From the ghetto to graduate studies

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Aleli Balaguer/Staff

Now that the application season has concluded for millions of students applying for undergraduate, graduate and professional schools, the acceptance notifications will loom over many of their heads like dark clouds for the next few months. During this time, I will reflect on my improbable journey from inner-city public schools to advanced degrees from the best universities in the world. This includes a B.A. (history) and M.A. (urban planning) from UCLA in addition to a Ph.D. (city & regional planning) from UC Berkeley. By shedding light on my own story, I hope to encourage other students from America’s barrios and ghettos to pursue higher education at elite universities.

While I have worked hard and sacrificed much over the years, I question the American notion that only “hard work” and “perseverance” lead to success. Too often, corporate-minded outsiders who never experienced poverty or attended overcrowded public schools preach to inner-city Latinos and African Americans about working hard, making the right choices and being accountable for their actions as the sole means to upward mobility.

While these virtues are necessary for  inner-city students to succeed, policymakers, educators and civic leaders should address the root causes that produce educational inequality in the first place, such as a profit-oriented system that favors the affluent, inadequate public schools, low levels of educational attainment, low financial capital, lack of quality jobs, residential segregation and institutional racism. As the son of poor Mexican immigrants and a former resident of East Los Angeles’s Ramona Gardens housing project, I, along with my seven siblings, grew up in a bleak environment impacted by these structural constraints.

While I do not pretend to have the answers to address the complex educational needs of America’s disenfranchised youth, I can say that in my case, I benefited from several factors throughout my educational trajectory that helped me overcome tremendous obstacles. This includes the following five factors: specialized skills, luck, close-knit family, hard work and sacrifice.

Throughout my early years at Murchison Elementary School, I excelled in mathematics. While many inner-city kids hope to escape the mean streets via their athletic skills, my specialized skills revolved around algebraic equations, polynomials and word problems.

Thanks to my favorite teacher, Ms. Cher, who had hair like “I Love Lucy’s” eponymous character, I mastered algebra in the sixth grade. Like my brother Salomon, a critically acclaimed painter who displayed great artistic abilities at an early age, my specialized math skills represented my ticket out of the projects, which were known as the Big Hazard projects for the local gang.

Luck also played a vital role in my academic career. While I bused to a majority-white middle school where I was tracked into wood shop and metal shop classes, I learned of a great college prep program at Lincoln High School. Thanks to my childhood friend Hector, I learned about Upward Bound at Occidental College — a federally funded college prep summer program for historically disenfranchised youth.

Hector, who also yearned to escape the projects, peer-pressured me into applying. Like many teenagers, I feared the unknown and felt overwhelmed by the personal statement, which I quickly disposed of out of frustration. Luckily for me, after Hector retrieved my crumpled, hand-written essay from the trash can and ironed it out, I reluctantly applied and was accepted. If not for Hector and Upward Bound, I don’t think I would have been prepared for or accepted to UCLA as a freshman.

My close-knit family also provided me with unconditional support throughout my university studies. I especially recognize the wise Latinas in my family — my mother, four sisters and wife. Lacking formal education, my mother made my father take my brother and me (at 13 years of age) to work in Malibu as day laborers. This was done to give us a glimpse of life in the U.S. without a good education. Also, my brilliant wife, Antonia, who holds advanced degrees in education and economics, originally encouraged me to pursue my Ph.D. and academia, serving as a concrete example for our gifted son, Joaquin, to both emulate and surpass.

Finally, I acquired the virtues of hard work and sacrifice from my late parents. While my father, Salomon Sr., first toiled as a farm worker under the Bracero Program — the U.S.-Mexico guest-worker program of the mid-20th century — he later worked as a janitor at a rim factory for decades, earning minimum wage. Meanwhile, my mother, Carmen — who first worked as a domestic worker in San Diego when our family lived in a Tijuana slum prior to migrating to the U.S. — spent 40 years of her life cleaning the homes of the affluent. Thanks to their hard work and sacrifice, along with the support of my wife Antonia, I overcame tremendous obstacles as a poor Chicano kid from the projects to become an urban planning scholar.

Alvaro Huerta is a UC Berkeley alumnus with a doctorate in city regional planning.

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  • Aserra

    This kind of  example that the Hispanic community needs to empower youth and parents. Everything is possible when you have a big determination to change your destiny.

  • Browning Terri

    People who have never been treated unequal hate to hear the people that have been treated unfairly speak about how inequality. That’s the real problem. They don’t want to admit that this rottenness exists in their society and they are a part of it. Sad, but true.

    • John Decker

      Please explain who has been treated “unequal” and how. I bet you can’t even do that.

      • John Decker

        No reply. Figured that much. Ask these people to actually defend their position, and you never hear from them again.

  • Anonymous

    Alvaro “Leaf-Blower” Huerta lists five keys to his success:  “specialized skills, luck, close-knit family, hard work and sacrifice.”
    His specialized skill is being good at math.  One has to practice math problems to even know if he’s good or not.  This is why conservatives ask all students to focus on STEM subjects.
    His luck comes from being able to attend a challenging high school free from gang influence.  Again, that’s what conservatives want for all children, even if it means breaking the monopoly of public schools.
    He had a close-knit family because his parents held conservative values, were not divorced, and encouraged the kids to learn work ethics.  This is exactly what conservative Republican wish for all families.
    If Alvaro were to honestly assess his life, he would realize that Republican values were responsible for his success.  He says “Too often, corporate-minded outsiders who never experienced poverty or
    attended overcrowded public schools preach to inner-city Latinos and
    African Americans about working hard, making the right choices and being
    accountable for their actions .”  Yet isn’t that exactly what Alvaro did to escape the barrios?  Instead of handing out Cal acceptance letters like Section 8 housing vouchers we should encourage all kids to work hard and make the right choices.

    • Actual Cal Student

      Wow, you’re ridiculous.

      Regardless of whether there was gang activity at his high school, he grew up in a housing project where there was plenty of gang activity, and that environment can be just as influential to a young person as a school environment. He was strong enough to resist it. Learn a little reading comprehension.

      Yes, you have to practice math skills. You also have to practice reading, drawing, sports, and any other skill. What’s your point?

      His parents’ values were not “conservative.” My parents are lifelong Democrats and they’re still together, they both had stellar careers, they raised my siblings and I to get advanced degrees. I can provide you with thousands of similar examples. Conservatives may “wish” families to be like that, but they sure as hell don’t do anything to encourage it to happen other than the typical “do as I say, not as I do” bullshit.

      And “leaf-blower”? Please tell me you’re a troll, because I can’t imagine a human being as disgusting as you are.

      • Anonymous

         Your rebuttal is ridiculous.  Alvaro himself said that he was lucky to be bused to a majority-white high school.  I never implied that he was lucky in all other aspects of his childhood as well, so I don’t understand why you’re whining about his housing project because that is irrelevant to the issue of luck as Alvaro put it.  Any child that gets a chance to attend a good school is “lucky” compared to those who don’t get such a chance.  Republicans want to offer all poor children that chance through private school vouchers, but Democrats and unions have blocked such attempts.

        You also failed to see my point about practicing math.  Alvaro obviously did quite a few math problems and compared his abilities with his classmates’ before arriving at the conclusion that he had math skills.  In other words, he worked hard at obtaining that skill and did not stop because his friends thought he was a nerd.  This is the same message that Republicans have been preaching to underrepresented  minority kids.  Kids should work hard at school, should not be afraid of math and science, and should not use race or poverty as an excuse for not performing well.  Democrats, on the other hand, are quick to lower standards and provide false self-esteem to lazy kids.

        Alvaro credits his close-knit family for helping him succeed.  He uses this fact to contrast with the messages he’s getting from conservatives.  However, he can’t honestly say that conservatives want poor people to have a weak family structure, so he omits it and hopes the reader didn’t catch the rhetorical sleight-of-hand.  I never implied Democrats have weak families, but they certainly promote programs that weaken families, such as financial incentives for young women to have babies out of wedlock and sanctuary for fathers to work in America, separated from their wives and children.

        As for “leaf-blower”, read about Alvaro’s history and you’ll know what I mean.  Disgusting, indeed.

  • DG

    I rarely comment particularly in response to the very nasty, “got nothin’ better to do than throw out every Moynihan, tried-and-true, stereotype” because deep down, these kinds of comments are intended to illicit “gottcha.” Either that, or there is truly evil in the world. Please—go back to Mexico doesn’t work because guess what? This, the Southwest and CA where I sit, was Mexico’s (for about 2 decades). If the two comments first posted here do not come from ignorant, mis-informed, “isn’t this fun to see these Chicanos responding….” types, then I would say minimally there are heartless, historical amnesiacs in the world. Study history and learn, Tony and John, that the strength of the U.S. has always rested on the “outsider, the newcomer,” bringing to the U.S. cultural  strengths, not just the need and desire to work hard. You confuse the messenger with the basic message you hate: that the U.S. can use improvement. Tell me to go back to Mexico and I’ll tell you, I am where I came from, since 1598 (New Mexico)…so there—you go back….but of course, that’s not your real point is it?

    • guest2

      Firstly,  congratulations Mr. Huerta on your success.

      Secondly, DG please enlighten me…  I’ve read many comments from Mexican nationals who feel entitled to everything available to CA residents based on the idea that the land in CA was once owned/stolen  by/from Mexico. Last I checked, Mexico does not own CA and did not develop any of the hard & soft infrastructure (transportation system, governmental system, financial system, educational system, etc. ). So where does this sense of entitlement come from?

  • Adsahjh

    Daily Cal editors really had nothing to print, did they?

    • John Decker

      They are happy to provide an audience to anyone with a victimization sob story who wants to blame the rest of American society for their own personal problems.

  • Adsahjh

    An urban planning scholar? LOL. What a waste of taxpayer resources.

    • MadeInJalisco

      … said the ignoramus who has not a clue what “urban planning” is.

  • John Decker

    Sorry to hear that Mexican-American immigrants as a group are not as successful as white folks. Given, however, that Mexicans are equally poor and disenfranchised in their own country (Mexico), maybe the problem isn’t America but hispanic culture in general? When a 17 year-old girl is more likely to drop out of school and became an unwed mother than graduate from high school (much less attend college), whose fault is that?  When you have been in this country for 5, 10, 15 years and still need voter pamphlets and driver’s license test materials printed out in your native tongue because you never bothered to learn English, whose fault is that? When you screw yourself out of any possibilities for advancement and/or promotion at work because you lack the intellectual curiosity to learn much more than the most rudimentary manual skills, whose fault is that? Senor Huerta needs to stop blaming this country for his own culture’s inability to adapt to an educated, technologically advanced 21st century global society.

    • Don Jecker

      1) What, specifically, is “hispanic culture”? What is wrong with it “in general?”
      2) Why are there poor white people in the United States who are not in the “educated, technologically advanced 21st century global society?”  Are they somehow part of  “hispanic culture”?
      3) What, specifically, does mr Huerta blame the United States for?  The whole point of this article is to demonstrate his success here.

      You recycle tired, lazily considered, and frankly stupid, explanations for poverty based on culture or ethnicity.  But that’s expected when you comment on an article that it is clear you did not actually read

      • John Decker

        Replies as follows:

        #1 – Hispanic culture – the predominant culture of the Spanish-speaking peoples of the western hemisphere, which has nothing to do with race or ethnicity (nor did I make such claims). As far as my specific criticisms, I made them quite clear, particularly a lack of emphasis on education. How could you miss that point?

        #2 – Poor white people who emulate an anti-educational mindset are in a similar predicament, and I make no excuses for their shortcomings either. In fact, that makes the point that the argument centers around CULTURE, not “ethnicity” as you lamely tried to insinuate in your ill-considered reply.

        #3 – Perhaps you missed the litany of complaints above because you accept them at face value yourself?

        So you are apparently offended that I suggested that cultural attitudes and priorities may be a factor in success of one group vs. another, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Such willful ignorance suggests that Political Correctness has crippled your own ability to look at the data and make decisions based on facts and logic. As far as insinuating that I made such arguments on “ethnicity”, nice try with the smear tactics. Looks like you lost that argument.

        • Don Jecker

          1)  There is a “predominant culture” of 360 million people in 20 countries?  Really?  And you are saying this culture directly influences particular education policies in each of these countries the same way?

          2) So if any group can have an “anti-education mindset,” what does this have to do with any particular culture?

          3) The author never touches on any of this.  You just want to write about  spanish DMV tests and people not learning english, which like I said, suggests you didnt read the article or do not care about what it says.

          “So you are apparently offended that I suggested that cultural attitudes
          and priorities may be a factor in success of one group vs. another”

          Yes, because the “Culture of Poverty” idea was dismissed 40 years ago because mounting empirical evidence did not support it.  By empirical evidence I mean things that are not said by armchair anthropologists.

          “Such willful ignorance suggests that Political Correctness has crippled
          your own ability to look at the data and make decisions based on facts
          and logic.”

          What data?  Where is solid data that reliably codes “hispanic culture” as a determining factor of the behavior and motives of millions of people?  There are none.  You resort to strawman arguments and personal anecdote as “hard facts” when they are neither.  If I told you that the children of mexican immigrants pretty much dont speak spanish by the 2nd generation (which is supported by many studies) you would probably say that because the DMV has spanish language pamphlets, then I am missing important “data” that supports your view because I am being “politically correct.”  No.  You are wrong.

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

             [So you are apparently offended that I suggested that cultural attitudes and priorities may be a factor in success of one group vs. another"

            Yes, because the "Culture of Poverty" idea was dismissed 40 years ago because mounting empirical evidence did not support it. ]

            Oh, really? Sources and cites? So the fact that some cultures have vastly different priorities w/r/t education has nothing to do with the overall success of people from different cultural groups?

          • GoldenBear

            I’m in agreemnt with your argument Don Jecker. I would further add that the notion of “culture” is vague, and for the most part an analytic tool
            used by anthropologists–although many anthropologists debate whether
            or not the concept is adequate to describe the heterogeneity within any
            particular locale and interconnectedness in globalized world. 

            With this said, the idea of a “hispanic culture” is for the large part a North American construct. It is the way in which North Americans are better able to deal with people deriving from a large geographic area of predominant Spanish speakers. Nonetheless, Spanish is not the only language spoken in such countries, nor are the values, ethics, worldviews of people within a single country homogenous, let alone those across different countries.
             For example, if  take Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, You may argue “they are Spanish speaking countries”, but unknowingly overlook the fact that in Mexico and Guatemala many people  speak their Amerindian tongue, (some are monolingual speakers other bilingual, and trilingual).  The same is true in Venezuela, although there the Amerindian population is not as pronounced as in the aforementioned nation-states.   However, Cuba, to my knowledge, is composed of Spanish language speakers. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

    [While these virtues are necessary for  inner-city students to succeed,
    policymakers, educators and civic leaders should address the root causes
    that produce educational inequality in the first place, such as a
    profit-oriented system that favors the affluent, inadequate public
    schools, low levels of educational attainment, low financial capital,
    lack of quality jobs, residential segregation and institutional racism.
    As the son of poor Mexican immigrants]

    Obviously your parents figured that even the American system that you condemn as being “racist” is better than the way things were where they came from. Maybe you should go back to Mexico and STFU instead of pissing and moaning about a country that gives you far more opportunity than you would have ever had if your parents remained south of the border…

    • GoldenBear

      Believe it or not, a vast majority of people residing in Mexico denigrate the very idea of  leaving the country to enter undocumented into U.S territory.  Nationalistic pride, regional pride, community pride, are all very real characteristics that influence the decisions of a majority of people down south.  In fact, up until little over a decade ago many Mexican nationals residing in Mexico would refer to their countrymen that crossed over as “mojados” (Wetbacks).   This is something the “Chicano” is either unaware of due to lack of exposure to Mexican society, or neglects to mention because it counters their whining.  Many children of Mexican immigrants have never ventured for extended periods of time down south, and fail to understand the raw numbers composing migrants vs nonmigrants. Most Mexicans remain in Mexico.  This is a fact.  If you chose to bring up the issue of “remesas” (money sent back to family in Mexico) then that is another issue.

    • Bugglesworth

      American exceptionalism at its finest.