LOOKING FOR A CHALLENGE,
AN IMMIGRANT FINDS THE MARINES
The U.S. Marine Corps wasn’t on Jose Ibarra’s mind when he immigrated to the United States in 1989 at the age of 19. A native of Zacatecas, Mexico, he became a farmworker, working in the fields of California before traveling further north.
In his early 20s, he settled in Eugene and found himself on the steps of the University of Oregon. The university offered a three-month program where Ibarra earned his GED despite knowing little English. Soon after, Ibarra was then accepted into the university, where soon he began his college studies.
He seemed to be on a fast track toward that life he had immigrated for, but Ibarra wanted something different. He said he needed a change. One day he stopped by a recruiting station at the school, and before he knew it, he passed physical qualifications, background checks, and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
“For a long time, I was thinking about the military,” said Ibarra. “I wanted to see how I could challenge myself. I was very fairly new to the United States… I thought to myself, ‘I want to be a part of something like that.’”
Ibarra, now 55, served six years in the U.S. Marine Corps stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. He achieved the rank of corporal while working in the administrative sector of the camp. Some of his duties included maintaining service books and writing promotions and disciplinary actions for the command.
Today, Ibarra lives in Portland, serving as a program specialist for the Multnomah County Commission for Economic Dignity. He works with dozens of community advocates — many contracted through culturally specific non-profit agencies.
Ibarra credits his service as a significant turning point in his life, but that doesn’t mean everything went smoothly. There was a slight language barrier, which resulted in Ibarra being disciplined for laughing, which often occurred because he was sometimes unsure of what people were saying. More noticeable, however, was a cultural divide, Ibarra said.
While everyone complained about military life, he remembers that some recruits from prominent families seemed to get preferential treatment. As a first-generation immigrant, he knew that was not an option, but it never deterred him. Ibarra said he didn’t have time for self-doubt and believed he was physically, mentally and intellectually capable.
“This is nothing new to me — this is just a different face to a new challenge,” he said. “Being a recently arrived immigrant at the time, and all the things that come with being a person of color, having English as a second language…. I knew it was going to be tough when I enlisted.”
But, he added, “I was never scared or afraid of anything.”
And, the barriers didn’t prevent Ibarra from excelling. He remembers fondly when he was assigned as a driver to his unit, where he had top security clearance and could go to base command and recover messages for the colonel. He recalls being praised by a captain, and speaking to a lieutenant colonel, due to his sharpness and helpfulness. Another time, a general requested that Ibarra be assigned to his administrative detail.
Ibarra said the experience helped build his character and discipline while providing structure and an opportunity to learn the dominant culture in America. The marines sparked relationships he never dreamt of having. He returned home, fulfilled.
“Coming back home to Eugene and the university, I was very proud that I had met the challenge and been successful, and more than anything, been respected in the community.”
While Ibarra may no longer serve the country, he is still of service to many. He has entrenched himself into the Portland community for years — most recently as a program specialist overseeing the county’s community action agency.
“My job is to continue to create and foster relationships with our community partners and make sure we have a lens that includes everybody we are serving and that they have a voice at the table,” he said.