Living With A White Mormon Family As A Foster Kid Was ‘A Real Identity Struggle’ Yet Something That Shaped His Career
Mickey Ibarra is a Latino political pioneer and has been serving our community for the past 30 years.
His resume for public service is impeccable: he was Director of The White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs under the Clinton administration, worked for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund Board, and, among many other accomplishments, is the founder of Latino Leaders Network, a nonprofit that brings leaders together to share personal stories of the obstacles they conquered in order to help them achieve success.
Interestingly enough, Ibarra understands what it means to face obstacles and thrive despite them. “Started from the bottom” is an understatement when it comes to Ibarra especially when you consider that for him, the bottom was at two-years-old when he became an orphan.
How is it possible for a young boy — along with his younger brother — to endure a life of instability and racism and come out of that as a success? Ibarra tells mitú he had no other choice but move forward. Ibarra says that his life was turned upside down when his young father and mother divorced when he was two, sending his life into unknown turmoil.
“My father, a very dark indio from Oaxaca, Mexico, came to this country in 1945, and worked as a bracero.” Ibarra says. “He met my mother along the way who was white of European descent. They married when she was just 16.”
“I’ll tell you, a Mexican married to a white woman in Salt Lake City, Utah in the early ’50s was not a socially acceptable thing to do.”
Needless to say, that was just one of the many factors why Ibarra’s parents got divorced. Soon after his father went to fight the Korean War, Ibarra and his younger brother, David, were placed in foster care.
For the remainder of their adolescent lives, one of the families that cared for Ibarra and his brother was a Mormon family.
They lived with the Smith family for six years in Provo, Utah. Ibarra says that during this time, Mormons had a practice of taking kids right off the Indian reservation and placed them with white families that agreed to take them in and provide care and schooling. Ibarra says that they were often mistaken for being Native American. He recalls this period as not very pleasant, especially for his brother David who was darker than him.
“We were known to be the Indian kids, and I guess in many respects we were,” Ibarra says with a chuckle. “We definitely stood out… I’m here to tell you skin color makes a difference.”
Ibarra says that one thing he and his brother hated more than anything was being asked by people “so why are you living with the Smith family?” Ibarra says that question always forced them to remember that they were abandoned by their parents.
“It was a real struggle,” Ibarra says. “A real identity struggle.”
At 15, Ibarra and his brother were finally able to reunite with their father who by that time was living in Sacramento. It was only then that they were able to reconnect with their Mexican roots and their family.
His father went to the Hollywood Beauty College under the GI bill and opened The Mona Lisa House of Beauty, in Sacramento. After Ibarra finished high school he enrolled in Brigham Young University, and because he didn’t do well during his freshman year he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. However, he re-enrolled in Brigham Young, and graduated cum laude in political science.
His career in politics began during his senior year when he participated in the school’s Washington Seminar Program. Ibarra was assigned to the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers union. That truly kicked off his teaching and advocacy career which would lead up to a job with Bill Clinton.
In 1984, Ibarra moved to D.C. as he took a bigger role with the NEA. In 1996, he took a leave of absence to join Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign.
“My leap to the White House didn’t happen immediately,” Ibarra told CNN. “After winning, Clinton’s chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, offered me a deputy position.”
While Ibarra never planned on working at the White House, his father and foster families instilled that an education would be crucial to his success. Clearly they were right.
His jobs at the White House consisted of serving as assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House in 1997, serving as one of the highest-ranking members of President Clinton’s senior staff.
It’s been three decades since Ibarra first began his career of serving the Latino community — and he’s not done by any means.
“Mickey is an incredible advocate for our community — not just the Latino community but for all communities of this great country,” former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wrote “Mickeyisms: 30 Tips for Success,” Ibarra’s book foreword. “He is a man who lives by his words. Others may try to tear us down but we must build each other up.”
We asked Ibarra what he thought of our politically divided country and whether Latino leaders should work with Donald Trump’s administration or resist it, to that, he said this:
“In these times of struggle, I think it’s important to re-commit ourselves to engagement. There’s a need for engagement now more than ever. Yes, it is challenging,” Ibarra said of our current political climate. “And we can be down about it but none of that will help change anything.
“We as a Latino community cannot have it both ways. We cannot demand to have a seat at the table, and then when a seat at the table is provided to us not walk through the door and accept it. We need to really consider that responsibility not just to ourselves but to our community.”
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