“The first requisite of a good servant is that he should conspicuously know his place.”

                                                                                             — Thorstein Veblen, 1899

American capitalism killed my late father’s spirit and body. Humiliated. Contaminated. Exploited. Discarded. 

It makes me cry, just thinking about the horrors my father experienced in this country.

As a “guest” of the American government, my father—Salomón Huerta, Sr.—worked as a farmworker during the early 1960s under the Bracero Program. Officially known as the Mexican Farm Labor Program (1942-1964), this guest worker program recruited 4.6 million Mexican laborers to toil in America’s agricultural fields, along with the railroad and mining sectors. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times (July 18, 2022), my father and his paisanos earned a measly “…30-cents-per-hour minimum wage, plus free transportation, food and housing.” While providing “free” food and housing sound generous, not only was the food horrendous, but also the housing conditions catered more to livestock. 

Watercolor by by Salamón Huerta Jr.

As part of recruitment process in the United States, American officials forced my father and his paisanos to strip naked in front of each other in large rooms. For Mexicans from the countryside, like my father, uncles and grandfather, they tend to be reserved and private, where they experienced public humiliation. No wonder they didn’t talk about it.

To add insult to injury, apart from the humiliation, my father and his paisanos were sprayed with DDT, which can cause cancer and other ailments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How can the government and its oppressive agents engage in human rights violations of vulnerable brown people toiling in agricultural fields to feed Americans during a time of crisis?

In America, farmworkers toil under harsh conditions. Physically demanding work. Constant bending and stooping. Brutal work hours. Harsh weather conditions, like the current heat waves. Workplace harassment, including sexual harassment. In California, prior to the successes of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and others, the farmers workers lacked basic rights, such as government protections to unionize, access to bathrooms, clean water, breaks, overtime pay, health insurance and other rights and benefits that many American workers take for granted. 

After many years of organizing, the UFW and others won many victories, such as the right to unionize without retaliation (e.g., employer, state), abolition of the oppressive short-handled hoe (“el cortito”) in 1975, ban of dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos in early 2020 and overall improved working conditions. It’s great that the farmworkers are finally getting some of the workplace relief they deserve. Still more needs to be done. But what about the case of my father and millions of his paisanos during the Bracero Program and beyond? 

I wonder if the exposure to DDT and other pesticides caused my father’s cancer and early death at 66 years old?

During the early 1970s, once my family migrated and settled in Los Angeles, California, my father secured work as a janitor in a rim factory. He originally earned a “whopping” $2 per hour (minimum wage). During the early 1980s, he ended up earning $3.35 per hour (minimum wage). Once his white supervisor demanded that he work near the furnace, he quit. Defeated, my father performed odd jobs working as a day laborer (jornalero) for the rest of his life.

In fact, since my late mother, Carmen Mejía Huerta, didn’t want my brother (Salomón Huerta, Jr., the critically acclaimed painter) and I to suffer like them, as Mexican immigrants without formal education, she convinced him to take us to work as day laborers in Malibu, California. While my brother was 15 years old, I was only 13. Her master plan: if we experienced hard manual labor at an early age, we would pursue higher education to escape abject poverty.

Artwork by Salamón Huerta Jr.

After suffering as a tween day laborer, working the huge yards of the filthy rich in Malibu, I quickly learned that I was too lazy to be a manual laborer. It didn’t take long for me to decide that I wanted to pursue higher education, instead of pulling weeds all day to improve the view of the ocean for the affluent. 

Hence, four years later, I enrolled in UCLA as a freshman, majoring in mathematics. I then became a student activist as a MEChista—Chicana/o student group. After taking a hiatus to become a community activist for several years, I graduated with my B.A. in History. This led to my M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA. Encouraged by my wife, Antonia Montes, to continue my graduate studies, I then secured my Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley—the top public university in the world

A few years of earning my Ph.D., I secured a tenure-track faculty position at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where I eventually secured tenure and promotion. This includes being selected to become a Religion and Public Life Organizing Fellow at the Harvard Divinity School (2021 to 2023). Moreover, in addition to my many publications, I’m proud to announce my forthcoming book, Jardineros/Gardeners: Cultivating Los Angeles’ Front Lawn with Brown Hands, Migrant Networks and Technology, published by The MIT Press.

Not bad for a son of working-class immigrants and product of East Los Angeles’ notorious Ramona Gardens public housing project (or Big Hazard projects). While I don’t list my accomplishments to boast (well, maybe a little!), I’m more interested in providing a positive role model for los de abajo / those from bottom–where I proudly derive from.

As I reject American individualism, I know that my successes as an academic or “braincero” (one who works with his brain) wouldn’t be possible without the sacrifices of my father, as a bracero (one who works with his arms), and mother, as a domestic worker (or doméstica) for several decades. 

To conclude, my late Mexican parents and their paisanos (past, present and future) are not the burdens of society or bloody invaders or job thieves, as the white nationalists want us to believe. They are the salt of the earth. 

Álvaro Huerta

Dr. Álvaro Huerta is a Religion and Public Life Organizing Fellow at the Harvard Divinity School and an Associate Professor in Urban & Region Planning and Ethnic & Women’s Studies at Cal Poly...