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President Biden to award Latino civil rights icon Raul Yzaguirre the Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Biden to award Latino civil rights icon Raul Yzaguirre the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Latino civil rights advocate Raul Yzaguirre is among the 17 people the White House on Friday said would be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Yzaguirre is best known as the longtime head of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), now known as UnidosUS, the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization.

Yzaguirre’s tenure at the head of NCLR spanned 30 years, during which 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 will receive our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his decades of distinguished and tireless service to his country and to his community,” said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS.

Yzaguirre was born in 1939 in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, son to a Mexican American customs official who worked the Brownsville-Matamoros border. His grandfather was a laborer who witnessed first-hand oppression against Mexican Americans in Texas, once coming close to being lynched by a group of Texas Rangers.

Throughout his youth, Yzaguirre saw the civil rights landscape transform from outright persecution to segregation and the inequalities of the Vietnam War era.

While Yzaguirre’s stint in the Air Force came before major combat operations in Vietnam, his early political activism was in part driven by discrimination faced by young Latino servicemen coming back from war.

As a student at George Washington University in 1964, Yzaguirre was one of the organizers of the National Organization for Mexican American Services, a group that was targeted by the Johnson administration.

“Raul was never afraid to take on a fight, especially when it was on behalf of those without a voice or power. He always managed to walk the fine line between relentless advocacy for a cause while being open to compromise, a quality so rarely on display today,” Murguía said.

Yzaguirre was able to transform that early advocacy work into a following, eventually creating enough political capital to score, along with other civil rights leaders, a dinner invitation to meet with President Johnson in the White House.

Yzaguirre’s political growth led him to be elected as president of the NCLR in 1974 amid internal strife in the organization.  “During his time as President and CEO, it grew from a tiny, struggling organization with a small budget and a handful of Affiliates to an American institution recognized as one of a dozen of the most impactful nonprofits in the U.S., with nearly 300 Affiliates,” said Murguía, who in 2005 succeeded Yzaguirre as head of the NCLR. “And in his tenure, NCLR became a key player in lifting up the Hispanic community and was responsible for countless policy changes on issues such as education, homeownership, immigration, healthcare, and workforce development that have had a profound impact on millions of people, including Latinos,” she added.

After his retirement from the NCLR, Yzaguirre served as President Obama’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic, a position he was confirmed to after significant wrangling in the Senate.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was in the Senate that confirmed Yzaguirre as ambassador, was named Friday by President Biden as a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. “People often say I’m a maverick, well that name really fits my friend Raul Yzaguirre. He’s an original maverick. Raul is his own person who believes in doing the right things regardless of public opinion,” McCain once said of Yzaguirre.  Yzaguirre and McCain will be honored at the White House Thursday along with 15 other recipients, including civil rights and labor leaders, artists and athletes. “Raul has worked since he was a youth to give the forgotten much-needed recognition, the voiceless a voice, to right egregious wrongs, to unite a growing and diverse community, to build bridges with other communities, and most of all, to fulfill the promise of America to all who call it home. That his legacy and contributions to our nation are at long last being celebrated is monumental. Raul’s story is a story every American should know,” Murguía said.