When Velásquez was growing up in Texas, he told his standing-room-only audience of black and brown faces at FLOC headquarters, he worked in the cotton fields as did untold numbers of Mexican, Mexican-American, and African-American laborers.
The Latino workers, said Velásquez, would work one end of the field, and the blacks would work the other. Never did the two groups work together, so successful were the white farmers in keeping the minority groups separate even to the extent, he said, of maintaining an untilled patch of field running down the middle to serve as a barrier to any cooperative effort.
“In many communities, we are still divided,” said the farm laborers organizer who arrived in Toledo in the 1950s and founded FLOC in 1967.
“There have been some difficult times, but tonight we are trying to put that behind us. Historically, there is no reason why African-Americans and Mexicans should be at each others throats.”
Velásquez was referring, as far as the Toledo area is concerned, to recent tensions between black and Latino leaders and elected officials. Some of that tension has been prompted by personal remarks that have become public; some by the inability of the Lucas County Democrat Party to offer a single slate of candidates that would have the unified support of all of its members.
In order to eliminate the political obstacles to a black/brown rapprochement, Velásquez worked with Toledo Mayor Jack Ford, who has been a staunch supporter of Latino politicians and causes throughout his public life, to pledge his support for all minority candidates.
Ford had not previously done so.
“There are some grievances that some have that won’t be resolved,” said the mayor in his opening remarks. “I’ve strived for 15 years to find unity between black and brown. Unequivocally I will support all black and brown candidates who are running for office. We need to do what is right and to focus on the goal. Our similarities are greater than our differences.
“We have a tough campaign, the Democratic Party is splintered. But the past slate is clean and we are going to move forward and I hope all eyes and minds are clear as to where I’m coming from,” he added.
Velásquez followed the mayor’s endorsement of all the city’s candidates of color by asking for a similar show of support from the audience, which was composed in part of virtually all of the black and brown candidates for office.
“I want to ask all of the African-American candidates—and public officials—in the room to stand up,” he said. After a sizeable number of the audience rose, Velásquez said: “I want to ask the Latinos in the room ‘are you willing to support these candidates?’”
A rousing applause and chorus of “yes” answered the FLOC chief’s question. He then performed a similar exercise with the Latino politicians and received a similarly enthusiastic response from the African-American members of the audience.
In later discussions with Velásquez, he emphasized that Ford should be supported not because of his minority status but because he had done an excellent job in the face of four years of difficult economic times, created by policies in Washington, D.C. Velasquez said Ford deserved four more years just as his predecessor, and now opponent, had been granted eight years in office.
There were also a handful of white candidates for office—there to show their support for the unity movement—who received equal treatment.
Following the remarks from Ford and Velásquez, public officials took turns giving short speeches acknowledging the need for black/brown unity and, in many cases, citing examples from their own pasts of times when those from the other ethnic group had provided invaluable assistance for their aspirations.
Louis Escobar, president of Toledo City Council who is retiring from public office after the November elections, spoke of the help and encouragement he had received from Ford when he first ran for office even as he addressed the fact that his decision not to run had driven a wedge in the relationship he has enjoyed with the mayor.
“Jack was hurt when I decided not to run, but that decision had nothing to do with him,” said Escobar.
Escobar went on to tell the audience that the number one priority in the upcoming elections was to make sure that Ford was re-elected. “People don’t know what he has done for the city for the last four years,” he said. “Carty is a character and was very fortunate to be mayor at a time when there was a surplus, but Jack has maintained services at a time when others would have had to cut. This man has served the citizens of Toledo with the highest regard of anyone I have ever worked with. He should be held to his record, and it’s a damned good record.”
Lourdes Santiago, an attorney who is presently with the city’s prosecutor office and is a candidate for judge in Toledo Municipal Court, emphasized how important unity between the two communities is to bring about the changes needed—for the benefit of children and their educational needs and for the benefit of economic development.
Black candidates agree
Wilma Brown, city councilwoman for District 1, paid a tribute to a Latino—Celso Rodríguez, who then worked in the electronic media and is currently publisher of El Tiempo—who had given her assistance at the beginning of her career.
“I’m here to support Jack Ford, we have moved forward,” said Brown, “and I’m here to support unity.”
Steve Thomas, business manager of Laborers’ Local 500, was appointed to the school board early this year and is a candidate for election to that post, offered his own words of gratitude for the assistance he has received from Velásquez in the past.
“Without that support from Baldemar, I would not be in the position I’m in,” said Thomas.
Numerous other candidates and notables in the audience re-affirmed their commitment to black/brown unity and expressed their gratitude with the effort begun by Velásquez to pull the two minority communities together including: Bob Vásquez, candidate for an at-large seat on council; Phil Copeland, secretary of Local 500, member of the Toledo City Council and candidate for election; Karen Shanahan, candidate for an at-large seat on council; Frank Szollosi, candidate for re-election to council; Steven Steel, candidate for school board; and Weldon Douthitt, project director for EOPA Home Rehabilitation and political strategist for numerous Democratic candidate.
Some time after the meeting, it was suggested to Ford that Velásquez was one of the few members of the Toledo community who could have pulled off such an event and gathered together such a roster of leaders from both minority groups. “He’s the only one,” replied the mayor.
“There are more Latino candidates for office than there have ever been,” said Velásquez that evening. “You’ve got three vacancies on the school board and there is no reason why Steve Steel, Steve Thomas, and Robert Torres can’t be sitting on the board together. Are we clear on what we have to do?
“¡Adelante, Hasta la victoria!”