By Suzanne Gamboa, NBC News
Two Mexican Americans who have dedicated their lives to fighting for equality and the advancement of Latinos were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, at the White House on Thursday.
Raúl Yzaguirre is the founder and former leader of the National Council of La Raza, considered the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group, renamed UnidosUS, and Julieta García is a former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville — the first Latina to serve as a U.S. university president.
Born a decade apart in the Rio Grande Valley, Yzaguirre and García took lessons from their upbringings in the South Texas region to achieve positions of power, which they then used to dismantle discrimination and fight for the advancement of Latinos and other people of color.
Yzaguirre, 82, born in San Juan, Texas, took a small organization with about $500,000 and 23 affiliates and grew it into a formidable one with a $40 million budget and 250 affiliates.
The group helped shape policy on immigration, education, voting rights and more. Yzaguirre stepped down in 2004, after 30 years at its helm.
He also served as the ambassador to the Dominican Republic under President Barack Obama.
García, 73, born in Brownsville, Texas, was president of UT-Brownsville and helped oversee its merger with University of Texas Pan American to become UT-Rio Grande Valley, which serves mostly Latinos. She fought for money from the state’s Permanent University Fund, which holds 2.1 million acres and revenue from oil and gas leases on the land, to create the university.
UT-Rio Grande Valley is ranked in the top three schools awarding bachelor’s degrees to Latinos.
Yzaguirre and García are among 17 people awarded the medal Thursday by President Joe Biden. Among the honorees are former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz.; Olympic gymnast Simone Biles; U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe; the actor Denzel Washington; and posthumously, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple.
Yzaguirre’s work with UnidosUS rested heavily on bringing together the nation’s increasingly diverse Latino population to forge a stronger political force that could command the attention of Washington power brokers. The 2020 census counted 62 million Latinos in the U.S.
“What Raúl doesn’t get enough recognition for is how much of a visionary he was,” said Lisa Navarette, who worked with Yzaguirre and now is an adviser to UnidosUS President Janet Murguía.
“In the early ’70s he was already envisioning what would become the Latino community,” Navarrete said.
Yzaguirre was raised by his grandparents and was heavily influenced by his grandfather’s own story of nearly being lynched by Texas Rangers when he was out past a curfew imposed by the state on Mexican Americans and Mexicans at the time, according to a 2016 biography, “Raul H. Yzaguirre: Seated at the Table of Power,” by Stella Pope Duarte.
Yzaguirre was a protégé of the civil rights leader Dr. Hector P. García, a Mexican American physician who formed the civil rights group American GI Forum after witnessing mistreatment of Mexican American World War II veterans. Navarette said García helped Yzaguirre channel his anger over discrimination into activism.
Yzaguirre’s work in Washington continues to have an impact. Charles Kamasaki, a senior adviser at UnidosUS, recalled Yzaguirre deciding to agree to compromise on what became the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. He didn’t like the enforcement levels in the bill and had worked to improve it until finally agreeing to a compromise in 1986, giving about 3 million immigrants without legal status in the U.S. a chance to become lawful permanent residents.
Yzaguirre helped produce a scathing report on the Smithsonian Institution’s failure to serve and hire Latinos, a report that was instrumental in last year’s approval of a National Museum of the American Latino.
His tenure was also marked by clashes with administrations. He quit a commission on education and Hispanics in the 1990s in frustration over its partisanship and delays and picketed President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration over its lack of Hispanics.
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