Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP) was not an overnight creation it took years of painstaking work, compromise, negotiation, sacrifice and dedication. It went through growing pains. Its development was rather tumultuous as it evolved from an activist organization, Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), to a community minded service organization.
The Young Lions broke the mold of the Mexican Americans used to fighting with both hands behind their back. That was considered a fair fight. That is the perception that MAYO changed. Collectively all five Young Lions were necessary as thinkers and actors. The five lions were Jose Angel Gutierrez, William C. Velasquez, Mario Compean, Ignacio Perez, and Juan Patlan. The most radical of the group was Jose Angel Gutierrez. Gutierrez had some strong words of condemnation against Anglos. A lot of what Gutierrez said were things that many Mexican Americans may have harbored secretly in their mind but were afraid to express them verbally. What Gutierrez said was to haunt him the rest of his life. It was the radical activism that would prove to be the most damaging and the most effective.
The one that changed course with the flow was Willie Velasquez. Willie’s Catholic education would prove to be an invaluable tool and asset. Young Lions cannot roar in a pride. If they do, they will get mauled to death. the Lion with the loudest roar was Congressman Henry Gonzalez. His bully pulpit was the House of Representatives. The Lion with the most paws was the Catholic Church. The church was in every barrio. The church could help organize labor and help raise funds. Without the church support things would be dismal. Whatever obstacles or barriers there were Willie was undeterred in his drive to empower Mexican Americans. The education and economic well-being of Mexican Americans could only come with participation in the political process.
For the vast majority of Mexican Americans, the expectation was, if you were born poor you were going to live your life poor and die poor. The only way to break this vicious cycle was education. It was difficult to get an education when agricultural work had priority over the education.
MAYO had an altruistic beginning. MAYO showed a willingness to face challenges and turn defeat into a battle for another day. When the Catholic Archbishop started feeling uncomfortable with the activism he withdrew support and fired priests that disobeyed him. The priests were closely tied to the labor movement in the Rio Grande Valley.
There were successful Mexican Americans businessmen. Most were not good role models. Many were satisfied with the status quo, content to live in their comfort zone. They were not ready to leave their safe haven to help the underprivileged even if they were fellow Mexican Americans.
I things were going to improve, it would not be through the political process, through political empowerment. It was a process, people must be registered to vote, people must vote, and elected politicians must be held accountable.
There was an underlying fear that Willie Velasquez had that once voter registration drives and get out the vote efforts would be naught if elected politicians were unresponsive to their constituents. There is only one way to hold politicians accountable. VOTE.
We owe a debt of gratitude to these five young Mexican Americans that stood up and set the example that we can use today.