Enrique Ibarra moved to California right after graduation from Washington State University, beginning his career at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, then the once-prestigious but now-closed Racquet Club in Palm Springs. While he visited Washington many times, he never returned to Pullman.
“Through WSU, I found what I really wanted to do with my life. It was a big blessing for me,” says Ibarra (’81 Hotel & Rest. Admin.). But, “It did not occur to me to come back”—that is, not until the announcement for La Alianza de WSU Alumni Weekend and Gala.
The event, held April 29 to May 1, attracted nearly 200 students and alumni from throughout Washington and Oregon and as far away as Texas, Colorado, and California. For some attendees, including Ibarra, it marked their first return to WSU Pullman since graduation.
“It was overwhelming,” says Ibarra, who now lives in Los Angeles and works as a fruit-and-vegetable broker, specializing in Hispanic supermarkets. “There was just the most beautiful, gratifying energy at the event. It made me very happy to be back.”
The idea for the first-time gala originated with the executive team of the university’s Chicanx/Latinx alumni chapter. “We wanted everyone who attended the event to feel like WSU and the Alumni Association and La Alianza laid out a big red carpet for them,” says Karla T. Blanco (’13 MA Counseling, ’17 PhD Counseling Psych.), president of La Alianza de WSU.
Latinx students make up the largest historically underrepresented group at WSU, accounting for 15 percent of the student population—up from 5.5 percent in 2009.
“A lot of our Latino Cougs are first-generation college students and come from low-income backgrounds. They need to see us. They need to see Latino alumni and where they can go from here,” says Karla, who was born in Mexico and raised in California by farmworker parents.
“A lot of our parents come from labor jobs, and we have this stereotype that that’s all we do,” she says. “There’s a lot of honor in being an essential worker—we wouldn’t make it without them—but our parents came to this country so their kids could have an education. I think it’s important to break that stereotype by showing up in big numbers. It’s important for students and alumni to see people who look like us in higher education.”
The event drew support from WSU’s College Assistance Migrant Program, Multicultural Student Services, Honors College, College of Arts and Sciences, and WSU Tri-Cities. Alumni Association staff members helped organize logistics, such as tours of the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU, and WSU’s athletic facilities.
Festivities included an alumni social, student organization showcase, lunch at the Chicanx/Latinx Student Center, and book signing with actress and model Blanca Blanco (’03 Psych.). The starlet provided two scholarships, which she presented at the gala. She also took part in a Q&A, discussing growing up in a Mexican-American family in Chelan, overcoming obstacles to pursue her education, and breaking into the TV and movie business.
“We got a lot of traction from this event,” Karla says, noting the chapter aims to hold the gala every other year. “It’s the beginning of something much bigger.”
Meantime, Ibarra, who was born in Mexico and raised on both sides of the border, is already planning a return trip to Pullman—his second visit in one year after 41 years away. This time, he wants to bring his family. He’s also planning to further his involvement with La Alianza. “I want to start a scholarship for migrant workers’ kids—like I was,” he says.
Like Ibarra, Karla was moved by “the energy in the room. We were celebrating each other—by being there, reminiscing, telling our stories, sharing our memories from WSU, and also making new ones.”