In November, the urban planning community in general and Latina/o community in particular experienced a devastating blow with the death of Leo Estrada. As one of the few Latina/o urban planning faculty members in the nation, Dr. Estrada (or Leo, which he preferred) was a pioneer for others in the discipline. Originally from Texas, he obtained a tenure-track faculty position at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Department of Urban Planning in 1997. He held this faculty position, securing tenure, until his retirement in June of this year.
Leo represented the best academe and humanity have to offer. He was brilliant, articulate, confident, open-minded, humorous, kind, approachable, generous, community focused, family oriented, visionary and strategic. He was a mentor and guide, a trailblazer and pioneer, a creator and producer of leaders, and an overall amazing human being.
While I’m not sure if he’s the first Latina/o to secure a tenure-track faculty position in urban planning, I can say that, during the past 40-plus years, few Latinas/os have become tenure-track or tenured faculty members in urban planning departments throughout this country. I should know, because I am one of them. I’m most concerned that Latina/o students and faculty members, especially Chicanas/os (Mexican Americans) from historically marginalized communities, have been excluded from institutions of higher education, particularly elite universities.
In a country where more than 57.5 million residents are Latinas/os, not including the over three million Puerto Ricans on the island who are U.S. citizens, it’s a shame that an important field like urban planning has so few Latina/o faculty members. We need many more like Leo, who can teach and mentor the next generation of Latina/o planners in all sectors of society — including the government, private industry, nonprofit organizations and others.
During the early 2000s, when I first applied to the master’s program at UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, I didn’t know much about the field. Having spent 13 years as a community organizer, I was out of the loop in terms of graduate school, despite earning my B.A. in history from the university.
“Talk to Leo before you apply,” my old undergraduate contacts encouraged me. Actually, it was more like a collective mandate: “If you want to get accepted, go see Leo!”
I kept saying to myself, “Who is this Leo guy?” I started to visit UCLA and wandered around the public affairs building, where Leo’s office was located, hoping to “accidentally” bump into him. On second thought, I acted more like a groupie of a famous singer. After my master plan failed, I finally mustered up the courage to email him, asking to meet to learn more about the program. Five minutes later, he responded, “Absolutely. I’ve been waiting for you.” The rest is history.
To me, he represented the Latino version of the Oracle — the wise African American woman with the power of foresight — from the movie The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves as Neo. (I guess that makes me the Chicano version of Neo?)
Once I was accepted into the program, I quickly learned the importance of having a faculty member at the graduate level who looked like me. (Actually, he was better-looking than me.) As one of the few Latina/o graduate students at an elite university from a working-class background and violent barrio, I especially appreciated having someone who was sympathetic to my experiences.
I was born to Mexican immigrant parents without formal education and grew up in one of the most impoverished and dangerous public housing projects on the West Coast: the Ramona Gardens housing project, or Big Hazard project. That put me at a disadvantage when I originally entered UCLA as a 17-year-old freshman. Even among the few Latina/o students on the campus, I was an outlier. Consequently, as an undergraduate, I relied on the prominent historian Juan Gómez-Quiñones — one of the few Chicana/o faculty members at the university — to succeed.
During graduate school, Leo played a similar role. While he wasn’t my assigned adviser, he never closed his door to me or other students who sought his guidance. Whenever I ran into an obstacle with another faculty member or grappled with a complex research question, I could always count on him. As we would say on the mean streets of East Los Angeles, “My homeboy Leo always had my back.”
Because of Leo — and my wise wife, Antonia, and late mother, Carmen — I was one of the few Chicanas/os to obtain my M.A. from UCLA and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning. That allowed me to secure a joint tenure-track faculty position at Cal Poly Pomona’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and its Ethnic and Women’s Studies Department.
As a faculty member, like Leo’s tenure at UCLA, I’m in a privileged position to teach, advise and mentor the next generation of Latinas/os in the planning field and beyond, where these amazing students assume leadership roles not only in academe but in the government, the private sector and the nonprofit arena. While many professors disdain service-related duties, like advising and mentoring, that take them away from their research projects and goals, I embrace such duties as part of my academic obligations. When asked about my commitment to service, which applies to my brilliant colleague and good friend Leo, I usually cite Lady Gaga: “Baby, I was born this way.”
Following in the footsteps of Leo, I have a moral obligation to teach, advise and mentor students, particularly those with similar traits and experiences to mine: first-generation Latinas/os students raised in the barrio, children of immigrants and working-class parents. Such efforts are vital so that they, too, can secure advanced degrees from elite universities and become leaders in society who serve those on the bottom (los de abajo).
That brings me to my persistent call for more urban planning departments — and, in fact, many more academic departments in general — to recruit, train and hire more tenure-track Latina/o faculty members. And they should place a particular emphasis on Chicanas/os, given that Chicanas/os represent the largest subgroup of Latinas/os in this country.
I end my humble tribute to Leo with a few words: ¡Viva el gran maestro y ser humano Leo Estrada! Higher education definitely needs a lot more like him.
Copyright 2018 by Dr. Alvaro Huerta. Alvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm (San Diego State University Press, 2013) and the forthcoming book Latina/o Immigrant Communities in the Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond.