‘Medal of Freedom’ Bestowed on Latina Labor Activist

By María Peña, Servicios EFE

President Barack Obama on Tuesday presented the “Medal of Freedom,” the highest civilian honor granted in the U.S., to Mexican American activist Dolores Huerta and 12 other persons whom he described as “individual heroes.”

During a packed ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Obama said each of the award recipients had “profoundly” changed his life. Some of the achievements that had earned them this place in history were cited during the award ceremony.

The president highlighted Huerta’s militancy in organizing farm workers, and how her slogan “Yes we can!” was “stolen” for his 2008 election campaign.

In 1962, Huerta and Cesar Chavez founded the National Association of Rural Workers, which went on to become the “UFW,” the most influential union for farm laborers in the country.

During a roundtable discussion with Spanish-language media held before the White House ceremony, the octogenarian activist — who has 11 children, 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren— said Hispanics now number 52 million people in the U.S., but will only make a difference if they get organized and if those who can, register to vote.

“We have to bring the marches to neighborhood streets, and mobilize people to vote. Democracy will suffer if we do not organize … If we do not take civic and political action, nothing will change,” said Huerta, insisting that immigration reform will come only if “poor people, working people” are organized.

During the ceremony, Obama said the eclectic group of winners has left a mark on the nation and are a “phenomenal” group.

‘What distinguishes these men and women is the incredible impact they have had on so many people, not in short stunning blows, but for a lifetime,” Obama said. They have all “enriched our lives.”

Stressing his personal connection with some of the honorees, Obama noted the impact made by the works of novelist Toni Morrison, and the songs by Bob Dylan, and the heroism of retired astronaut John Glenn.

Dylan captured in his songs “something about this country that was so vital,” and many artists, “from Bruce Springsteen to U2 should be grateful. There is no bigger giant in the history of American music,” Obama said.

The president said he chose Glenn for the award because in his mind, his exploits, including being the third American in space and the first to orbit the Earth, makes him “a hero in every sense” of the word.

The medal recipient list also includes Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as Secretary of State (1997-2001), leading efforts to expand NATO and strengthen its leadership in the fight against terrorism, in addition to spearheading peace efforts in Africa and the Middle East; Attorney John Doar for his leadership during the civil rights era; Dr. William Foege, who helped to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s; African American novelist Toni Morrison, the retired Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens and basketball great Patricia “Pat” Summitt.

Obama presented the award posthumously to relatives of three of the winners: Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927), founder of the Girl Scouts; Jan Karski (1914-2000), Polish-American who fought the Nazis in World War II, and Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012 ), a sociologist who led the resistance to the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps during that war.

Obama said he would issue the 1994 Nobel Prize medal to President Shimon Peres, when it arrives at the White House next month.

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May 31, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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