By Alvaro Huerta, Ph.D.

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

― Friedrich Nietzsche

When you grow up in a segregated community and poor, often times, you’re not aware of your ethnicity and class status. Growing up in tight-knit Mexican communities, from Tijuana, Mexico, to East Los Angeles, I didn’t realize that I was Mexican and poor until my first day of junior high school.

Dr. Alvaro Huerta

As part of federal integration programs, I—along with classmates from Murchison Elementary School in Boyle Heights—was bused to Mt. Gleason Jr. High School in Sunland, Tujunga. Nervous about leaving the notorious Ramona Gardens housing project or Big Hazard projects for a strange place, I braced myself for the unknown. On the first day of school, after an hour bus ride to a majority-white school, our bus came “under fire” from rocks hurled by local white kids. Just when I thought I was escaping my violent neighborhood — an extremely high level of violence monopolized by the police that I became accustomed to — I never expected such a hostile reception from the white natives.

While rocks hurt, so do words. This is especially the case when you’re only 12-years-old. Many years later, I can still recall these hateful words, just like it was yesterday: “Wetbacks go back to Mexico!”; “Dirty Mexicans!”; “Damn low-riders!”; and “We don’t want beaners at our school!” To this day, I can’t comprehend how calling someone a “low-rider” or “beaner” represents an insult.

Although I learned from my tough neighborhood and stoic Mexican father to never show fear, I couldn’t comprehend how the white students had so much hatred for us — Mexican kids from the projects. What did we ever do to them, I asked myself? What does it matter if we have Spanish surnames or if our parents only speak Spanish? Why should they care if we have brown or darker skin? I didn’t know that I had an East Los Angeles’ accent? So what if we don’t have money?

It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was different, where the white kids viewed and treated me as inferior due to the color of my skin and my zip code (90033, to be exact). For the first time in my life, I realized that I was “a Mexican” — even though I was born in California, yet spent the first four years of my life in Tijuana.

For protection or self-defense at school, I even contemplated joining the neighborhood gang to start a satellite office, but my gang application was “rejected” since I was too thin to defend the barrio. Apparently, I couldn’t catch a break back then!

The racism that I — and my fellow Mexican classmates — experienced didn’t start or end with the white kids. It extended to the school’s majority-white staff, administrators and faculty. While not as overt as the white students, their racism towards us manifested in forms of paternalism, low expectations and institutional racism. For instance, despite excelling in mathematics at Murchison Elementary School, I found myself being channeled into wood and metal shop classes for electives, while the white students mostly took music and art classes. With such a low bar for the Mexican kids to excel, I’m amazed that I didn’t join some of my friends in sniffing glue during wood shop—or smoking marijuana with the surfer white kids who didn’t discriminate against us—to escape my bleak reality.

It wasn’t just about race, however. It was also about class. Seeing how the white students arrived to school with their parents in fancy cars — e.g., BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz — I was embarrassed that my Mexican immigrant parents relied on public transportation since neither of them owned a car. It’s difficult to own a car when you don’t even have a driver’s license.

There’s no other way of putting it: I was ashamed of my Mexican immigrant parents and of being poor. This shame, like a stalker, followed me for many years.

By the time I transferred to Lincoln High School, a Mexican-American or Chicana/o-dominated school in Los Angeles, I thought that I had escaped racism. Little did I know that my over-crowded, public high school also had low expectations for the Mexican students to excel and pursue higher education — something that was foreign to me at the time. The only thing that I knew about college back then consisted of watching college sports on television.

It wasn’t until a childhood friend pressured me to apply (and eventually be accepted) to Upward Bound at Occidental College (or Oxy) — a college prep program for historically disadvantaged groups to pursue higher education — where college became a viable option for the first time in my life.

To make a long story short, if not for key teachers, Upward Bound at Oxy, my ability to solve equations, the unconditional support from my Mexican parents (Salomón Chavez Huerta & Carmen Mejía Huerta) and Chicana wife (Antonia Montes), I wouldn’t have been able to escape the poverty and violence of my youth via higher education to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s from UCLA. This also includes a doctorate from UC Berkeley, allowing me to become a university professor, published author and public intellectual, where I foster tomorrow’s leaders and influence public policy.

At the end of the day, I only hope that my story of resilience — derived from my proud Mexican heritage and the mean streets of East Los Angeles — inspires others with similar backgrounds to do likewise.


Dr. Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of “Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm,” San Diego State University Press (2013).

17 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Ismael Robles

    Interesting article but my recollection was different then the writers point of view. I also grew up in one of the notorious housing projects called William Mead Housing Projects or Dog Town (The Bricks) downtown area near Chinatown and the white kids feared us. Yes, there was discrimination and racism from the teachers, locals and some white students. We were proud to be Mexican American or Chicanos from the inner city and we represented our Cultura (our culture). I went to Mt Gleason in 1983-1984 (8th grade) then attended Verdugo H.S from 1984-1985 and eventually was expelled for threatening one of my teachers then ended up at my home Lincoln H.S. Today as I look back at my upbringing, I’m glad I was exposed to other neighborhoods, cultures, environment and educational system that helped me be the man I’ve become today. I am a proud Chicano that has embraced other members of different backgrounds, religious and beliefs. Respectfully Ismael “Mike” Robles

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Vivian Hernandez

    Thank you for not being afraid,and speaking about it… I grew up there too… my goal is too finish My BA..
    And bringing a Christian school to the neighborhood there is a Santa Teresita chatolic school, already maybe you can help me ????…i only finished my A.A …

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Marisol Ortiz

    Truly inspirational story! Everyone who has migrant parents can relate to Dr. Huerta. I’ll be sharing this story with my teenage son, even though he can’t complrehend the obstacles his grandparents had to face.

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    RebeccaJimenez

    I was also one of them students that was bused to Mt Gleasen, and i also attended Lincoln 82 , Im glad that someone is putting it out how it felt and how we were treated and i also remember a Teacher at Lincoln telling us that Chicanos didn’t go to College he directed us in to Economics or Mechanics because thats all will do after we get out of school so thank you for being different and making it out of the Barrio with a good education props to you

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Shows what just a little boost can do, along with some fortitude!!! Bravo Professor!!

    Shows what just a little boost can do, along with some fortitude!!! Bravo Professor!!

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Diane

    Thank you for sharing your story, Dr. Huerta. I’m saddened by your experience and hope it serves as a reminder to all of us to work harder to address both implicit and explicit forms of racism. I wasn’t aware of Oxy’s program and am glad to hear of it. I serve as a mentor for South Central Scholars, a similar program that serves young people in South Central LA. Best wishes to you and your entire family. May we all be kinder to each other and see the great potential in each person.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Dean

    What a beautiful success story!
    Dr. Huerta, I’m not of Mexican descent, but was born in East LA, spent my early years as a minority in South Central, L.A. Zone 1. Our family wasn’t poor. We just didn’t have much money…eating cereal, 11 cents a box, for Sunday dinner was a special treat for us. Thank you for sharing a little of your history.

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Abner Flores

    Thank you for these powereful words, Dr. Huerta. So many of the issues that we face remain buried and unaddressed. It’s my sense that this type of silence only exacerbates the shame and belief that these perceptions and experiences are normal.

    Reply
  9. Avatar
    Olivia Hemming

    Thank you, Dr. Huerta. Your life story I can relate to, and I would guess many ‘chicanos’ can as well. I was born in the US, in a small community in the Southwest from parents and family who spoke Spanish at home. Upon entering school, I too, didn’t know I was different until ‘dirty Mexican’ was hurled at me and my sibs. Brought up Catholic I would look up at the sky after Catechism class, yell to [the then God I believed in] “Why did you hate me and make me Mexican and poor, did I do something bad to you before you sent me to be borne?” “The Anglos hate us and are mean to us, call us dirty and want us to go back to where we came from. We came from you, but you don’t want us or like us, either – you don’t do anything to punish them!”

    I knew higher education was the key to higher learning about the human condition and self. From my experiences I became a writer and activist: for human rights, inequities – the gulf between the haves and havenots, social & political injustices and those in occupation [plight of the Palestinians],and of course the environment and all life forms.

    I believe I must leave this earth a better place than when I entered it, even if it’s just one clean drop in the pail of
    muddy water.

    Reply
  10. Avatar
    Hypatia

    Heartbreaking. Can’t see into your inner family dynamics, but it sounds as though your parents, dealing with so much,
    seemed to buy into the white culture’s story. This is NOT a criticism; it’s all too common in ANY community or culture (ex: fat shunning, religion, bullying and so many others) for the victim to passively accept their critics’ evaluation.

    Congratulations on escaping from “prison” with the help of mentors, and making it your work to reform public policy.

    Bu in addition, families and individuals must learn to actively reject prejudiced images reflected from from the prevailing culture. We still have a long way to go; let it start as soon as a child can understand.

    Reply
  11. Avatar
    Angela Jerez

    Wow, great story. I belive you tutored me in high school at East Los Angeles Occupational Center. ANYWAY GREAT WROK. CONTINUE TO SHARE AND INSPIRE US. THANK YOU!

    Reply
  12. Avatar
    Truthafuss

    Just like a Mexican to think bad things ony happen to Mexicans. Nonsense.

    Reply
  13. Avatar
    Truthafuss

    Just like a Mexican to think bad things only happen to Mexicans. Total self serving disingenuous nonsense.

    Reply
  14. Avatar
    Truthafuss

    Just like a Mexican to think bad things only happen to Mexicans. Self serving tripe.

    Reply
  15. Avatar
    Leticia Schnabel (Talavera) back in the day

    I i’m so happy for you and your accomplishments. Like you I was raise in Ramona Gardens I decided I was gonna do as much as possible to better myself being a parent at 17 it was not easy I took some classes at ELA. I work in the health care business I am a activities Director at a locked skilled nursing home and Pico Rivera . You have a great story to share with others in the same situation we were in . I will be sharing your story with my nephews and nieces and great nephews and nieces who still live in Ramona Gardens the best to you and your family happy new year .

    Reply
  16. Avatar
    Jesus Art Arellano

    Dr Huerta, thank you for sharing. I venture to say that you are where your are because of your roots, your parents backing, and a desire to do better. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing many young men and young ladies, climb out of poverty, crime infested neighborhoods, broken families, products of the public school systems, with very few positive teacher influence or roll models. They became business people, lawyers, judges, police officers, fire fighters, politicians, doctors, nurses, military leaders, Sheriff’s, Chief of police departments, and yes Dr. Ruben Quintero, Ph.D.,Phelosephy out of Pico Rivera, Calif. It does the heart good to hear one more story of a neighborhood kid, make it.

    Reply

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