Work as a Verb: UCLA’s Alvaro Huerta and the Invisible Economy

2006 UCLA Urban Planning MA graduate Alvaro Huerta is now a PhD student at UC Berkeley, our sister campus somewhere to the north where, in short order, he has been up to some good, winning a high profile award for activist scholarship and recently featured in a campus news profile, to appear in Cal’s The Graduate Magazine. That article is excerpted and linked here with permission. Follow the link to see more details about his work on social capital and gardeners in California.

‘Invisible economy’ scholar straddles the divide between barrio and Ph.D. seminar room

By Cathy Cockrell, NewsCenter | 5 October 2007

BERKELEY — 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 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.

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As linked there, also check out his short story in the July 15, 2007, San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, “Petty Hustling is Not So Easily Picked Up by Amateurs.”

Friday, December 14th, 2007
randall Crane
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