Latino Civil Rights Advocate Raúl Yzaguirre Among the 17 Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Raúl Yzaguirre BELatina Latinx
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For 30 years, Raúl Yzaguirre headed one of the most important Latino civil rights organizations in the United States — the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

Under his leadership, the organization grew from a regional advocacy group to a powerful and influential national operation.

Now, the work of this tenacious Latino will be recognized by President Biden.

The White House announced last Friday that Raúl Yzaguirre is among 17 individuals to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

A Lifetime of Commitment

Raúl Yzaguirre was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. The son of Mexican-American parents, Yzaguirre has often said that his earliest memories of social injustice are directly tied to what his grandmother called a “race war” in his native Texas.

Mexicans had a curfew at the time, and Yzaguirre’s grandfather was a near-lynching victim one night.

This early social consciousness would lead Raúl Yzaguirre to join the Southwest Council of La Raza. Founded in 1968, the organization changed its name to the National Council of La Raza in 1972 and moved its offices to Washington, D.C., shortly after that.

Since 1974, Yzaguirre served as NCLR’s second president. Under his leadership, the organization grew from a regional advocacy group with 17 affiliates to more than 300 serving 41 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Yzaguirre broadened the membership criteria to include not only ethnic Mexicans but also Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Argentines, Cubans, Venezuelans, and other Hispanic subgroups. This paved the way for the National Council for La Raza to open offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio, and San Juan. Since then, NCLR has added offices in New York and Atlanta.

The Need for Accountability

In addition to leading the most influential Latino civil rights organization in the nation’s history, Raúl Yzaguirre also used his platform to hold leaders accountable for policy decisions that put the community at risk.

In fact, Yzaguirre was fired as chairman of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Hispanic Advisory Commission for publicly criticizing President Carter’s immigration reform proposals.

 Yzaguirre also criticized President George H.W. Bush for his affirmative action stance. Bush for his affirmative action stance, even after he had agreed to be the first sitting president to appear at an NCLR Annual Conference. 

The NCLR director criticized President Clinton for appointing too few Hispanics to key positions and for the 1996 welfare reform law, which NCLR considered detrimental to the Hispanic community, and resigned as chairman of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans in protest of the political machinations.

President Barack Obama appointed Yzaguirre as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 2009, a post in which he served until 2013.

Now, President Biden has named this leader as one of the deserving recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Today, we are so proud, honored, and moved that our President Emeritus Raúl 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.

“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,” she added.