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 Graduate student Alvaro Huerta in the East L.A. neighborhood where he grew up. The mural on the house behind him is titled Ghosts of the Barrio. (Noel Huerta photo)

Straddling the divide between the barrio and the seminar room
From defending leaf-blowers to researching the 'invisible economy,' recipient of the campus's first Yamashita Prize understands activism 'at ground zero'

| 10 October 2007

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

"Hot and terrible" is how the Ph.D. student in city and regional planning recalls the summer weekends he spent as a teen, soliciting work with his father on Los Angeles County's westernmost edge. Huerta's parents hoped to impress on the 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 homegrown "Take Your Child to Work Day" was strong medicine that worked: Huerta calls those sweaty weed-pulling, hole-digging, 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 participating in a successful weeklong hunger strike to safeguard financial aid for undocumented immigrants.

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, recalls Huerta, "I didn't know what a leaf-blower was; 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

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 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.

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

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, 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 those 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," he says. "Many things we do are for Joaquin - so he can see that there are options, ones that we didn't have growing up."