William (Willie) C. Velásquez, Chicano movement organizer and founder of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, was born on May 9, 1944, to William and María Luisa (Cardenas) Velásquez in Orlando, Florida, where the elder Velásquez, a union organizer, was stationed during World War II. Velásquez attended Edgewood Elementary School and Holy Rosary Catholic School and graduated from Central Catholic High School in San Antonio.He obtained a B.A. in economics in 1966 from St. Mary's University, where he also pursued graduate work in the same field. He helped the United Farm Workers Union in organizing activities in the Rio Grande valley in 1966–67 and left graduate school his last semester to serve as boycott coordinator for the San Antonio area in the Starr County Strike. While still a graduate student, Velásquez was hired as a consultant to the executive director of the Bishop's Committee for the Spanish Speaking of the United States Catholic Conference. In March 1967 he helped found the Mexican American Youth Organization at St. Mary's University, and he also served as the first statewide coordinator of El Movimiento Social de La Raza Unida, the forerunner to the Raza Unida Party, a political third party for Hispanics. In January 1968 El Movimiento sponsored a conference on Chicano politics at which attendance was 2,000.
In 1969 Velásquez helped found the Mexican American Unity Council and served as executive director. He was also a VISTA supervisor in San Antonio that year. In January 1970 he helped found La Raza but left the party due to differences in organizing tactics and ideology. In June 1970 he became field director of the Southwest Council of La Raza in Phoenix, the forerunner of the National Council of La Raza. In 1971 he became assistant director of field organizing and fund-raising for the council's national office in Washington, where he worked until 1972. Also in 1971 he organized the Citizens' Voter Research and Education Project, the original name of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. From October 1972 to July 1974 he worked full-time organizing the SVREP, and it became separate from the National Council of La Raza. Velásquez's SVREP played a fundamental role in the increase of Latino voters and officeholders in the 1970s and 1980s. He was an expert in calculating voting trends, and SVREP is considered the most reliable source available for data on Hispanic voting patterns. In January 1988 Velásquez became president of the Southwest Voter Institute, a research branch of SVREP, and he also established the Latin American Project under which he and other leaders visited Nicaragua and Costa Rica. He was interested in liberation theology, a social and religious movement within the Catholic Church in Latin America. In 1981 he taught Southwestern politics at the Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Velásquez also served as an editorial advisor to the San Antonio Light.
Velásquez married Janie Sarabia on June 12, 1970, and they had three children. He had been scheduled to introduce presidential candidate Michael Dukakis to the Texas state Democratic convention in Houston on June 18, 1988. He had also planned to write a book about Latino political clout with Austin American-Statesman columnist Jesse Treviño. But during a routine examination he was diagnosed as having kidney cancer. After treatment at the University Of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, he died on June 15, 1988, in Santa Rosa Hospital, San Antonio. His rosary was attended by 2,300 people, and his Mass at St. Mary's Church, which Spanish-language station KWEX televised, was attended by 1,400 people. He was buried at San Fernando Archdiocesan Cemetery in San Antonio. George Velásquez immortalized his brother with the "Corrido of Willie Velásquez," and thousands of others across the nation paid tribute to him at conferences and named libraries, parks, and schools after him. Velásquez's name has become synonymous with the phrase "Su voto es su voz" ("Your vote is your voice").