Latino civil rights activist Raul Yzaguirre is among 17 people the White House said on Friday would be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Yzaguirre is best known as the longtime leader of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), now known as UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization.
Yzaguirre’s tenure as head of the NCLR spanned 30 years, during which time the organization grew from a regional advocacy group to a politically powerful national operation.
“Today, we are so proud, honored and moved that our President Emeritus Raul Yzaguirre receives our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his decades of distinguished and tireless service to his country and his community. community,” Janet said. Murguía, President and CEO of UnidosUS.
Yzaguirre was born in 1939 in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the son of a Mexican American customs officer who worked at the Brownsville-Matamoros border.
His grandfather was a laborer who witnessed firsthand the oppression against Mexican Americans in Texas, who was nearly lynched by a group of Texas Rangers.
Throughout her youth, Yzaguirre watched the civil rights landscape shift from outright persecution to Vietnam War-era segregation and inequality.
While Yzaguirre’s stint in the Air Force preceded major combat operations in Vietnam, his early political activism was partly motivated by the discrimination faced by young Latino servicemen returning from war.
As a student at George Washington University in 1964, Yzaguirre was one of the organizers of the National Organization of Mexican American Services, a group targeted by the Johnson administration.
“Raul was never afraid to fight, especially when it was on behalf of those who had no voice or power. He always managed to walk the line between fierce advocacy for a cause while being open to compromise, a quality so rarely displayed today,” Murguía said.
Yzaguirre was able to turn that early advocacy work into a sequel, eventually creating enough political capital to score, along with other civil rights leaders, a dinner invitation to meet President Johnson at the White House.
Yzaguirre’s political growth led to him being elected president of the NCLR in 1974 amid internal strife within the organization.
“During his time as President and CEO, he grew from a small, struggling organization with a small budget and a handful of affiliates to an American institution recognized as one of the world’s top twelve nonprofit organizations. most influential in the United States, with nearly 300 affiliates,” said Murguía, who succeeded Yzaguirre as head of the NCLR in 2005.
“And during his tenure, the NCLR became a key player in the growth of the Hispanic community and was responsible for countless policy changes on issues such as education, homeownership, l immigration, health care and workforce development that have had a profound impact on millions of people, including Latinos,” she added.
After retiring from the NCLR, Yzaguirre served as President Obama’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic, a position to which he was confirmed after major bickering in the Senate.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who was in the Senate that confirmed Yzaguirre as ambassador, was named Friday by President Biden as the posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“People often say I’m a maverick, and that name really fits my friend Raul Yzaguirre. He is an original sniper. Raul is his own person who believes in doing the right things regardless of public opinion,” McCain said of Yzaguirre.
Yzaguirre and McCain will be honored Thursday at the White House along with 15 other recipients, including civil and labor rights leaders, artists and athletes.
“Raul has worked since he was young to give much needed recognition to the forgotten, the voiceless, to right egregious wrongs, to unite a growing and diverse community, to build bridges with other communities and most importantly, to fulfill America’s promise to all who call it home. That his legacy and contributions to our nation will finally be celebrated is monumental. Raul’s story is a story every American should know,” Murguía said.