A stint as a day laborer on the star-studded Malibu coast launched Alvaro Huerta’s career in academia.

Graduate student Alvaro Huerta in the East L.A. neighborhood where he grew up.
Graduate student Alvaro Huerta in the East L.A. neighborhood where he grew up.

“Hot and terrible” is how the UC Berkeley city and regional planning Ph.D. student recalls those summer weekends, as a teen, soliciting work with his father on Los Angeles County’s westernmost edge. Huerta’s parents hoped to impress on a slightly built and “lazy” 13 year-old what it’s like to do hard physical labor for a living. Conceivably, they thought, it might nudge him toward choices that they themselves, as immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico to East L.A. via Tijuana, had not had.

Their home-grown “Take Your Child to Work Day” was strong medicine that worked: Huerta calls those sweaty weed-pulling, hole-digging, and lawn-tending sessions his “first push” into an academic world that no one in his family before him, or any of his scores of cousins, had ever entered.

Luck + talent

Fear of hard physical labor may have propelled Huerta out of the barrio. Yet he has never really left his roots behind.

“An L.A. sensibility with scholar-activist thoughts” is how fellow Ph.D. student Ricardo Huerta (no relation) has described him. “When he came to lecture in our class, it was like a George Lopez comedy act crossed with a César Chávez motivational speech.”

By Alvaro’s telling, luck as much as talent landed him at UCLA in 1985. “I want to break the American myth that if you work hard, you’ll automatically succeed,” he’s quick to say. “What does that idea say about my cousins” who never made it to college, he asks, or “my mother who worked hard for 40 years as a domestic worker and was never able to afford to buy her own home?”

At UCLA, he was shocked and disillusioned to find, at the time, few other Latinos in his undergraduate classes. In response, he became an activist — joining efforts to recruit low-income students, and a successful week-long hunger strike to safeguard financial aid to undocumented immigrants.

The South Gate neighborhoods campaign to block a proposed power plant was featured in the L.A. Times Jan. 10, 2001 edition. The coverage gave our campaign a lot of momentum to win,says Alvaro Huerta (bottom left), who led the collective and ultimately successful effort to halt the project.
The South Gate neighborhood

After earning his B.A. in history, Huerta devoted nearly two decades to community-organizing campaigns — supporting immigrants in this country who faced deportation, indigenous people in Chiapas, an impoverished Latino neighborhood fighting the proposed construction of a 550-megawatt power plant in its midst, and Mexican immigrants who do the bulk of the paid landscape gardening and yard maintenance in L.A..

He got involved with the latter in the mid 1990s, when gardeners faced a proposed citywide ban with stiff penalties — misdemeanor charges, up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine — on the use of leaf blowers.

Initially “I didn’t know what a leaf blower was,” Huerta recalls. “We didn’t have gardeners in the projects.” In short order he knew much about the ubiquitous gardening tool as well as the challenges facing professional gardeners. To help these workers articulate their concerns, Huerta, along with fellow Chicano/a activists (including his wife, Antonia), co-founded the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles, the first organization of Latino gardeners in the U.S. A ban on using gas-powered leaf blowers near private homes eventually became law in L.A., but with penalties far less draconian than originally proposed, thanks in part to the association’s efforts.

Scholar activist

After many years of community work, Huerta returned to UCLA to earn an M.A. in urban planning, and was inspired to take his education further. Now a doctoral student with both academic and activist accomplishments crowding his CV, Huerta, 40, earlier this year received the first-ever Thomas I. Yamashita Prize. Named for a UC Berkeley undergrad whose studies were cut short when he was sent to a WWII internment camp for Japanese Americans, the $2,500 award will be given annually to a scholar activist by the campus’s Institute for the Study of Social Change.

Alvaro Huerta accepts the Thomas I. Yamashita Prize,accompanied by his wife,Antonia Montes, and son,Joaquin. (Christine Trost photo)
Alvaro Huerta accepts the Thomas I. Yamashita Prize,accompanied by his wife,Antonia Montes, and son,Joaquin. (Christine Trost photo)

The prize honors individuals who are “engaged in social change, not just studying it,” said Yamashita’s son Robert, a Cal State San Marcos teacher and UC Berkeley graduate, at the May award ceremony. It’s for those, like Huerta, “who are working at ground zero, not necessarily the superstars,” he said.

Professor Judith Innes — Huerta’s dissertation adviser and his current intellectual influence — pictures him, one day, as “a leading academic” in the city-planning field. Under her direction, he’s doing doctoral research on how Mexican immigrant gardeners in L.A. use social networks to survive and sometimes thrive.

“They’re very sophisticated,” he notes. Some have 100 clients on a gardening route — la ruta, as it’s called. They do billing and receiving, and trade or sell their routes the way a dentist or doctor sells a professional practice.

Through this case study, Huerta hopes to shed light on the timely and pressing issue of the informal economy — the undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens who work “off the books” and outside the protection of labor regulations and benefits, in huge numbers in Los Angeles but increasingly throughout the rest of the country, as well.

Also termed the “underground,” “shadow,” or “invisible” economy, the informal sector is, by definition, difficult to quantify. These workers aren’t reflected in standard labor statistics tracked by the government, he notes — so as a researcher, you can’t order up a data set to analyze “in the comfort of your home or research office.”

Huerta plans to employ in-depth interviews and participant observation methods to study immigrant gardeners. He’s also keenly interested in documenting, more broadly, how immigrants from rural Mexico have organized in the U.S. for social change. César Chávez may have made it into the high school curriculum, he says, but many other remarkable figures and grassroots efforts, like that of immigrant gardeners, remain unknown. Huerta would like to change that.

A self-taught writer who claims to have consumed only one short novel in high school, John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, he also seeks to illuminate the Latino experience by penning short stories based on his childhood. One such humorous piece appeared this summer in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine under the title “Petty Hustling Is Not So Easily Picked up by Amateurs”.

Huerta says he writes fiction with his 8-year-old son, Joaquin, in mind — so that should he ever aspire to be a writer, “it wouldn’t feel far fetched.”

“My wife originally encouraged me to pursue an academic career and write short stories. Many things we do are for Joaquin — so he can see that there are options, ones that we didn’t have growing up.”

—Cathy Cockrell , UC Berkeley NewsCenter

This article is reprinted with permission from the UC Berkeley NewsCenter website. The article first appeared on October 5, 2007, and is available online.