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Faces of Public Service    
Straddling the divide between barrio and campus

“Hot and terrible” is how Alvaro Huerta recalled his summers, as a teen, pulling weeds with his father on the starstudded Malibu coast. Huerta’s parents, immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico, hoped the hard labor would nudge him toward choices they never had. It actually pushed him into academia.

A doctoral candidate in city and regional planning, Huerta has never left his roots behind. After earning a B.A. in history from UCLA, he spent nearly two decades working as an activist for Latino issues. In the mid-1990s, when L.A. gardeners faced a proposed ban on leaf blowers, Huerta cofounded the first U.S. organization of Latino gardeners. The ban became law, but with penalties far less draconian than had been originally proposed, thanks in part to the association’s efforts.

Alvaro Huerta

Last year Huerta received the Thomas I. Yamashita Prize, named for a Berkeley undergraduate who was sent to a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans. The Institute for the Study of Social Change gives the award annually to a scholar activist who is engaged in social change, and not just studying it, at the grassroots level.

Today Huerta is researching how Mexican immigrant gardeners in L.A. use social networks to survive and sometimes thrive.

“They’re very sophisticated,” he notes. “Some have 100 clients on a gardening route, do billing and receiving, and trade or sell their routes the way a doctor sells a professional practice.”

Huerta hopes to shed light on the informal economy — the undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens who work “off the books” and outside the protection of labor regulations and benefits. These workers aren’t reflected in standard labor statistics, making databased research more difficult. He plans to employ methods for participant interviews and observation.

César Chávez’s fight for farm workers made it into high school curriculums, but many other remarkable efforts remain unknown. Perhaps Huerta’s research can change that.

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