Armando Ibarra knows firsthand the exhaustive challenges of agricultural labor—an experience that helps fuel his scholarship and fierce advocacy for the rights of workers. Coming of age in a farmworker labor camp along the Feather River outside Gridley and harvesting prunes from the ground during summer breaks in the North Valley, he recalls years later being viewed as an outsider getting bused to public schools. Today Ibarra (Sociology, Spanish, ’99; MA, Public Administration, ’02) is a professor of labor and working-class studies in the School for Workers | Department of Labor Education and Chican@ and Latin@ Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he has been since 2011. Ibarra’s research and fields of specialization are Chicano/a Latino/a working communities, social movements, international labor migration, leadership development, and community-based participatory, and action research. He credits Chico State’s Summer Bridge and Educational Opportunity Program in helping open the door to higher education and faculty like Jaime Raigoza, John Ebeling, and Diana Dwyre for stoking his insatiable intellectual curiosity.

Considered a foremost scholars in his field, Ibarra (who earned his PhD in Political Science from UC Irvine in 2010) is an accomplished author, including co-writing 2018’s “The Latino Question: Politics, Laboring Classes and the Next Left,” respected public intellectual, and has received numerous awards recognizing his scholarship, work with labor rights, family advocacy, and education of worker communities in essential industries such as the agricultural and food processing industries. Ibarra is being honored as the 2023 Distinguished Alumni of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

Ibarra lives in Madison with his wife and fellow Chico State graduate, Veronica (Psychology, ‘06; MS, Marriage and Family Therapy, ‘10). They have four children.

How is your experience working as a seasonal farmworker central to your work?

Being able to keep center to my profession the experience as a working-class immigrant farmworker growing up in rural Northern California is something I keep true and dear to my heart. Fast forward 30, 40 years later, what we see here in the Midwest is that working people in the agriculture and food processing industry face many of the same challenges as I saw growing up in Northern California. There’s a lot to be done in terms of elevating the voices of workers, especially food processing workers or agricultural workers, and actually giving these folks the placement in American society they deserve. These communities truly are the anchors of American society and need to be seen in that light.

What are the challenges workers in the agricultural and food processing industries continue to face?

These are old questions with very new dynamics. I model my work around the work of the scholar-activist Ernesto Galarza. He has a piece called “Poverty in the Valley of Plenty” (published in its entirety in our edited book Man of Fire: Selected Writings of Ernesto Galarza), which documents the National Farm Labor Union’s 1948 strike against the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation. He used personal and first-hand accounts of workers in struggle as primary data for this report. He believed that Action Research—research with a purpose—could play a role in moving toward a more just society. Today, workers in these industries face a very similar context rooted in labor exploitation as many did during the ‘40s and ‘50s. Most work full-time, often in family units, and provide sustenance for the rest of society. And at the same time, they can’t afford the same sustenance or the same style of living because they are “working but poor” folks. “Working but poor” folks can be found in almost any industry in the US today. That people work full-time but continue to live in poverty is not only one of the great paradoxes, but also one of the contradictions of American society. If you’re working full time, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to live outside of poverty, in my humble estimation. The other one is immigration status. Many of the folks working in the agricultural, food processing, service, construction, and many other industries have an unauthorized immigration status. It’s estimated there are between 11 and 12 million unauthorized people in this country, and in industries like food processing and agriculture, a large percentage of workers are unauthorized. They live in the shadows of society without being able to engage fully and freely in the daily activities within the communities they call home. This is concerning to many of us because then the social fabric of our country really isn’t woven in a manner that makes it strong—these groups of people, who are part of our everyday lives that we’re interdependent with, are living in the shadows and in fear much of the time, because of their immigration status. In Wisconsin, dairy is one of the top industries in the state. It’s estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the dairy industry workforce are immigrants from Latin American countries—and the vast majority of these workers are Mexican immigrants with an unauthorized immigration status. So, the state of Wisconsin, which prides itself on the dairy industry, survives, but more importantly thrives, because of Latino immigrants and mostly undocumented workers across the state.

How do you shake things up and create positive change in your work today?

Traditionally, the scholar comes in, extracts knowledge from the study population, produces scholarship, makes recommendations, gets publications, and then moves up the profession. Many of us who do community-based research are now engaging with communities at a much more respectful and deeper level, in the sense that you’re no longer extracting knowledge, but you’re producing knowledge democratically and the communities you’re in partnership with. One such project I’m working on right now is with an organization called Voces de la Frontera, a pro-immigrant, pro-worker, and pro-labor rights organization in Wisconsin with a real large presence in the state. A couple of years ago, after the pandemic hit, workers from different industries across the state contacted Voces because nobody knew what was going on with the pandemic. People were scared of getting sick and they were looking for ways to mitigate or lessen the impact of the spread of COVID-19 in their workplaces—and by extension, in their homes and in their communities. What resulted was a collaboration between my department at UW Madison and Voces and we have built what’s called an “essential workers rights network” in the state of Wisconsin. Within this network, folks are trained on COVID-19 mitigating strategies and are also being educated in labor and worker rights. About 200 essential workers in the state of Wisconsin are in this network right now, mostly Spanish speaking, and have gone through a series of three-day institutes and monthly one-hour trainings. That creates a more informed person within the workspace, and they become conduits of change by taking that learning to their families and into their communities, as well.

What advice would you give your freshman self?

First, you belong here just as much as anybody else. Growing up, we were always the outsiders, kids who were bused in to go to school from the labor camp or other housing near the work orchards. We were the outsiders when I went to high school in Marysville, we were the immigrant kids that spoke Spanish and tried to integrate into these communities. The second thing is that things will get better. Probably the most important lesson I could give myself is: you got this. You bring with you something that most folks don’t have at age 17 or 18. You know how to work, you know what it’s like to go work for 40 hours a week and to get something done. Now, if you can translate those skills into school, school is just work, right? If we can come from the position that we’re all equally intellectually capable, then it’s a matter of the skills, the time, and the work that you put into learning those different subject matters. When you write, you write one word at a time. When you learn, you learn a little bit at a time. And all of that collectively makes a difference in the long run.