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.
"Raúl taught me so much about integrity that I will take with me for the rest of my life," said Cecilia Muñoz, a former Obama domestic policy adviser.
Muñoz said she was among the first women at the National Council of La Raza to become pregnant while working there. She asked Yzaguirre whether that would end her work there, as many colleagues expected.
"He said, 'Of course not, we are family focused and it's time to put our money where our mouth is.' This was 1992, before the Family Leave Act," she said.
When Yzaguirre was unable to testify on the 1986 immigration bill in the U.S. Senate, he sent Muñoz. The staff of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., suggested the council reconsider, but Yzaguirre told Muñoz to rise to the occasion.
"He developed leaders and I'm one of many, many alumni at the organization who followed his example and made a difference in other organizations and in government," she said.
Ben Yzaguirre, the youngest of his six children, said that as he gets the medal his father wants people to know that “while the achievements he had were great and moved our community forward, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Immigration reform, voting rights, still still need attention ... to continue to progress.”
Yzaguirre retired in 2013 when his Parkinson’s worsened. He lives in Maryland.
In a statement released by UnidosUS, Yzaguirre responded to the recognition.
“Reflecting on my lifetime journey, I am proud of the fact that we all continue to be motivated by our desire to make the promise of the American Dream a reality,” he said. “For too long, Hispanics have been absent from that promise, even though they were historically among the first Americans as well as the newest Americans, and continue to make enormous contributions to our society and our economy.”
García told NBC News that she met Yzaguirre, whom she had revered for years, in Washington and they discovered they were cousins after she told him that the Yzaguirre name was also in her family.
"From then on, when I walked into a room where I was a nobody and Raúl was always a somebody, he would say, 'Be careful with my prima,'" or cousin, she said.
A successful fight to educate new generations
But García knew how to fight her own battles, too. She often has said growing up with brothers prepared her for the almost all male domain of college and university presidents.
García's mother, a fifth-generation Texan, died when García was 9. Her father was from Monterrey and came to the U.S. as a young boy when his family fled the Mexican Revolution. He had come from an educated family and did well in high school. Her mother graduated salutatorian at her high school in Harlingen, Texas. But a college education was unaffordable and inaccessible for her parents, García said.
"Imagine doing well in school but there's not a university to go to or there's one that you don't have access to because it's far away. Our intent was to never let that happen to another generation again in the Rio Grande Valley," she said referring to those she worked with to get the state Permanent University Fund money to UT-Rio Grande Valley and its medical school.
"Julieta Garcia believes in the talents and vitality of the people of south Texas," said Sarita Brown, co-founder and president of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit Latino education advocacy group. "She shared her courage, expertise and commitment to advance a vision for higher education that serves her community and lights a path for us to follow for the future."
García said she spent 22 years in the back of the room at university meetings raising her hand trying to get a share of the funds for UT-Brownsville. The school, as well as UT-Pan American — which were both on the heavily Latino South Texas area — were the only UT schools that did not get some of the money at the time.
García took other steps to improve higher education among Latinos. Under her leadership, the university built up its physics program and added a second library to the campus. She fostered student interest in chess, not often associated with Latinos, through competitions and scholarships.
"We planted a huge flag in the UT System. ... When we created UT-RGV, it was with the express purpose of getting access to the Permanent University Fund," García said. "That opened a spigot to South Texas and higher education forever more."
The numbers of Latinas leading universities has diminished in recent years and García said she hopes hoping "teaching the next generation to be advocates" can help change that, including in Texas, she said.
"My job has been and will always be to talk about the potential of the human capital in the Valley of the Hispanic population in the United States," she sad.
"Imagine one day we have a governor in Texas who says, 'Aren't we lucky? Look at the number of Hispanic Texans that we have,'" she said. "They are bilingual, they are biliteral and bicultural. That's an asset in a world market."