, but Gonzalez admits that it intentionally hired more left-wing outfits associated with the FMLN over those related to the El Salvadoran right.[106] US-AID was aware of this tactic and sent SVRI a letter reiterating its non-partisan guidelines and advising the inclusion of more right-wing affiliates if the institute wanted to avoid charges of bias.[107] The LAP acknowledged the charges when they asked their El Salvadoran partner Luis Monge to resign in 1993 over his partisan activities.[108] But the accusations persisted to the point that Gonzalez sent US-AID a letter demanding that someone put an end to the allegations.[109] Between the complaints from US-AID and Gonzalez’s later statements, there is little doubt that the LAP was stacking the deck in the FMLN’s favor.

Partisan or not, Gonzalez assumed the LAP’s efforts benefited the FMLN. The LAP’s efforts targeted the poorest areas of El Salvador, and Gonzalez believed “of course, indirectly anything to help poor people get into the electoral process would help the FMLN.”[110] That quote echoes Andy Hernández’s, SVREP’s first research director, description of Velásquez’s organizational strategy, “We were training [disadvantaged grassroots] people to think about voter registration, politics, and campaigning in different ways. It wasn’t civic duty stuff for Willie. It was all about creating the conditions out of which we could win.”[111] For Gonzalez and Velásquez their organizing was not about benefiting a certain political party in any country; it was about empowering working-class and Latino people by whatever means possible


Velásquez spent his adult career pursuing his vision of Latino empowerment. That vision led him to form MAYO, SVREP, SVRI, and the LAP. For Velásquez, empowering the Latino community inherently meant empowering working-class people and vice-versa. Velásquez’s time with MAYO gave him the experience and connections necessary to make SVREP a success. But as Velásquez saw the power of his community grow, he knew they had to learn how to use that power. Velásquez demanded Latino representation in government, including a voice in foreign policy. Velásquez formed the LAP to quantify Latino’s foreign policy preferences and hold politicians accountable to their demands. Velásquez wanted the rest of the U.S. to recognize that Latinos are a significant force in politics and that they deserve a seat at the table of foreign policymaking. Velásquez did not live to see it, but under the leadership of his successors, the George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton administrations answered his demand when they contracted SVRI to conduct election monitoring and voter registration drives in El Salvador.[112]

Velásquez made it his life’s work to empower Latinos, and his mission did not stop at the U.S. borders. Velásquez and the other representatives of the LAP held an affinity for the Latinos of Central America because of their shared culture and struggles against oppression. They understood that the Latino effort to achieve recognition for their basic civil, economic, and human rights were an international struggle. Velásquez’s sympathy for working-class people led him to form connections with the Sandinistas and the FMLN, the only groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua he viewed as compatible with his vision for empowering the working class. After Velásquez’s passing, his ideological compatriot Gonzalez carried his vision forward until his unfortunate passing in 2018. The SVRI continues to pursue Velásquez’s vision of Latino empowerment and has been aptly renamed the William C. Velásquez Institute.

[1] Maria F. Durand, “Clinton presents medal to Velásquez’s widow,” San Antonio Express, September 30, 1995.

[2] Juan A. Sepulveda, Life and Times of Willie Velásquez: Su Voto Es Su Voz, (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2005), 38-39.

[3] Armando Navarro, Mexican American Youth Organization: Avant-garde of the Chicano movement in Texas, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 45-48.

[4] Ibid., 81.

[5] Navarro, Mexican American Youth Organization

[6] Ibid., 80-82.

[7] Ibid., 22-23.

[8] Ibid., 97-98.

[9] Sepulveda, Su Voto Es Su Voz, 66-67.

[10] Navarro, Mexican American Youth Organization, 115.

[11] Ibid., 91-92, 115-118.

[12] Ibid., 117.

[13] Ibid., 83-84.

[14] Sepulveda, Su Voto Es Voz, 73-74.

[15] Armando Navarro, La Raza Unida Party: A Chicano Challenge to the U.S. Two-Party Dictatorship, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 41-42.

[16]Articles of Incorporation: Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Inc, May 5, 1974, MS 452., Box 1. Folder, Administrative: Articles of Incorporation 1974, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, Navarro, Mexican American Youth Organization,243-245.

[17] Sepulveda, Su Voto Es Su Voz, 117-121.

[18] Ibid., 121.

[19] Ibid., 259-260, Southwest Voter Research Institute, Biennial Report, MS 452., Box 200, Folder, Biennial Report 1988-1989, 1991 (1 of 2), Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 7-8.

[20] David Montejano, Chicano Electoral Politics, 1964-1984: Gains and Promises, Undated, MS 452., Box 235, Folder, Electoral Politics, 1964-1984: Gains and Promises: 1984, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, 1.

[21] Montejano, Chicano Electoral Politics, 15.

[22] Ibid., 3-4.

[23] Sepulveda, Su Voto Es Su Voz, 215-216.

[24] Ibid., 289-291, 300-302,

[25] Ibid., 224-226.

[26] Ibid., 156.

[27] Sepulveda, Su Voto Es Su Voz, 284-287.

[28] Ibid., 299-300.

[29] Ibid., 265, 308-310.

[30] Ibid., 293.

[31] Ibid., 332.

[32] Ibid., 335-336.

[33] Antonio Gonzalez, “Willie Velasquez and the Contras,” Tales of Central America, no. 1, May 9, 2018, 3-6. Retrieved

[34] Sepulveda, Su Voto Es Su Voz, 350-351, 357.

[35] Ibid., 357.

[36] Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1993), 253-254.

[37] Ibid., 241, 281-282.

[38] Southwest Voter Research Institute, Views of Latino Leaders: A Roundtable Discussion on U.S. Policy in Nicaragua and the Central American Peace Plan, February 1988, MS 452., Box 200, Folder, Peace in Central America, 1988, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, 17.

[39] Ibid., 67-71, Lars Schoultz, Beneath the United States: a History of U.S. Policy Towards Latin America, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998), 267-270.

[40] LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, 71-72.

            The Fourteen Families is the name that El Salvadorans use for the nation’s elite, which included significantly more than fourteen families.

[41] Ibid., 173.

[42] Ibid., 150-151.

[43] Ibid., 175-178.

[44] Ibid., 105-107, 111-112, 266-267, Schoultz, Beneath the US, 344-345, 354.

[45] LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, 100, 105, 108-110.

[46] Ibid., 112, Schoultz, Beneath the United States 346, 354.

[47] Schoultz, Beneath the United States, 267, 352-354.

[48] LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, 175-176.

[49] Ibid., 165-166, 253-254.

[50] Ibid., 241, 281-282, 300-301.

[51] Joanne Omang, “Inquiry Finds Atrocities by Nicaraguan ‘Contras’,” Washington Post, March 7, 1985, Ibid, 307.

[52] LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, 246-252.

[53] Gonzalez, Willie and the Contras, 5.

[54] Christian Smith, Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement, (University of Chicago Press, 1996), xvi.

[55] Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America, Central America Briefing Book: Claims and Counter Claims, Undated, MS 452., Box 204, Folder, Central America, 1984, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, University of Texas-San Antonio Special Collections.

[56] Gonzalez, Willie and the Contras, 6.

[57] William C. Velasquez Institute, “Intermestic Initiatives,” William C. Velasquez Institute, Undated, Retrieved

[58] Sepulveda, Su Voto Es Su Voz, 376-378.

[59] Ibid., 376-378.

[60]Bruce Davidson, “Hispanic Delegation Opposes Contra Aid,” San Antonio Express, February 3, 1988, 11, Sepulveda, Su Voto Es Su Voz, 376-380.

[61] Navarro, Mexican American Youth Organization, 83-84, 176.

[62] Gordon K. Mantler, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 23-25.

[63] William C. Velasquez Institute, Intermestic Initiatives.

[64] Southwest Voter Research Institute, Views of Latino Leaders, 17.

[65] Antonio Gonzalez, Progress Report on Latin America Project (LAP), November 9, 1990,  MS 452., Box 8. Folder, WCVI Administrative Board Meetings, November 1990 (1 of 4.) Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, 1.

[66] Robert R. Brischeto, Latino Views on Central America: Some Samples From the National Polls, November 15, 1985, MS 452., Box 200, Folder, Latino Views on Central America, 1985, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, 1.

[67] Southwest Voter Research Institute, “Southwest Voter Research Notes Vol 11, No. 9,” September/December 1989, “Southwest Research Notes, Vol 11 No. 8,” September/December, 1988, MS 452., Box 197, Folders SVRI Newsletter, 1986 1-3, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, University of Texas-San Antonio Special Collections.

[68] Southwest Voter Research Institute, “Southwest Voter Research Notes, Vol. II, No. 9”, August 1988, MS 452., Box 197, Folder SVRI Newsletter, 1986 1-3, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, 2.

[69] Antonio Gonzalez, “The FMLN Comes Knocking, Building the Latino Vote in 1990 in El Salvador,” Tales of Central America, no. 4, May 25, 2018.

[70] Gonzalez, Progress Report on Latin America Project, 1-2.

[71] Ibid., 1-2.

[72] William C. Velasquez Institute, Intermestic Initiatives.

[73]  Southwest Voter Research Institute, Draft of Memorandum to Funders, October 26, 1987, MS 452., Box, 207, Folder, Latin America Project: 1987, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, 2.

[74] Southwest Voter Research Institute, Views of Latino Leaders, 17-18.

[75] “Letter From Richard W. Soudriette to Juan A. Sepulveda,” November 16, 1989, MS 452., Box 43, Folder,

Nicaragua Observer Team, 1989, Southwest Voter Research Education Project, 1974-1994.

[76] Antonio Gonzalez, “A La Carga Con Daniel, Observing Nicaragua’s 1990 Election,” Tales of Central America, no. 3, May 18, 2018, 1-3.

[77] William C. Velasquez Institute, Intermestic Initiatives.

[78]Gonzalez, Observing Nicaragua’s 1990 Election, 1-5, Letter From Carlos Tunnermann to William C. Velásquez, October 26, 1987, MS 452., Box 207, Folder, Latin America Project: 1987, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994.

[79]Gonzalez, Observing Nicaragua’s 1990 Election, 7-8.

[80] Southwest Voter Research Institute, Roundtable Discussion: SVRI Delegation to Observe the February 25, 1990 Election, Undated, MS 452., Box 206, Folder Latin America Information, 1989-1993, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, 1-2.

[81] Ibid., 7-10.

[82] Ibid., 8-9.

[83] SVRI, Biennial Report 1988-1989, 17-18.

[84] SVRI, Roundtable Discussion: 1990, 12.

[85] Ibid.,11.

[86]  Antonio Gonzalez, “ ‘Can You Come to DC, right now?’ Tales from Central America,” Tales of Central America, no. 6, June 26, 2018, 6. Retrieved

[87] SVRI, Views of Latino Leaders, 10-11.

[88] SVRI, Roundtable Discussion: 1990, 11-12.

[89] Ibid., 12.

[90] SVRI, Southwest Voter Research Notes, Vol 1., No. 3, Southwest Voter Research Notes, Vol. II, No. 8, Southwest Voter Research Notes, Vol. II, No. 9. 

[91] SVRI, Views of Latino Leaders, 12.

[92] SVRI, Roundtable Discussion: 1990, 15-16.

[93] Ibid., 13.

[94] Ibid., 16.

[95] Ibid., 17

[96] Southwest Voter Research Institute, Views of Latino Leaders, 12-14.

[97] Southwest Voter Research Institute, Views of Latino Leaders, 6.

[98] Ibid., 8-9.

[99] Ibid., 12.

[100] Ibid., 13.

[101] Ibid., 13.

[102] Ibid., 13-14.

[103] Antonio Gonzalez, “From the Frying Pan to the Fire: From Nicaragua to El Salvador,” Tales of Central America, no. 2, May 16, 2018.

[104] Gonzalez, Can You Come to DC, right now?, 6.

[105] Ibid., 6.

[106] Gonzalez, Can You Come to D.C. Right Now, 5-6.

[107] Letter From Charles E. Costello to Andrew Hernandez, November 3, 1993. MS 452., Box 207. Folder, Partisan Policies: 1994-1995. Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994, 1-2.

[108] Antonio Gonzalez, Issues of Partisan Activity in El Salvador project, July 20, 1995, MS 452., Box 207. Folder, SVRI, Latin America: SVRI Non-Partisan Policies: 1994-1995, Letter from Andrew Hernandez to Charles Costello, November 23, 1993, MS 452., Box 204, Folder AID P.I.L’s, 1993-1994, Southwest Voter Research Project Records.

[109] Antonio Gonzalez, Observations for USAID Hearings, March, 1995, MS 452., Box 204, Folder, SVRI, Latin America: AID Hearings: 1995, 1-2.

[110] Gonzalez, Can You Come to DC, Right Now?, 5-6.

[111] Found in Sepulveda, Su Voto Es Su Voz, 156.

[112] Antonio Gonzalez, “There Will be No Elections in Jucuarán!: Observing El Salvador’s 1991 Elections.” Tales of Central America, no. 5. June 8, 2018., 1-2, Gonzalez, Can You Come to DC, right now, 1-3.



Gonzalez, Antonio. “Willie Velásquez and the Contras.” Tales of Central America, no. 1, May 9, 2018.

———“From the Frying Pan to the Fire: From Nicaragua to El Salvador.” Tales of Central America, no. 2. May 16, 2018.

——— “A La Carga Con Daniel, Observing Nicaragua’s 1990 Election.” Tales of Central America, no. 3. May 18, 2018.

——— “The FMLN Comes Knocking, Building the Latino Vote in 1990 in El Salvador.” Tales of Central America, no. 4. May 25, 2018.

——— “There Will be No Elections in Jucuarán!: Observing El Salvador’s 1991 Elections.” Tales of Central America, no. 5. June 8, 2018.

———“ ‘Can You Come to DC, right now?’ Tales from Central America.” Tales of Central America, no. 6. June 26, 2018.

William C. Velásquez Institute. “Intermestic Initiatives.” William C. Velásquez Institute. Undated. Retrieved


University of Texas-San Antonio Special Collections. Southwest Voter Registration Education Project Records, 1974-1994. San Antonio, Texas.


San Antonio Express

Washington Post


LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Mantler, Gordon K. Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Navarro, Armando. La Raza Unida Party: A Chicano Challenge to the U.S. Two-Party Dictatorship. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Navarro, Armando. Mexican American Youth Organization: Avant-Garde of the Chicano Movement in Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995

Peace, Roger C. A Call to Conscience: The Anti/Contra War Campaign. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Schoultz, Lars. Beneath the United States: a History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Sepulveda, Juan A. Life and Times of Willie Velásquez: Su Voto Es Su Voz. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2005.

Smith, Christian. Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.