Now that the application season has concluded for millions of students applying for undergraduate, graduate and professional schools, the acceptance notifications loom over many of their heads like dark clouds for the next few months.

During this time, I reflect on my improbable journey from attending inner-city public schools to receiving advanced degrees from the best universities in the world. This includes a bachelor’s (history) and master’s (urban planning) from UCLA, in addition to a Ph.D. (city and regional planning) from UC Berkeley. By shedding light on my story, I hope to encourage students from America’s barrios and ghettoes to also pursue higher education at elite universities.

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

While these virtues are necessary for students from the inner-city to succeed, policy makers, educators and civic leaders should address the root causes that produce educational inequality in this 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 former resident of East Los Angeles’ 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, in my case, I benefited from several factors throughout my educational trajectory, helping me overcome tremendous obstacles. This includes the following five factors: possessing a specialized skill, 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, for me, my specialized skill centered on algebraic equations, polynomials and word problems. Thanks to my favorite teacher, Ms. Cher, who had hair like Lucille Ball from “I Love Lucy,” 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 — known as the Big Hazard projects, for the local gang.

Luck also played a vital role in my academic career. While bused to a majority-white middle school, where I was tracked into wood shop and metal shop classes, I later 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. Actually, Hector, who also yearned to escape the projects, peer-pressured me to apply. 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 crumbled, hand-written essay from the trash can and ironed it, I reluctantly applied and was accepted. If not for Upward Bound, I don’t think I would have been prepared and accepted to enter 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, consisting of my mother, four sisters and wife. Lacking formal education, my mother, for example, made my father take my brother and I, at 13 years of age, to work in Malibu as day laborers 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 during the Bracero Program — the U.S.-Mexico guest-worker program of the mid-20th century — he later worked as a janitor at a rim factor 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.

Huerta is a visiting scholar at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

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