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 Alvaro Huerta, photographed last year in the East Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up, standing before a mural entitled Ghosts of the Barrio. The longtime community activist earned an M.A. from UCLA before coming to Berkeley, where he is now a graduate student in city and regional planning.

Migrating to El Norte
Opinion by Alvaro Huerta

20 March 2008

When things go bad, many Americans commonly blame someone else for their problems.Historically, immigrants have been convenient scapegoats: They not only "take away" jobs from "hard-working" American citizens and deplete the country's resources, the argument goes, they are criminals who have entered this country illegally and must be punished with jail or deportation.

There is nothing like a presidential election to raise the volume on this xenophobic rhetoric.Television talk-show hosts and politicians quickly jump at the opportunity to bash Mexican immigrants like a piņata at a kid's birthday party, especially in a time of political and economic crisis. These same voices suffer from selective amnesia, purposely forgetting the contributions Mexican immigrants have made to this country, both historically and in the present, and focusing instead on the "costs" associated with our presence here.

As a son of Mexican immigrants, I commonly ask myself, "What about the costs that immigrants incur to come here?" I find myself pondering this basic question even more frequently lately, since I recently migrated here to pursue my doctoral studies in the Department of City and Regional Planning, temporarily leaving my wife, Antonia, and 8-year-old son, Joaquin, behind in Los Angeles. While such arrangements are made regularly by graduate students everywhere, regardless of their ethnicity or citizenship status, I can't help but feel as though, in a meaningful way, I'm following in the footsteps of my immigrant father, who came to El Norte more than half a century ago to pick fruits and vegetables as part of the U.S.-Mexico guest-worker plan, the Bracero Program.

Although being a doctoral student at a prestigious university cannot compare to being a farm worker (or a domestic worker, like my mother), it gives me some idea of how my father felt when he, like many other Mexican immigrants, left his community and family to work in El Norte. The sacrifices I'm now making, while temporary, seem very real to me: I worry about how my wife will manage to keep her teaching job and attend graduate school herself while caring for our son. Will she be able to take him to his chess tournaments? What about baseball season? Can she volunteer at the snack stand and see him hit a home run at the same time? Will I be able to make his third-grade parent conference? How can I focus on Foucault while my son cries himself to sleep because I'm not there to kiss him goodnight?

And yet I want to be careful not to overstate the similarities, for those immigrants faced much harsher challenges than I face today. Between 1942 and 1964, the Bracero Program provided the U.S. with hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers as a way to meet the labor shortages of World War II and beyond. By 1945, more than 62,000 Mexican immigrants were working in the railroad industry while another 58,000 toiled as agricultural laborers - among them my grandfather, father, and uncles. These workers, for the most part, lived in substandard housing, worked long hours under terrible conditions for poor wages, and experienced racism and abuse from American employers and local citizens.

Things haven't changed much in a half-century for many Mexican immigrants in this country. Too often they continue to live in substandard conditions, occupy the most difficult jobs, work long hours, and experience employer harassment on a regular basis. The predicament of undocumented immigrants is even more precarious, since many do not report work-related cases of abuse. In many cases, undocumented immigrants do not go to the police or a hospital during an emergency because they fear they may face deportation. This is hardly fair compensation for the many sacrifices many Mexican immigrants make to come to this country, beginning with their efforts to save or borrow enough money to cross the treacherous U.S.-Mexico border.

When I think about the challenges that millions of undocumented workers make to get by in this country, I realize that I'm in a privileged situation: I'm giving up an office job to return to graduate school, not bidding my family goodbye for months or years while I struggle to make enough money to send back to them. Whereas the undocumented come north with only the desperate hope of a better life, I know that my own sacrifices will almost certainly pay off in the future, as I and my wife both secure positions in academia, giving my son more opportunities than I had growing up in East Los Angeles' Ramona Gardens housing project.

In short, my dilemma represents a minuscule sacrifice compared to the plight of many Mexican immigrants who leave their families behind without knowing when they'll see them again. It's amazing what many of them will tolerate in order to survive in such a hostile environment, confronted for the most part by only the bleakest opportunities. What will it take for their offspring to attend a prestigious university like Berkeley? Based on my own experiences at both UCLA and Berkeley, I must say that only rarely do I come into contact with others who look like me or come from a similar socio-economic background.

Alvaro Huerta last year received the first-ever Thomas I. Yamashita Prize, a $2,500 award given annually to a scholar-activist by the campus Institute for the Study of Social Change.