REVIEW OF "DEFENDING LATINA/O COMMUNITIES: THE XENOPHOBIC ERA OF TRUMP AND BEYOND"

Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond is a compilation of 44 short essays written by Alvaro Huerta from 2008 to 2019, except for 2 essays written by Juan Gómez Quiñones and 1 by Joaquin Montes Huerta (Huerta’s son) and Alvaro Huerta. There is a foreword by José Z. Calderón. Alvaro Huerta also writes an introduction and conclusion. In this collection, Huerta offers thoughtful personal and familial stories of coming of age to his ethnic, racial, and class-consciousness, including the pains, traumas, and revelations endured in the process. These experiences shaped Huerta’s unwavering and unapologetic activism for the defense of disenfranchised immigrant and ethnic minorities, particularly Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States. In that sense, the book is, to some extent, autobiographic and introspective. Huerta does not share those stories either as a way of aggrandizement or self-pity. One feels he shares them out of a sense of both self-reflection (making sense of and coming to terms with his past) and responsibility: First, shedding light on the structural conditions that created challenges in his personal and familial life—poverty, inequality, spatial segregation, racism, xenophobia, poor schooling, police and gang violence—and the lives of people who lived under similar socio-spatial and economic conditions, and which continue to plague the lives of many [1]. Second, offering guidance and hope for the new generations still confronting such challenges.

These essays are the testimony of a boy growing up in a ghettoized and violent barrio—the Ramona Gardens housing project in Los Angeles, California—that, with support from his family and great will and sustained effort, overcame many odds to become a university professor and a nationally recognized speaker on behalf of immigrant and Latinx communities. The insider-outsider positionality with which Huerta writes—personally, revealing stories of the mixed status (US citizens/unauthorized immigrants) family he belonged to, and academically, analyzing such conditions—injects the book with an honesty and fluidity that mimics the lives of those on whose behalf Huerta writes.

There is a particularly poignant essay entitled, “The Day I Learned I was Poor and Mexican,” even though Huerta was born in Sacramento, California. Huerta explains, “I didn’t realize that I was poor and Mexican until my first day of junior high school,” at twelve-years old [2]. As part of a federal integration program, Huerta was bused from his East Los Angeles school to a suburban white school, where rocks and racial insults received his bus. Huerta was made to feel ashamed of his class and ethnic origin, and in hindsight, he claims that shame, “like a stalker, followed me for many years.” [3] In this and other essays he denounced the chronic low expectations and resources for the ‘Mexican’ students.

In his essays, Huerta alternates between grave and light writing style, delivering severe commentary with a pinch of sarcasm and cynicism, making the read more palatable and engaging. Aside from showing his personality, this style may very well be representing a common way of coping for Latinx communities and other disenfranchised groups—humor. Huerta’s characteristic dose of humor makes the heavy stuff he writes about bearable for the readers: “I don’t understand how calling someone a ‘low-rider’ or ‘beaner’ represented an insult. Doesn’t everybody like low-rider cars and beans?” [4]; or “The only thing that I knew back then about the university consisted of watching UCLA football games on television.” [5] He later earned a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA, and a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley.

In a particularly mordant essay on “confessions of an anchor baby,” Huerta writes an open letter to Trump, stating:

If I would’ve known of your novel interpretation of our Constitution, since you’re the guardian of the “white American Dream,” I would’ve pleaded to doctor’s in my mother’s womb to be aborted. Oh, I forgot, Republicans don’t believe in abortion. Does the GOP make exceptions for brown fetuses?

There are also multiple essays in the book that focus on denouncing the political economy conditions that oppress poor and immigrant communities, both in the country and in California, with a focus on Southern California, where Huerta grew up and lives, currently holding a joint faculty appointment in Urban & Region Planning (URP) and Ethnic & Women’s Studies (EWS) at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Although some of the political characters and the circumstances that Huerta discussed have passed, his analyses remain relevant and help us to contextualize the current conditions in the country, which have unfortunately worsened for low-income people and people of color since the book was published.

Furthermore, the book offers much more than autobiography, analysis, and denunciation. It points to strategies for overcoming the racial, socio-economic, and political malaises it critiques. Huerta places his hopes squarely on grassroots social movements, offering lessons for community organizing in Chicana/o communities: “educate, agitate, and organize.” [6] In his long trajectory as activist, Huerta has helped organize and participated in movements that advocate for immigrants’ and workers’ rights, housing, education, employment, and health. Today, in his roles as social scientist and public intellectual, Huerta lectures across the country and write short essays, such as the ones in this collection, in a purposeful attempt to make his contributions accessible to larger publics and effect change for historically marginalized communities.

In a few essays, Huerta reflects on the built environment of his old neighborhood in Los Angeles “surrounded by freeways, railroad tracks and shuttered factories” [7] and on the police brutality so common in Latinx enclaves [8]. He proposes “five ways to bridge the inequality gap in this country… for all racialized minorities and the worker-class.” They include raising the minimum wage to a living wage, producing more affordable housing, investing more on public K-12 education, make public colleges/universities tuition-free, and increase taxes on the income and accumulated wealth of the rich [9]. In 2019-2020, all candidates of the Democratic Party ran their primary presidential campaigns on some or all those promises, and current representatives like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Ocasio-Cortez are backing Green New Deal and Homes Guarantee proposals that include them and move them even further.

Huerta shows equanimity in most judgments on the depravity of state acts of terrorism over defenseless immigrants, US residents, and weaker nation states, such as scaremongering tactics over child refugees, human rights violations in immigration detention centers, or accusations to Mexico of harboring terrorists. However, righteous rage got the best of him on a couple of points, such as when he defends Mexico as a “country with an efficient police state apparatus” [10], when its corruption and abuses have been well established. Overall, Huerta’s hope is balanced out with brutal honesty. He writes, “it will take many generations to come for millions of Mexicans and Chicanas/os en el norte to one day obtain the elusive American Dream.” [11]

The book is well suited to be used in undergraduate courses that focus on social justice, community and economic development, Chicanx/Latinx studies, and/or immigration. The essays can be read or assigned to read selectively, as there is some overlap among them. As they offer passionate interpretation, the essays can be paired in class with reports or academic papers that offer complementary factual data for the conditions therein discussed. The essays would also offer good examples of advocacy writing that the students may use to model their own advocacy pieces on.

Huerta’s essays do not speak solely to planning and planners, but to all disciplines engaged in community development and justice work, including sociology, social work, political science, criminology, and criminal justice. His message to planners is, however, unmistakable and direct: “Urban planners of the world unite against Trump.”

Clara E. Irazábal-Zurita is the Director of the Latinx and Latin American Studies Program and a Professor of Urban Planning at University of Missouri-Kansas City.

[1] Irazábal, C. and R. Farhat. “Latino Communities in the United States: Place-Making in the Pre-World War II, Post-World War, and Contemporary City.” Journal of Planning Literature 22(3), 2008, 207-228.

[2] Huerta, Alvaro. Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: the Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond. Lanham: Hamilton Books., 2019, 19.

[3] Huerta, 20.

[4] Huerta, 19.

[5] Huerta, 21.

[6] Huerta, 39.

[7] Huerta, 39.

[8] Garcia-Hallett, J., T. Like, T. Torres, and C. Irazábal. "Latinxs in the Kansas City Metro Area: Policing and Criminalization in Ethnic Enclaves." Journal of Planning Education and Research, 2019.

[9] Huerta, 46.

[10] Huerta, 52. [11] Huerta, 8.

[12] Huerta, 105.

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