Acting as an advocate for others has always come naturally to Mickey Ibarra MEd’80.
That lifetime of advocacy has earned Ibarra the highest honor bestowed by the government of Mexico—the Ohtli Award—in recognition of his contributions to the well-being, prosperity, and empowerment of Latino communities. The Consulate of Mexico in Salt Lake City presented the award, named for an Aztec word that means “pathfinder,” to Ibarra in May.
“I accept this high honor, the Ohtli Award, for my father, Francisco Ibarra, a Zapotec from Oaxaca who came to Utah in 1945 as a bracero to pick fruit in Spanish Fork,” Ibarra said. “And while you can take the man out of Mexico, you can never take Mexico out of the man. It is his courage, pride, hard work, and love of Mexico and the United States that inspired my brother and me to always dream big.”
Francisco Ibarra came to Utah through the Bracero Program, which brought migrant laborers from Mexico to the U.S. to work in crop fields. He soon met and married a young woman from central Utah and landed a better job at Kennecott Copper. While working there, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Germany.
After struggling to care for their two sons, Francisco Ibarra’s wife placed the boys in foster care, where they remained after their father’s return. For Mickey and David, the experience of growing up in Utah County in the 1950s couldn’t have been more different. Mickey thrived, but David, who was shy and angry about being separated from their parents, struggled. David also became the target of blatant racism.
“It was deeply embedded in me that we were together, and I felt responsible for assisting David in making it through that experience,” Mickey says. “By the time I was 15, it was really becoming serious.”
During a brief visit with their father, who had moved to Sacramento, David pushed to join him in California. Francisco Ibarra made it clear that the teenage brothers could not be separated. “After some thought, I reached the conclusion that it was the right decision,” Mickey recalls. “It was time to reunite, to leave Utah.”
The move allowed the brothers to discover their identity as Mexican American kids, Ibarra says. “That wasn’t something we knew in Utah,” he recalls. “We knew we weren’t the same, based on our ethnicity, our skin color.”
Ibarra enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school. He used the G.I. Bill to get a bachelor’s degree in education from Brigham Young University, which he followed with his master’s degree from the University of Utah. Ibarra was named a U Alumnus of the Year in 2001 and a Hinckley Institute of Politics fellow in 2006. He received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the U in 2007.
Ibarra taught at an at-risk high school in Utah County, which led to involvement in the Utah Education Association and then the National Education Association. From 1997-2001, he was director of Intergovernmental Affairs in the Clinton White House. Ibarra then opened his own consulting firm in Washington, D.C. This summer, the firm welcomed its 18th intern from the Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Mickey and his brother, who became a successful entrepreneur, are now focused on giving back. They created the Latino Leaders Network, which honors individuals who are making a positive impact in the U.S. The brothers also established the Ibarra Foundation Scholarship, which provides two-year and four-year college scholarships to Latinos in Utah. To date, the foundation has supported nearly 80 students.
—Brooke Adams is a communications specialist at University Marketing & Communications.