Sunday, August 7, 2022

Medal of Freedom awarded to two Latino pioneers in civil rights and education

Two Mexican-Americans who dedicated their lives to fighting for equality and the advancement of Latinos are to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, at the White House on Thursday.

Ral Yazaguirre is the founder and former leader of the National Council of La Raza, considered the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the country, and Juliette García is the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville – the first to serve as a university. Latina President.

Born a decade apart in the Rio Grande Valley, Yazaguirre and García took lessons from their upbringing in the South Texas region to achieve positions of power, which they then called for the end of discrimination and the advancement of Latinos and other people of color. Used to fight

Yazaguirre, 82, born in San Juan, Texas, took a small organization with about $500,000 and 23 associates and grew it into a formidable organization with a budget of $40 million and 250 associates.

The group, which has since been renamed Unidos, has helped shape policy on immigration, education, voting rights and more. Yazaguire resigned from his position in 2004 after 30 years.

He also served as ambassador to the Dominican Republic under President Barack Obama.

Garcia, 73, born in Brownsville, Texas, was president of UT-Brownsville and helped oversee its merger with Texas Pan American University to become UT-Rio Grande Valley, which serves mostly Latinos. He fought for money from the state’s Permanent University Fund to create the university, which has 2.1 million acres of land and revenue from oil and gas leases.

UT-Rio Grande Valley is ranked among the top three schools offering bachelor’s degrees to Latinos.

Yazaguire and Garcia are among 17 people awarded the medal by President Joe Biden on Thursday. Honorees include former Representative Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz.; Olympic gymnast Simone Biles; American football player Megan Rapinoe; actor Denzel Washington; and posthumously, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple.

‘a visionary’

Yazaguirre’s work with UnidosUS drew heavily on bringing together the country’s increasingly diverse Latino population to form a strong political force that could attract the attention of Washington power brokers. The 2020 census counts 62 million Latinos in the US

“Raul didn’t get enough recognition for how visionary he was,” said Lisa Navarrete, who worked with Yazaguirre and is now an adviser to Unidos President Janet Murgia.

“By the early ’70s he was already imagining what the Latino community would become,” Navarrete said.

Yazaguirre was raised by his grandparents and was heavily influenced by his grandfather’s own story when he was killed by the Texas Rangers while he was out of a state-imposed curfew on Mexican Americans and Mexicans at the time. , according to the 2016 biography, “Raul H. Yazaguirre: Stella at the Table of Power,” by Stella Pope Duarte.

Yazaguirre was the civil rights leader of Dr. Hector P. García, a Mexican American physician who formed the civil rights group American GI Forum after witnessing the abuse of Mexican American World War II veterans. Navarret said that García helped channel Yazaguirre to express his anger at the activism over discrimination.

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Yazaguirre’s work continues to have an impact in Washington. Charles Kamasaki, a senior adviser at Unidos, recalled that Yazaguire had decided to agree to a settlement on what would become the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. He did not like the enforcement levels in the bill and worked to improve it until it was finally agreed. The agreement, in 1986, allowed approximately 3 million immigrants without legal status in the US to become lawful permanent residents.

Ral Yazaguirre announced the findings of the Smithsonian-led task force on Latino issues in 1994.Bill O’Leary / The Washington Post via Getty Images File

Yazaguire helped prepare a grim report on the Smithsonian Institution’s failure to serve and hire Latinos, a report that was instrumental in the approval of the National Museum of American Latinos last year.

His tenure was also marked by conflicts with the administration. He left a commission on education and Hispanics in the 1990s, in frustration over its favoritism and delay, and President Lyndon B. The lack of Hispanics in Johnson’s administration led to picketing.

“Raul taught me so much about honesty that I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” said Cecilia Munoz, Obama’s former domestic policy adviser.

Munoz said she was among the first to become pregnant while working on the National Council of La Raza. He asked Yazaguirre if this would end his work there, as many colleagues expected.

“They said, ‘Of course not, we’re family-centric and it’s time to put our money where our mouth is’.” This was before the Family Leave Act in 1992.”

When Yazaguirre was unable to testify on the 1986 immigration bill in the US Senate, he sent Munoz. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. staff suggested reconsidering the council, but Yazaguire asked Munoz to rise to the occasion.

“He developed leaders and I am one of the many, many alumni in the organization who followed his example and made a difference to other organizations and the government,” she said.

Ben Yazaguire, the youngest of his six children, said that as soon as he receives the medal, his father wants people to know that “while his achievements were great and moved our community forward, there is still a lot of work to be done. Immigration Reforms, voting rights, still need attention … to continue making progress.”

Yzaguirre retired in 2013 when his Parkinson’s got worse. He lives in Maryland.

Garcia told NBC News that she met Yazaguirre, whom she respected over the years, in Washington and learned they were cousins ​​when she told her that the name Yazaguire was in her family as well.

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“From then on, when I walked into a room where I was nothing and Raul was always someone, he’d say, ‘Beware my prima,'” or Cousin, she said,

Successful fight to educate the new generation

But Garcia also knew how to fight her own battles. She has often said that growing up with brothers prepared her for the almost all-male domain of college and university presidents.

Garcia’s mother, a fifth-generation Texan, died when Garcia was 9 years old. His father was from Monterrey and came to America as a young boy when his family fled the Mexican Revolution. He came from an educated family and did well in high school. Her mother graduated Salutetarian at her high school in Harlingen, Texas. But a college education was unavailable and inaccessible to her parents, Garcia said.

“Imagine doing well in school but there’s no university to go to or a university you don’t have access to because it’s too far away. We intend to be in the Rio Grande Valley again for another generation.” This should not have happened with him,” she said. He said, referring to the people he worked with to fund the State Permanent University Fund for UT-Rio Grande Valley and its medical school.

“Julieta Garcia believes in the talent and vitality of the people of South Texas,” said Sarita Brown, co-founder and president of Excelencia in Education, a non-profit Latino education advocacy group. “They shared their courage, expertise and commitment to pursue a vision for higher education that serves their community and lights a path for us for the future.”

Garcia said he spent 22 years in the back of the room at university meetings, trying to get part of the funding for UT-Brownsville. The school, as well as UT-Pan American – both of which were heavily Latino in the South Texas area – were the only UT schools that did not receive some money at the time.

García took other steps to improve higher education among Latinos. Under his leadership, the university built its physics program and added a second library to the campus. He promoted student interest in chess through competitions and scholarships, which was not often associated with Latinos.

“We planted a big flag in the UT system. … When we created UT-RGV, it was with the clear objective of getting access to permanent university funds,” García said. “It opened up an everlasting stigma to South Texas and higher education.”

The number of universities majoring Latinas has dwindled in recent years and Garcia said he hopes “teaching the next generation to be advocates” can help change that, including Texas, she said.

“My work has always been to talk about the potential of human capital in the Valley of the Hispanic population in the United States,” he laments.

“Imagine if one day we have a governor in Texas who says, ‘Aren’t we lucky? Look at the number of Hispanic Texans we have,'” she said. “They’re bilingual, they’re bilingual and bicultural. It’s an asset to the world market.”

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