By Jackson Moran ’21
Ivan Robles Barrera ’21 has won The Roundup’s 2021 Man of the Year award.
Robles is known to many as a Distinguished Student, leader in the Advocacy Club fighting for Dreamers, a Big Brother, a Romero Project student and Retreat leader, but there is much to his story that remains untold, especially to those who may rarely come into contact with him.
However, Robles’s story at Brophy cannot simply be told with a litany of accomplishments or accolades, because there is so much more depth to it than any award can do justice.
What is particularly remarkable about Robles’s story right off the bat is that it almost never came to be.
He said he initially considered applying to Brophy a long shot endeavor, unsure about his ability to get in or his ability to pay for it if he was accepted. Nevertheless, he was encouraged to apply and upon getting in was convinced it was a miracle.
“Nobody had ever shown me the power of my potential,” he said about his surprise.
And yet, the story of Ivan Robles after coming to Brophy can only be described as miraculous and wholly Ignatian.
It is one of disarmament, resilience, love and the pursuit of justice.
Mr. Steve Smith ’96, who taught Robles in the “Bridge to Brophy” summer course before his freshman year, said that even before he was a freshman, he could see the fiery goodness in Robles’s heart.
“He always wanted to fight, in a good way,” Mr. Smith said.
Both he and Robles independently recounted a time when Mr. Smith asked Robles to leave class.
Robles took him up on the offer, left class and did work in the SAC while Mr. Smith went on teaching.
He said he expected to get an email from either Mr. Smith or the Dean’s Office, but none came.
Robles cites this as the instant when he realized Brophy was different.
Mr. Smith remembers the incident rather fondly now, and said that if one word described Robles, it would be pugnacious.
“I could see the spirit in him right off the bat, and whenever that would then be harnessed and channelled, you could just predict that he was going to be amazing. I could’ve written him as ‘Man of the Year’ four years ago,” he said.
Yael Balbuena Basto ’19 got to know Robles through Advocacy Club and within the Brophy Culture Project, but also felt a particular bond with him because they had similar backgrounds.
Balbuena said that he is extremely impressed and inspired to see the person that Robles has become, “especially since I saw part of myself in him,” he said.
He said that Robles’s greatest strength is his ability to adjust to new environments, something that Mr. Smith also mentioned.
“He figured out that he belongs in that classroom, he belongs in the discussion, and when he is there he makes it better,” Mr. Smith said of Robles’s embracing Brophy.
However, both Balbuena and Mr. Smith recognized that his background is the main catalyst for his disposition.
Robles attributes that fireiness to his upbringing.
“No test or essay can face me after what I’ve been through,” he said of his experience.
Robles’s description of what he had been through is equal parts painful and incredibly triumphant.
Robles grew up in south central Phoenix in a mixed status family. His parents are undocumented, two of his siblings are DACA recipients, but he himself is a citizen.
In this, he feels an immense sense of duty to every realm that he inhabits.
In terms of his neighborhood, Robles feels responsible to those around him. He said that while many people see graduation as a normal fact of life, he sees his graduation from Brophy as a watershed moment. He said, becoming emotional, that he always had doubt it would ever come.
Robles, in his environment, often felt that he always needed to harden up.
“Show no love, love gets you killed” was one of the rules of his neighborhood, he said.
But now, as graduation nears, he feels ashamed of this past “ignorance.”
Ignorance is, according to him, “Not accepting what Brophy is, not being ‘Open to Growth;’ a total acceptance of a routine. It is staying the same forever.”
He said that the teachings of his neighborhood clashed violently with the ones that Brophy espoused, and that initially he accepted the “limits” imposed upon him.
He also shed light on the difficulty inherent in inhabiting both Brophy and his neighborhood. “I would try to prove myself with both crowds,” he said.
He described one time going to a party, the last he went to in his neighborhood, where a friend of his told him to never come back. Robles said that friend had sensed the change in him, had seen what Brophy had done for him.
He said the friend didn’t want to see Robles fall back into “the wrong crowd” and considered him a role model.
Since then, Robles has never looked back.
He said one of his greatest fears is “meeting society’s expectation of him, becoming another statistic.”
He hopes that graduating from Brophy will show others that it’s possible.
He wants to be the person in his neighborhood that he wasn’t able to look up to, the Brophy graduate who is kind and loving.
“I’m doing it for my people. We have a chance,” he said.
Along with his neighborhood, he also feels responsible to his family.
His family dynamic was at times very tumultuous. He described coming home one day to find vans of officers searching for his dad. Robles said that his father has been deported four times, a reality not unfamiliar to many students with mixed status families, and added that he spent much of his time in high school without his father.
He also detailed the harsh realities of domestic abuse in his life. When he was young, he said he couldn’t really make sense of it.
He witnessed constant abuse in his family and faced much himself, however, he recognized that this reality sparked the development of the resilience and strength he has today.
But Robles also described his dad as the best father ever when he could be. He said that after years of resenting his father, he decided that loving forgiveness was easier than holding onto hate.
He said he learned much from his dad, both his mistakes and successes, and that his dad has also had to learn from him about vulnerability and growth.
Robles’s path to God has been a complicated one, entirely reminiscent of St. Ignatius’s journey.
He spoke much of disarmament, the idea that he was able to drop his walls and lay his sword and shield at the feet of the other.
He found much of that while on a Magis retreat during his Sophomore year, where he feels he finally found acceptance from God.
He relayed the story of how he lost his faith initially, the time he first started laying the masonry of his armor.
Robles was nine years old and his parents were fighting. “I got up and kneeled on my bed, because I thought that the higher you went, the closer you were to God.”
He said that when he saw nothing come of that prayer, when his parents kept fighting, he felt betrayed by God.
“I thought that God was never there, but [on Magis] I learned that God’s waiting there for you,” he said, adding that in that moment of realization he felt a strong hug and a love like no other.
His newfound appreciation for his faith led him onto new experiences, such as the LA Urban Plunge where he worked at Homeboy Industries.
Homeboy Industries is very close to Robles’s heart, as it helps people make the steps necessary to leave gang life and open up a new chapter by providing jobs and a place to stay while ex-gang members reform themselves or after they have gotten out of prison.
“I saw how Homeboy changes lives,” he said of why he holds it in such high regard.
His experience there, in conjunction with Magis, led him to be a part of the Romero Program this year.
Balbuena worked alongside Robles in the years-long struggle to lobby for access to in-state tuition for DACA recipients and watched as he was presented with the Magis awards for being Committed to Doing Justice.
Balbuena said that moment has always inspired him and that Robles “told me that he had always looked up to me, but what he didn’t know was that I was inspired by him.”
“I remember when we would be together in Brophy Culture Project meetings, and he would always step up to the plate and do anything he was asked to do. Not only that, but he would always be one of the first to offer to help,” Balbuena said.
It was this willingness and desire to help undocumented immigrants that led him to working at Aliento AZ for his Romero internship.
Robles plans to attend Arizona State University next year and hopes to continue this fight for Dreamers while a student there.
“The main thing about him is that he genuinely cares. He really cares about his family, but he cares just as much about his Brophy brothers. Now he cares about the world and about society and he cares about helping the less fortunate,” Mr. Smith said.
“Robles is the type of person who would give up anything to make sure that you are ok. He always puts everybody else before himself and he has been someone I have always wanted by my side,” Balbuena said, “His character and everything about him motivates me to become a better person myself. I saw an incredible human being who was going to go out and set the world on fire.”
It is the firm commitment to family, community, faith and justice in the face of adversity, the commitment to “setting the world on fire” that cements Robles’s place as the 2021 Man of the Year.