The Day I Learned I was Mexican and Poor

By Dr. Alvaro Huerta

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.

As part of federal integration programs, I”along with classmates from Murchison Elementary School in East Los Angeles”was bused to Mt. Gleason Jr. High School in Sunland, Tujunga. Nervous about leaving the notorious Ramona Gardens housing project 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, especially from the police, 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. Suddenly, 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.

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.

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.

In short, if not for key teachers, Upward Bound, my advanced math skills, the support from my Mexican parents and Chicana wife, I wouldn’t have been able to escape the poverty and violence of my youth to earn two degrees from UCLA (B.A., M.A.). This also includes a degree from UC Berkeley (Ph.D.), allowing me to become a university professor, published author and public intellectual, where I foster tomorrow’s leaders and influence public policy.

To end, I only hope that my story of resilience inspires others to do likewise.

Dr. Alvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies.

Dr. Alvaro Huerta

Courtesy of Dr. Alvaro Huerta

Dr. Alvaro Huerta

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