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Tomasa Ybarra: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

Tomasa Ybarra was a remarkable woman whose many accomplishments, dedication to education, and love for her family and community is an inspiring story that will impact the community forever through the Tomasa Ramirez Ybarra Scholarship, established in her honor by her children.  Tomasa passed away in March of 2015, but her legacy lives on through her children’s gift. This is her story, as told by her family*:

Tomasa’s Youth

Tomasa Ramirez Ybarra was born December 29, 1926 to Esteban and Concepcion Ramirez in Round Rock, Texas. Esteban struggled with the need for the family to work in the fields, knowing his children also needed to attend school. In the 1930s and 40s, the Ramirez family migrated seasonally, following the crops in the Midwest United States. As the family grew, the need to settle became the primary goal. Esteban knew that as immigrants, assimilation was a necessity for him and his children to prosper.

Tomasa worked alongside her parents and helped raise her younger siblings while she began her elementary education in the segregated, Mexican-only classrooms of Round Rock. Tomasa loved learning and loved to read even more. Although she didn’t get the fulfillment of graduating with her class in high school, she continued to read and learn. In the midst of World War II, the Ramirez family settled in Mears, Michigan for a short time before moving the entire family to the Muskegon area to pursue mainstream employment. Tomasa, her father, and her siblings assimilated into the mainstream through employment at factories in Muskegon such as CWC and Lakey.

Dedication to Education

In 1949, Tomasa married Clemente Bottelo Ybarra Sr. after his return from the South Pacific in WWII. They settled in Fruitport and raised six children. As she nurtured her children’s growth, Tomasa also began to grow. Her need to get involved in her community evolved with her need to finish the education her father promised her. In 1972, Tomasa graduated, completing her adult education at Fruitport High School and continuing through Muskegon Community College. Tomasa became a Social/Outreach Worker and over the years was employed by Fruitport Community Schools, Muskegon Public Schools, Muskegon Adult Education, and El Centro Latino Inc.

Advocating for the Latino Community

Tomasa, who worked in many facets of social work and saw the needs of all people, was inspired and motivated by her own roots as a migrant worker. She felt the need to inform the community about Latino needs and represent those needs from the grass roots level. Tomasa brought awareness to the disparity between Latinos and the mainstream by taking advantage of every form of media she could utilize. A longtime activist for human rights/civil rights, she continued to follow the path of nonviolence, like activist Cesar Chavez. Tomasa had a chance meeting with Chavez in the early 1990s while he visited Michigan, concerned for the migrant farmers and workers of the state and their continued exposure to the industrial pesticides and chemicals used on the crops. She stressed the importance of housing, health, employment, education, and civil rights. Tomasa was a role model, overcoming stereotypes, language barriers, racial bias, and transcending obstacles. She served on numerous boards throughout the State of Michigan and volunteered on dozens of committees and projects.  The Michigan Department of Education recognized Tomasa’s activism for the Mexican community in 1982 by naming her Hispanic Advocate of the Year.

Tomasa’s Lasting Impact

In 2008, on her 80th birthday, Tomasa was recognized by her children with a permanent fund in her name: the Tomasa Ramirez Ybarra Scholarship at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County. The scholarship emphasizes education, cultural heritage, and recognizes outstanding Hispanic high school graduates in furthering their education. In her children’s words, they did it “to recognize a woman who made a difference, because we are proud of her accomplishments, her dedication to her family (husband of 52yrs), raising and educating her children, for creating her own identity, for nurturing her heritage through her children, for creating change, recognition for those unrecognized or forgotten, for informing and understanding those differences we all have, and for continuing to live her life as a giver, nurturer, giving back to her community, not seeking for herself , a true Saint amongst women (St. Thomas).”


*minor edits for clarity.