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Raúl Yzaguirre (left), Dr. Julieta García (right).
Raúl Yzaguirre (left) and Dr. Julieta García (right) are the two Latinos named in the first slate of winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom under President Joe Biden. Photos: AL DÍA Archives (left), University of Texas (right)

Two Mexican-American powerhouses set to receive Presidential Medals of Freedom

Dr. Julieta García and Raúl Yzaguirre are the latest Latinos to receive the country’s highest civilian honor.

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On Friday, July 1, the White House announced a slate of 17 individuals that will be awarded Presidential Medals of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor for contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors. 

They are the first who will be awarded medals by President Joe Biden.

Among the 17 are Dr. Julieta García and Raúl Yzaguirre, two Mexican-American icons that paved the way in their respective industries for millions to follow.

A first Latina college president

García was born in Brownsville, Texas as the middle child of Mexican immigrants. Her mother died when she was a child, and her father worked as a janitor and then customs representative for Pan-Am.

A trailblazer in higher education, García attended Texas Southmost College (TSC) in Brownsville before going to Southwest Texas State University and then the University of Houston, where she got a bachelors and masters degree.

In 1972, García came back to Brownsville to join the faculty of TSC, got her doctorate at the University of Texas-Austin in 1974, and by 1980, was shortlisted to be the university’s next president. She rose to dean in 1981, and waited another five years, until 1986, to be named the school’s president.

With the title, García became the first Hispanic woman to ever serve as the president of a U.S. college or university. Her time at the helm saw TSC merge with the University of Texas-Brownsville (UTB) in 1991, and she became the president of the newly-formed institution. She stayed in that role until 2011, when the institutions split, and became the president of UTB.

In 2014, with UTB poised to merge with the University of Texas-Pan American and become the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, García announced she would not pursue the presidency at the new institution.

Beyond being a university president, García also served on the board of trustees at the Ford Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, two of the world’s largest philanthropic organizations.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is also only the latest honor to be bestowed upon García, who was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000, is a 2007 recipient of a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Texas-Austin, and was named one of the top 10 college presidents in the country in 2009 by TIME Magazine, to name a few accolades.

Unidos proud

Yzaguirre was also born and raised in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. In 1974, he was elected as the second-ever president of the National Council of La Raza, now known as UnidosUS.

It is the largest Latino nonprofit advocacy organization in the U.S., and that title is due in large part to Yzaguirre's tenure as president, which lasted 30 years, from 1974 until 2004. In that time, the organization grew from a regional advocacy group in the U.S. Southwest with 17 affiliates, to a nationwide one that includes more than 300 in 41 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

He also grew membership to over 35,000, with revenues exceeding $3 million using a combination of corporate and philanthropic contributions, federal funding, and private member donations. 

Yzaguirre also pushed the member base beyond Mexican-Americans, and did outreach to include all U.S. Latino communities, such as Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Colombians, and Dominicans, to name a few.

A longtime civil rights activist, Yzaguirre also stood firm in his critiques of presidential administrations over the decades for their inaction when it came to issues near and dear to U.S. Latinos, and failure to appoint Latino leaders within their cabinets. 

On the latter issue, the advocacy paved the way for the representation seen in President Joe Biden’s administration, which includes three Latino cabinet secretaries. It’s still not enough, but is a major step forward from Yzaguirre’s day, which only began bearing fruit in the late 80s and early 90s.

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Yzaguirre as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. He was confirmed by the Senate in 2010 and served until 2013.

Since 1963, when President John F. Kennedy awarded the first slate of Presidential Medals of Freedom, only 20 Hispanic individuals had ever received one — with most coming during Obama’s presidency. García and Yzaguirre are now the 21st and 22nd to ever receive the honor.

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