Luis Urrieta is being honored as a Cesar E. Chavez Champion of Change.
Service to communities is not a choice for some, but an indispensable part of the fabric of daily life. When there are communities that we are committed to, then service and advocacy makes sense.
To me, service means contributing to a larger mission for social justice and educational equity. Service adds to a larger collective struggle to work toward fulfilling the promises and ideals of this great nation.
I first learned about César Chávez and his struggle in 1990 when a group of fellow Chicano students dumped a large bowl of grapes that were being served to us in the dorm cafeteria in the trash. This action was part of a symbolic protest in solidarity with Chávez and the United Farm Workers. At the time, I was an entering freshman in college and Chávez, along with my parents and extended family became an inspiration to me for a life of service. I realized that my work in life would revolve around giving back to Latina/o communities, especially immigrant communities, and raising awareness about Latina/o issues with a wider audience.
My professional, academic, and community service work in education has been dedicated to raising awareness and valuing Latina/o immigrant family and community knowledge. I have focused much of my energies on the importance of nourishing and supporting strong ethnic and linguistic identities in Latina/o children and youth, while promoting and creating the conditions for high academic achievement. My service has been primarily centered on mentoring, teaching, and cultivating leadership in Latina/o children and youth.
As a former bilingual middle school teacher in Los Angeles I was dedicated to working with immigrant and first generation students. Through critical pedagogy and extensive family and community involvement, many of my students became very personally and academically successful, and were able to navigate the higher education system despite their undocumented status. This was not due to me, but to larger collaborative efforts between the students, teachers, family, and community that I was then a part of. Collectively we subsequently published some of the undocumented student testimonios to help raise educators’ awareness about their status and to disrupt the negative perceptions of undocumented youth.
For the past ten years, my work with teachers as a teacher educator has also focused on engaging in conversations and dialogue about Latino/a students, both our long and recent history in the U.S., the issues we face, including our diversity as a community, and the assets we bring. With undergraduate students I instill and encourage a need for service learning projects, volunteering, tutoring, mentoring, and engagement with Latina/o families and communities.
I have done this by creating opportunities for local Latina/o community involvement including work with community centers, non-profits, churches, and through workshops, internships, and exchange programs abroad in Mexico and Guatemala, with strong service learning components. My goal is to instill in young adults the motivation not only to achieve professionally, but to also align those professional goals and commitments to communities, especially communities in need.
For the last two years, along with university student volunteers/interns, I have also coordinated a collaborative after school program, Cultura en Acción—Culture in Action, for upper elementary school students. This program creates a space for Latina/o ethnic and cultural awareness by centering family and community knowledge while promoting high academic achievement and 21st century skills and technology. This program enjoys success due to the level of engagement and commitment of university student volunteers, interns, and the children in the program and their families.
The legacy of community service honors those who came before us, and it is not a lone endeavor, but a collective project of hope, love, and cooperation. The legacy of service also helps prepare the way for those who will come after. Service, to me, remains fundamental to the mission of social justice and the public good.
Luis Urrieta, Jr., is Associate Professor and Program Director for the Cultural Studies in Education Program (The University of Texas—Austin), and Coordinator of the Cultura en Acción—Culture in Action after school program in Austin, TX.