Of the hundreds of recipients since 1963, only 20 Latinos have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award given to those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
On Thursday, two more names were added to that prestigious list when President Joe Biden honored Texans Dr. Julieta García and Raúl Yzaguirre at the White House for their contributions to the fight for better education and civil rights for Latinos.
García is the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville —the first Latina to become the president of a university in the United States— and oversaw the school’s merger with the University of Texas Pan American to become UT-Rio Grande Valley, which today ranks third in the nation for awarding bachelor’s degrees to Latino students.
She dedicated her efforts at Brownsville to getting more funds for higher education for Latinos in South Texas. She also fostered Latino representation and access through scholarships and competitions, promoting chess and other activities and sports not often associated with the community.
Born in San Juan, Texas, Yzaguirre is the founder and former head of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), which now goes by the name UnidosUS and is the nation’s largest Latino civil rights group. He stepped down from his role in 2004 after 30 years.
Yzaguirre, 82, has been a tireless advocate for the advancement of Latinos in education, voting rights, and other areas. The Smithsonian Museum’s failure to serve and hire Latinos began to change, for example, when Yzaguirre produced a scathing report on the situation, which then became a major reason for the Smithsonian’s approval in 2021 of a National Museum of the American Latino.
Yzaguirre believes Latino representation in spaces like the Smithsonian and in positions of power is important so that the American Dream becomes a reality for the community.
“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,” Yzaguirre said in a statement released by UnidosUS.
UnidosUS’ mission is to eliminate the social, economic, and political barriers affecting Latinos at national and local levels. Since the ’70s, Yzaguirre has been fighting for the rights of Latino immigrants without legal status in the United States, helping shape policies to give them a chance to become lawful permanent residents.
“I am deeply concerned about the continued racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in our country,” Yzaguirre said in his statement. “As a lifelong advocate for fair and just immigration policies, I am greatly relieved that the Biden administration has prevailed in the Supreme Court, and can now eliminate the unjust ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy.”
Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-IL) celebrated Yzaguirre’s medal, tweeting that his former organization partner “has been a pioneer, a trailblazer, and a tireless advocate for our Latino community.”
An organization founded by Congressman García founded called ENLACE (Little Village Community Development Corporation) became a member of NCLR and was a partner organization.
García told Latino Rebels that Yzaguirre never shied away from criticizing presidents —both Democrats and Republicans— when he believed they were not acting in the best interest of the Latino community.
“Whether fighting for voting rights, immigration reform, political and financial empowerment, racial equity, health, or education, Raúl was there as a tireless champion,” he said. “We owe him a debt of gratitude for his lifetime of hard work, dedication, and tireless service for our community.”
Not only are García and Izaguirre both from the Rio Grande Valley but, in an interesting twist, they’re also cousins. The two discovered their familial ties when García told Yzaguirre shortly after meeting him in Washington that his surname 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,'” she told NBC News’ Suzanne Gamboa.
Another seventeen recipients received their medals on Thursday, including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who became the youngest person to receive it, and Steve Jobs, who now joins baseball player Yogi Berra and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as posthumous recipients.
Juan de Dios Sánchez Jurado is a summer correspondent for Futuro Media. A writer, lawyer, and journalist from Colombia, he is currently studying at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.