Lucille Roybal-Allard is rarely at a loss for words.
She is, after all, a U.S. congresswoman – she has given speeches in the House, on the campaign trail, in rallies for immigrants. She is comfortable and eloquent when speaking to the media.
But a few weeks ago, Roybal-Allard struggled to get words out during a phone conversation.
This was a White House official on the other end. He had called to tell Roybal-Allard that her father, the late Rep. Edward Roybal, was selected to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor granted in the United States to civilians who have made important contributions to national security, world peace and cultural achievement.
“I was surprised by the call, and barely managed to say [even] just ‘Thank you,’” said Roybal-Allard in an interview with Fox News Latino. “It was an unbelievable call from the White House.”
Until that call, she said, she had no inkling that her father even was being considered for the honor.
Roybal represented portions of Los Angeles during his 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and founded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He died in 2005.
He is one of 19 Americans tapped to receive the award on Nov. 24.
Robyal-Allard, who represents several suburban communities of Los Angeles and who is the first Mexican-American woman elected to Congress, will be at the Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House on Monday to accept the honor on behalf of her father.
Roybal-Allard, who has served in Congress since 1993, says her father "blazed a trail for generations of Latino politicians and activists."
“What my father modeled for me and my family was community service, giving back to the community, and never forgetting where you came from,” she recalled.
“One thing he said to me that I remember is ‘Never forget where you came from, and don’t confuse the power of the office with who you are as a person.’ It’s the best lesson that any elected official could give.”
Her father was modest about his prominence and his accomplishments. He would go into the community he represented – unannounced – to speak to constituents, to get a feel for their day-to-day life.
In fact, it was only after he died that Roybal-Allard truly gained a sense of his stature and the public’s high regard for him.
Telephone calls and letters came from far and wide, telling his family about how Roybal had helped someone, or how his advice or advocacy for a certain cause had made a significant difference.
“He was never someone who looked for recognition,” she said.
When his children felt he had been snubbed, or robbed of recognition, he quickly corrected them.
“When someone either get credit for something he had done, or he didn’t get credit for some accomplishments, as children we would be upset,” she said. “One thing he’d always say to us was if we accomplish the goal, if the community was helped, then that – and not the credit for doing it – is the only thing that matters.”
Her father encountered a fair share of cynicism and discouraging reactions when he raised ideas for organizing Latinos in an effort to empower them.
But he forged ahead.
When he approached then-House Speaker Tip O’Neil about starting the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the fellow Democrat quipped that there were so few Latino lawmakers, that they could just hold their meetings in a telephone booth, Roybal-Allard said.
And when he wanted to start a national group for Latino elected and appointed officials, many balked, saying that Latinos were too balkanized, too separated by their ethnicity and region of the country, to come together as one entity.
Characteristically, he brushed off the naysayers and formed what came to be known as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO.
“He really believed if Latinos were going to be have a strong voice they had to network and come together at the national level and talk about issues and develop and support policy around those issues,” she said.
“Now NALEO is one of the most respected organizations in the country.”
Others receiving the Medal of Freedom are Chilean author Isabel Allende, actress Meryl Streep, singer Stevie Wonder, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim and actress Marlo Thomas.