Politics

East LA legend Ed Roybal receives nation's highest civilian honor

Edward R. Roybal receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award.
Edward R. Roybal receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award.
Library of Congress Office of the Historian

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President Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor to the late East L.A. congressman Edward Roybal on Monday, calling him a hero not just for Latinos but for all Americans.

Obama also awarded the Medal of Freedom to a dozen other Americans, including Stevie Wonder and Meryl Streep. 

In his 30 years in Congress and more than a dozen years on the LA City Council, the President said, Roybal fought for bilingual education, bilingual proceedings in the judicial system, "and to make sure that Hispanic Americans counted. Literally.

"Thanks to him, the census was revised to more accurately count Latinos."

Roybal knew how census numbers translated into political power.

In 1960, nearly 10% of California's population was Latino, but not a single federal or state office was held by a Mexican-American.

The state legislature drew district lines that split up the Latino vote, dividing East Los Angeles into six different congressional districts.

Then-City Councilman Roybal testified about the fragmentation of Latino voting power and communities and pushed for Latino districts. The California Supreme Court ruled the district lines were unconstitutional.

In 1962, Roybal won his seat in Congress.

At the White House ceremony Monday, where a marine band played songs from "My Fair Lady," Congresswoman Lucille Roybal Allard accepted the award on behalf of her father.

His life, she said, became a message to Latinos that "we have value. And that given the opportunity, we have a tremendous amount to offer to this country."

Roybal Allard said it wasn’t until she heard testimonials about her father’s advocacy for AIDS research - at a ceremony  naming the Centers for Disease Control campus after Roybal - that she realized his impact reached far beyond Los Angeles.