The work and life of UnidosUS President Emeritus Raul Yzaguirre are an example of the many contributions Latinos have made to the United States. Raul has been a difference-maker from his beginnings as a young advocate in his native South Texas, to becoming a leading voice for Latinos at the highest levels of government as President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (now UnidosUS). It is a monumental legacy that today receives rightful recognition from the nation’s highest office as President Joe Biden awards Raul Yzaguirre the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A lifelong legacy of impact
As we recently said in our statement when the award was announced: “Raul is a pioneer and trailblazer who has dedicated his life to fighting for justice and equality, and he holds much of the responsibility for building the Hispanic civil rights movement into the force that it is today.”
Raul led the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) as its President and CEO from 1974 to 2004. He spearheaded the organization’s growth from a tiny, struggling group with a very limited budget and a handful of Affiliates to an American institution recognized as one of the most impactful nonprofit organizations in the U.S.—one with nearly 300 Affiliates. This impact is no surprise given the trajectory of Raul’s life.
Raul was born on July 22, 1939 and grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. His commitment to his community started at a young age—he was just 15 when he founded the American GI Forum Juniors, an auxiliary organization of the American GI Forum, a Mexican American veterans and civil rights group. The next year he became the GI Forum’s youngest Board member.
Some years later, in 1966 Raul began working as a program analyst at the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity’s Migrant Division in Washington, DC, and received his Bachelor of Science at George Washington University in 1968. In 1969 he continued to break ground by founding and leading Interstate Research Associates, the first Mexican American nonprofit research consulting firm, which would go on to have 11 offices throughout the country. This was a preview of the expansive work he would lead at the National Council of La Raza.
Raul’s work towards a unified latinidad was truly visionary. As has been documented by social scientists, Raul played the key role in building a “pan-ethnic” Hispanic/Latino movement and consciousness across all the multiple nationalities and ethnicities in our community. He also understood and respected the Latino community’s complexity and diversity. He sought to educate all Americans about those differences as well as the community’s shared values, culture and interests, including the many values shared by most Americans.
As a manifestation of that vision, in 1979 NCLR explicitly became a “pan-Latino” organization and led the effort to create a “Hispanic” category on the 1980 Census. This was no small feat. Today most of us take for granted that the U.S. Census formally recognizes what is now the nation’s largest ethnic minority. But this wasn’t the case before 1980. It was thanks to Raul’s sustained advocacy and NCLR’s ability to research and respond to the changing socioeconomic status of this community that this occurred.
Raul also built bridges across communities in a shared vision for a more inclusive country. He was the first Latino elected to the executive committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and was recognized as the first Hispanic to be selected for the Rockefeller Public Service Award, presented by Coretta Scott King on behalf of the Trustees of Princeton University. In another first, Raul served as the first Hispanic Chair of the Independent Sector, a coalition of major nonprofits and foundations. That legacy of partnership and commitment across communities continues today at UnidosUS.
Leading a growing community
Raul’s leadership brought about important contributions to NCLR and the Hispanic communities we serve including:
- The creation of one of the nation’s largest and most successful homeownership networks and a major network of Affiliate-based charter and independent schools;
- Being a key player in the development of critical innovations in health workforce development, and many other areas.
- Advocating for immigration reforms that gave legal status to three million previously undocumented people, doubled legal immigration, and created the Temporary Protected Status category.
- Advocating for the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and creation of the Child Tax Credit, which together lift millions of children out of poverty.
Under Raul’s leadership NCLR also catalyzed changes in the country’s entertainment and culture scenes. This included the creation of the American Latino Media Awards (ALMA Awards), the first Latino-themed media awards program broadcast on national television. NCLR was also involved in the production and release of among the first feature films that accurately depicted the Latino experience in the US, including The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez starring Edward James Olmos and the Milagro Beanfield War, produced by Moctezuma Esparza and directed by Robert Redford.
And this legacy of impact on American culture continues to bear fruit today and for future generations. In 1994 Raul chaired a Smithsonian panel that produced Willful Neglect, the landmark report that first recommended the creation of a Latino-themed museum on the mall. In December of 2020, Congress voted to create a National Museum of the American Latino.
Raul’s story is one that every American should know
At a time when the extremes on any issue appear to rule the day, Raul’s career is an example of the power of compromising to achieve your goals. “Raul was never afraid to take on a fight, especially when it was on behalf of those without a voice or power,” says UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía. “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.”
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is a fitting tribute to this lifelong advocacy. And it is an American story that everyone in this country should know.