McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — South Texas border leaders Juliet García, former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, and civil rights icon Raúl Yzaguirre Sr., are both to receive the nation’s highest civilian honors.

García and Yzaguirre are to be presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday by President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., according to a White House statement.

They are among 17 recipients selected by Biden that include artists, Olympic medalists, two former senators, religious and medical leaders, actor Denzel Washington and Steve Jobs, the former CEO and founder of Apple Inc.

For nearly six decades, García has led higher education institutions on the South Texas border, including the University of Texas at Brownsville, and Texas Southmost College. She was the first Mexican-American woman to serve as a college president in the United States.

García is currently a University of Texas Rio Grande Valley communication professor.

“I’ve always believed that educating the next generation of citizens was our primary mission because once educated, they would help nurture, defend, and sustain the democracy of the United States. I believe that now more than ever,” García said in a statement issued by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “It’s been a great privilege to spend a lifetime in advocacy working with hundreds of honorable and courageous people.”

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley combined UT Brownsville and the University of Texas Pan American and opened in 2015 along the South Texas border. Courtesy of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

The Texas Legislature in 2013 voted to create UTRGV by combining UT-Brownsville and the University of Texas-Pan American.

In 2014, García, who is from the border town of Brownsville, stepped down from her presidency at UT-Brownsville. At that point, she had been an academic president for 59 years, a position, she told The 19th in a January article, was often lonely as the sole Latina in the room.

“My job was always to thrust open doors of opportunity for students to learn, compete, and succeed in the classics, chess, physics, or the performing arts. We did this by building a campus that unapologetically honors our cultural and environmental heritage, and then by filling it up with brilliant faculty and dedicated staff,” she said.

“Juliet Villarreal García personifies the American dream. As the first Mexican-American woman to lead a U.S. college or university, Dr. García has been the inspirational force behind countless individuals who made public service their life’s work and students who realized their academic potential,” UT System Chancellor James Milliken said in a statement. “I am proud to call her one of our own – as a distinguished alumna of The University of Texas at Austin and President of UT Brownsville – and I congratulate Dr. García on this prestigious and well-deserved honor.”

Raul Yzaguirre was president of the National Council of La Raza for 30 years. (Photo Courtesy the Raul Yzaguirre Schools For Success)

Yzaguirre, from the South Texas border town of San Juan, has been a civil rights advocate who served as CEO and president of the National Council of La Raza from 1974 to 2004. During that time he elevated the nonprofit from a regional advocacy group to a national voice for Hispanic communities.

He also served as U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic under President Barack Obama.

He also has received the Rockefeller Public Service Award from Princeton University; the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; and the Charles Evan Hughes Gold Medal Award for courageous leadership by the National Conference for Community and Justice. He was also one of the first Hispanic fellows of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is a lifetime member of that school’s Council on Foreign Relations, according to the Raul Yzaguirre Schools for Success, a charter school system which has classes in Houston and Brownsville.

The other 15 recipients on Thursday of the Presidential Medal of Freedom include:

  • Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles.
  • Catholic nun Sister Simone Campbell, who works for immigration reform.
  • Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona.
  • Former Alabama State Rep. Fred Gray, a lawyer who defended Rosa Parks.
  • Apple Co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs.
  • Former Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Father Alexander Karloutsos.
  • Khizr Khanis, a Gold Star father and founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center.
  • New York nurse Sandra Lindsay who served on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Former Sen. John McCain, a Republican who ran for president, who died in 2018.
  • Civil rights advocate Diane Nash who worked with Martin Luther King.
  • Olympic gold medalist in soccer Megan Rapinoe.
  • Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming.
  • Former AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who died in 2021.
  • Brigadier Gen. Wilma Vaughtis, one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military.
  • Two-time Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at