Memories from East L.A.’s Public Housing Projects: “Do the Hustle”

“Petty Hustling,” SalomónHuerta (2008)

While growing up in East Los Angeles’ Ramona Gardens public housing project or Big Hazard projects, I was a petty hustler. Throughout my youth, I dreamed of pursuing one of three divergent professions: (1) professional thief, like Jesse James; (2) famous Chicano mathematician, like Sir Isaac Newton; or (3) stand-up comedian, like Richard Pryor. While I eventually became a community activist-turned-professor, I fondly recall my petty hustling days.

Evel Knievel

While living in Hollywood with my extended Mexican family, my cousin Jose showed me the art of stealing. “Always be cool and stay calm,” he said to me in Spanish. When bored, he would go to the local store with old tennis shoes and exchange them for new ones, walking out without paying.

When I was 5 years old, my older brotherSalomón(critically acclaimed painter) and cousin Chato, both 7 years old, took me to the retail store Zody’s to “buy” a toy. With only $10 between them, they selected an Evel Knievel toy motorcyclebased on the then-famous daredevil, stun performer. Nonchalantly, they then stuffed the middle-sized box with smaller toys before heading to the cashier. The cashier quickly realized that it was too heavy. Without warning me, they fled the scene of the crime, leaving me alone to face the consequences as a child petty hustler. Luckily, due to my age, I was let go.

Thankfully, my brother and cousin waited for me outside to return home together in tears and defeat.

There’s nothing like family!

Big Mac Hustle

Once I moved into the projects as a 6-year-old with my immediate family, I pursued petty hustling activities. Since my parent’s didn’t have money to take my siblings and me — all eight of us — to fancy restaurants, like Carl’s Jr., whenever I secured a couple of dollars, I usually ate at McDonald’s with my siblings and childhood friends. We walked about 1.3 miles, one-way, to the nearest McDonald’s on Morengo Street — not far from General Hospital.

On a hot summer day, my childhood homeboy Javier Morales invited me to lunch. “I’m treating,” he generously said. We were both 11 years old. Since Javier was an advanced petty hustler, once we arrived at McDonald’s, he introduced me to his “Big Mac hustle.” After ordering a Big Mac with fries and a Coke and sat down next to me, Javier took two bites of the Big Mac and told me “to take a big bite.” He then plucked a curly hair from his head and put it in the hamburger.

He returned to the cashier and requested to speak to the manager in private. He then quietly said to the manager: “There’s a hair is in my Big Mac, but I don’t want to make a scene.”

A few minutes later, Javier returned to our table with a large grin on his face, carrying a new Big Mac, large fries and a Coke. The manager even returned Javier’s money! “It never fails,” he bragged.

On that glorious day, we ate like kings for free!

One week later, when another manager was on shift, we returned to McDonald’s. This time, as his apprentice, it was my turn to perform the “hair-in-the-Big-Mac-hustle.”

Javier gave me some money and sat down at the table near the exit. I ordered the usual: “I want a Big Mac with fries and a Coke.”

Feeling anxious, I quickly returned to the table. Javier took two bites of the Big Mac, plucked a curly hair from his head, put it in the hamburger and returned it to me.

“Take a big bite,” he said, “and ask for the manager without getting nervous!”

“Excuse me, Miss,” I said to the white cashier in my East Los Angeles accent, “I want to talk to the manager.”

“One moment,” she said.

“May I help you, young man?” said the elderly white manager.

“There’s a hair in my Big Mac,” I nervously responded, breaking Javier’s golden rule.

After carefully examining the Big Mac, he walked towards the kitchen. “Please follow me,” he said in a stern tone.

As I followed him to the kitchen, he interrogated me: “Do you see any men in the kitchen?”

“No,” I replied, as my heart pounded erratically.

He then said, “Do you see anyone with curly, black hair?”

“No,” I meekly replied.

“I know this isn’t the first time you and your hoodlum friend played this trick with the-hair-in-the-Big Mac,” he said. “So, if you tell who is responsible for this stupid plan, I’ll let you go without calling the police.”

Adhering to sacred code of the projects, once I gained my composure, I stoically said, “You’re looking at him!”

As a I reflect on my petty hustling days, I must admit that as a Chicano professor from the projects — and award-winning author with advanced degrees from elite universities (UCLA, UC Berkeley) — I’ve always (to the present) had to hustle to overcome the brutal constraints of systemic racism under American capitalism.

Dr. Álvaro Huerta is a Religion and Public Life Organizing Fellow at Harvard University and an Assoc. Professor at Cal State Polytechnic University, Pomona.