He was born in Mexico and served in Vietnam. Now, he’s the first person of color to serve as Mormon History Association president

SALT LAKE CITY — Ignacio Garcia is the new president of the Mormon History Association. As the first person of color to serve in the position, he brings an international background to a new focus on viewing Latter-day Saint history through a global perspective.

Garcia was born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and moved to the United States when he was 6 years old. Despite the fact his parents had only five years of formal education between them, education was a priority in the Garcia home.

“They put a lot of emphasis on my getting an education,” said Garcia in an email interview.

The young Garcia loved to learn but didn’t have access to a school counselor or English-speaking parents who could help him understand the implications of potential scholarships after high school.

He turned instead to the U.S. Army and became a combat medic heading a dispensary emergency room in the Mekong Delta from 1971-72.

“I went into the military because like most young Mexican Americans growing up in the barrios of San Antonio, I had few possibilities for a job,” he said. It also provided educational opportunities in the form of the G.I. bill — and represented an alternative to missionary service.”

The military provided Garcia with an opportunity to serve but also shaped his character in other foundational ways.

“The war in Vietnam taught me much about my abilities to be compassionate, understanding of others and to make tough and unpopular decisions,” he said.

Garcia faced one of those unpopular decisions working as a journalist after the war.

“I was fired from the Tucson Citizen when I questioned their ethical practices in our coverage of El Salvador’s civil war,” said Garcia, who served as an in-country war correspondent.

He returned to school but ran into a heartbreaking obstacle.

“I started a master’s in history, but my briefcase was stolen with all my files while I attended a college basketball game,” he said. “In despair and unable to retrace my research steps, I left school and went to work for a newspaper as a sports writer/editor.”

Despite the setback, Garcia couldn’t shake his passion for academia. He eventually returned to school, obtained a doctorate degree and now teaches at Brigham Young University as the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western and Latino History.

Ignacio Garcia poses with BYU student Cindy Gonzalez, who in 2009 received the Ignacio M. Garcia Scholarship for Indigenous and Students of Color, a scholarship named in Garcia's honor by the History Department.
Ignacio Garcia poses with BYU student Cindy Gonzalez, who in 2009 received the Ignacio M. Garcia Scholarship for Indigenous and Students of Color, a scholarship named in Garcia’s honor by the History Department. Credit: Courtesy of Ignacio Garcia

His interest in Latinos and the Church brought him to the attention of the Mormon History Association leaders a few years ago.

“I gave a plenary address to the MHA that impressed a number of people,” he said. “I wrote several essays on Latinos in the Church and on ideas on how to approach writing about them.”

Garcia’s insights stemmed from his own thoughtful consideration about Latinos and religion.

“It was in Church that I began to develop my ethnic identity. The interpretation of the Book of Mormon provided me a religious context to my identity as a Mexican Saint,” said Garcia. “And my interaction with both my fellow white Saints and longtime Latino members helped develop my identity as a member of the Church.”

His expertise and experiences proved too valuable for MHA to pass up. The organization was looking for someone with an academic reputation who had written about Latino Latter-day Saints and could help recruit scholars of color.

Garcia hopes to live up to the challenge and plans to bring an international focus to his presidential tenure.

“MHA must be an inclusive organization and one that attracts and works with scholars around the globe,” said Garcia. “I really believe that our horizon will expand as we get our current membership to see their work through a global perspective.”