Wisdom Watch

Raul Yzaguirre is the former leader of the National Council of La Raza. He talks about immigration, racism, and the role of Latinos in America.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We all have something to learn from those who've gone before us. That's why every week, we bring you our segment called Wisdom Watch. Today, we chat with former president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, Raul Yzaguirre. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. RAUL YZAGUIRRE (Former President and CEO, National Council of La Raza): My pleasure.

MARTIN: You have such an interesting biography. I understand that you, you know, a lot of boys talk about running away from home and joining, you know, the Merchant Marines, but I understand that you actually did it.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Well, I think running away from home is actually the wrong term. I was running to something, not away from something. I had a wonderful set of parents and a wonderful home. But I yearned for adventure, and I wanted to be my own person and I wanted to earn my own living, and I wanted to sail. And miraculously, it happened.

MARTIN: But you were something like 15, weren't you?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Actually, I was 13 when I…

MARTIN: Thirteen?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How did you manage that? Did you put up your age? Did you lie about your age?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: I was very truthful, but the captain who hired me told me to put 16 on my application for a social security number. I didn't have that. And so actually I'm two years older then I'm - as far as the Social Security Administration is concerned.

MARTIN: So that's why you look so young.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It all goes back to that. And eventually, I think, you did your stint and then you came back and you started your education again. And how did you get involved in civil rights work?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Another fellow shipmate came to me and talked to me about the work of Dr. Hector P. Garcia, who was the founder of something called the American G.I. Forum, which is a Hispanic civil rights veterans organization. And I was just so fascinated by hearing his work and the commitment that he made to deal with discrimination and to improve education among our community that I said, you know, that's something I want to do. And so I went back to school and met Dr. Garcia, and we worked for the next three or four years organizing all over the state.

MARTIN: Did you personally experience discrimination when you were growing up?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Yes. You know, and the sad thing is that most of the time I didn't realize it was happening, and there was - there were just separate academic tracks for, you know, Hispanic kids as there were for Anglo. So if you open your eyes, you could see it's a systemic problem in the course of individual cases of discrimination, which I also encountered.

MARTIN: How did you come to be at La Raza?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: I wrote a proposal that - to the Ford Foundation. That resulted in Ford Foundation selecting three great individuals who formed the National Council of La Raza. They were my clients when I formed the (unintelligible) organization, so I got to know the organization very, very well. And so when the organization began to encounter some problems, they asked me to come in and take it over, and I did in 1974.

MARTIN: Could you talk to me a little bit about the name? Because just on its face, you know, it seems like the National Council of the Race. And, you know, one wonders, why would you have a National Council of the Race? Because the whole thing about being Hispanic or Latino is that Hispanic and Latinos are many, many races.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: We claim everybody as part of our heritage, and we celebrate diversity and the unity of language and culture. And so that's what we're trying to connote, and that's why we understand it. We understand the term La Raza not as a race, but as the people.

MARTIN: And you were going to say in the '80s, what?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: We reached out to of all these communities and incorporated them into our umbrella, made sure that our board reflected their reality, made sure that our staff reflected the demographic reality, and really tried to live our values.

MARTIN: Speaking of uniting people, I'm sure you know that there are people who argue that organizations like La Raza, like any - NAACP and other ethnic groups are inherently divisive. Could you speak to that?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: The only way you are able to negotiate your reality or your existence with a society is to organize. That's - whether it's along labor lines, whether it's along regional lines, whatever it takes. I mean, we're part of a great American tradition of organizing and trying to promote our interest.

MARTIN: But why do you have to organize around racial issues?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Let me give you an example. In California, if you take equally qualified middle school students and look at how they're tracked, you find that there's a direct correlation not with performance, not with merit, but with race and ethnicity. Asians get them tracked into academic tracks, and Anglos get tracked into academics tracks, but African-Americans do not, even though they're performing at the same level. And the lowest group that has tracked into academic college-bound courses are Latinos.

MARTIN: Interesting. Do you ever envision a time when organizations like yours won't be needed?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: I pray for that. I hope for that, the National Council of La Raza turns into a nice, innocuous cultural organization as a sort of a cultural heritage, but does not engage in civil rights. That would be wonderful. I want to work ourselves out of business, and I would rejoice when that day comes.

MARTIN: But it hasn't yet, so let's talk about immigration. How do you feel this issue is going to be resolved?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: The big issue is what do you do with 12 million people who are undocumented in this country? And if you ask the American people what they feel like, they will say, you know, well, we need to do something about that. Number one, it's a problem. And you go through to steps saying here are the options.

Inevitably, they'll say, you know what? What you're going to do is find a way for them to pay a fine, prove that they've committed no crimes, commit themselves to becoming Americanized - and by that, I mean learning civics and learning English - and then allowing them to regulate their status. That's where we - where the American people are at. Unfortunately, that's not where the Congress of the United States is at.

And what I see happening is that we're going to get a bill - not going to be what we wanted to be. It's going to be very punitive in terms of undocumented workers who are present here. And we'll probably be filibustered in the - when the conference bill comes back to the Senate. Two weeks ago, I was very - I was optimistic. I'm less optimistic now than I was there, but it's a roller coaster. So I - if we don't do it by August of this year, it's not going to happen.

MARTIN: Because of the presidential election?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Precisely.

MARTIN: Speaking of which?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Yes?

MARTIN: I hear you're supporting Hillary Clinton. Is that true?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Indeed, absolutely. She's the best candidate we have.

MARTIN: Why do you think she's the best candidate?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: She has the toughness. She has the comprehension of issues. She has the qualifications. She is a uniter. She proved that in New York. I've gotten to know her, and I know she's tough and she has a vision of this country - the future of this country that I support.

MARTIN: You know, there's a guy…

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: But you know…

MARTIN: …there's a guy running from New Mexico, a governor of Mexico that a lot of people like. They think he's tough, charismatic, and they also say that governors tend to make pretty good presidents. What about him?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: I like him as well, and I'm sure that next November, a year from this November, he'll be working for the nominee of the Democratic Party.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Is that hard? Seriously, is that hard as a - you're such a prominent Latino leader.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Of course, of course, it is. It's very - it peeves me that I have to make that choice, but that's what this is about. This issue is about making choices.

MARTIN: If you had the opportunity to speak to someone, a young Raul Yzaguirre, somebody like you who's just starting out and wanted to be of service, what would you recommend? What is that path that you would urge that person to take?

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: Question your intentions. What it is that you really want to do? If you're looking for glory, if you're looking for riches, this is not where you want to be. You have to have a willingness to serve, being a servant leader, and be willing to accept criticism.

If you can examine yourself and say this is what I really want, and I want to do it for the right reasons, then I ask you to seriously consider being in public service because the emotional rewards are enormous. I wouldn't change anything that I've done, and very I'm pleased and I feel good about being Raul Yzaguirre.

MARTIN: Okay. That's wonderful. Raul Yzaguirre was president and CEO for 30 years of the National Council of La Raza. He's now the presidential professor of practice in community development and civil rights at Arizona State University.

Mr. Yzaguirre, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. YZAGUIRRE: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, we remember Yolanda King and the calling that drove her life.

Ms. YOLANDA DENISE KING (Rev. Martin Luther King's Eldest Daughter): We are all connected. And so it's those kinds of values and that kind of passion that fuels me.

MARTIN: Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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