Raúl Yzaguirre Julieta García
Photo: University of Texas at Austin/ Wikimedia Commons
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Mexican American Leaders Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor and this week two Mexican American leaders in civil rights and education were recognized for their work. President Joe Biden presented Julieta García and Raúl Yzaguirre, two Mexican Americans are have helped make advances for the Latinx community in the U.S., with the honor on Thursday, July 7, at the White House. Yzaguirre was the former President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (now known as UnidosUS), the self-proclaimed largest Latino nonprofit advocacy organization in the U.S., from 1974 to 2004. García is a former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the first Latina to serve as a college president.

“I was too Latina, I had a big mouth, I was too young, ” she said during a TedTalk on leadership. “And for some people, I was too educated.” García was also the first Mexican American woman to serve as a college president in the nation. García has led higher education institutions on the South Texas border, including the University of Texas at Brownsville, and Texas Southmost College for nearly six decades.

García played a crucial role in overseeing the merger of the University of Texas with the University of Texas Pan American to become UT-Rio Grande Valley, which mostly serves Latinx students. UT-Rio Grande Valley is also ranked in the top three schools awarding bachelor’s degrees to Latinos. She is now at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley as a communication professor.

Both García and Yzaguirre were born in the South Texas region a decade apart. García, 73, was born in Brownsville, Texas, and Yzaguirre, 82, was born in San Juan, Texas. Each one took the lessons they had learned from growing up in South Texas and used them to advance the education of the Latinx community and to fight against discrimination.

Yzaguirre turned what started out as a small organization with about $500,000 and 23 affiliates and grew it to one with a $40 million budget and 250 affiliates. He stepped down in 2004 after 30 years. He also served as the ambassador to the Dominican Republic under President Barack Obama.

García and Yzaguirre are among 17 people awarded the medal by President Joe Biden including Simon Biles the most decorated American gymnast in history, Diane Nash a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Brigadier General Wilma Vaught one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military, and Denzel Washington an actor, director, producer, and spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for over 25 years.

Correction: July 8, 2022

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Raúl Yzaguirre was the founder of the National Council of La Raza (now known as UnidosUS). He was not the founder but served as President and CEO from 1974-2004.