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Chico State

5 Questions with Alumnus Armando Ibarra

Armando Ibarra poses and smiles with trees in the background.
Photo courtesy of Katie Vaughn / University of Wisconsin, Madison

Armando Ibarra (Sociology, Spanish, ’99; MA, Public Administration, ’02) is an associate professor in the Department of Labor Education at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, where he has taught since 2011 and where he is also the director of Chican@ and Latin@ Studies. From his childhood as a farmworker to meeting Cesar Chavez as a college student, he has remained a staunch advocate for the rights of farmworkers throughout his academic career and coauthored two books on that theme (with a third in the works). In 2018, he coauthored The Latino Question: Politics, Laboring Classes, and the Next Left—which this year was named the Best Book in Latino Politics by the Latino Caucus of the American Political Science Association.

What path led you to Chico State?

I grew up in a farmworker labor camp right outside Gridley. As an immigrant farmworker family, we did a lot of seasonal crops there—that’s how we survived. Then we moved out to some housing that was closer to the fields in the Yuba County area. I went to Marysville High School during a time when there was a lot of uncertainty for immigrant families and open racism and xenophobia. I ended up connecting to Chico State through Upward Bound. When I was a junior in high school, I was able to apply for and was accepted into the program. I was exposed to Chico State, took some classes there, worked on campus, and really learned about higher ed in a way that was substantive. We only knew about college—we didn’t know what college was—so Upward Bound really exposed me to those experiences.

What was your transition from high school to college like?

It was really difficult. Coming from this farmworker background to an institution of higher learning, it was another world for me. EOP (the Educational Opportunity Program) really assisted in that transition. To not say that there were key people in both Upward Bound and EOP that guided me would be a mistake. Programs are only successful because of the people who run them. I found some genuinely invested professionals in these programs that assisted me that I’m sure have helped hundreds, maybe even thousands, of folks like me transition out of poverty by giving access to higher ed with their programs. Some of the key individuals in my experience were Homer Metcalf and Laurie Wermuth from the Department of Sociology, Diana Dwyre from the Department of Political Science, and Dave Ferguson from Upward Bound.

If it wasn’t for EOP, if it wasn’t for Upward Bound, if it wasn’t for these faculty members that accepted me into the space and actually taught me, there’s no way I would be a professor today. Doors were opened that I didn’t know existed.

What was your Chico Experience like?

One of the things that I reflect back on with my experience at Chico is having the space to learn, and having the space where I could engage with books. I would spend hours at the library just reading or watching movies on the top floor. It was almost like a sanctuary, where I could just go and engage in reading and have access to all of these books and documentaries I’d never had access to.

It also opened my life to this global culture. I remember attending many of the cultural events, from listening and dancing to music from other countries to lecture series. I still remember meeting Cesar Chavez on campus and listening to his lecture when he was working on the UFW’s campaign to expose the dangers of pesticides on farm workers. To this day, that brief connection and learning from Cesar in that context, as an 18- or 19-year-old person, is something that resonates today in my classroom, academic settings, and at public events whenever I’m speaking on issues of farmworkers. And it happened because people at Chico State offered the campus community this special and rare opportunity.

Why is your book The Latino Question important?

That was a really difficult book to write, because [I and co-authors Alfredo Carlos and Rodolfo D. Torres] knew we were engaged in an academic enterprise that was going against the grain, with regards to the field of political science. I had been working for a few years on conceptualizing a way of thinking about mass labor migration from Mexico. My foundational research questions are, “Why are there so many Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the US? And is there a pattern of mass migration that stretches over a hundred years?” We really tried to identify some of the root mechanisms that connected generational and sustained migration.

Part of my dissertation was to understand the folks who lived in the labor camps. One of the things I kept seeing over and over was this connection to the Bracero Program and NAFTA (North American Fair Trade Agreement) and later on to programs like IRCA (Immigration Reform and Control Act)—these really large and important US policy initiatives that pointed to one thing that preceded mass labor migration from Mexico to the US. We looked at that, and we came up with a theory we called the “Empire Theory of Migration.” Our theory looks at immigration through a power-driven analytical lens of looking at power, in the sense of the power the US has over the economies of Mexico and now other countries, and now similar dynamics are taking place in most Central and South American countries. Our book and research demonstrate that mass movement of people doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In the case of Mexico, mass migration occurs in a very intentional and calculated manner. As, with Mexico being in an unequal relationship with the US. Just as important, we show how the dynamics of identity and politics for this community are built on top of the antagonism found in production relations.

What advice would you give your graduating self?

I look at some of my students, and I see myself in them. I don’t know quite what their unique situation is, but I understand what they’re going through. If I was giving myself advice, it would be: You belong. You belong here as much as any other student. Second, you’re bringing skills that can be transferred into being a successful student. Those skills, your work ethic from being a farmworker, it’s something that cannot be taught overnight. So, if you’re able to see that knowledge production in school is also a job, then you already got this. If you’re 18 years of age and you’ve been working for 14 years, you’re a seasoned pro when it comes to being able to understand that there are responsibilities, time commitments, and the finished product. You just have to be taught how to translate those into schoolwork.