Editor's note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on highly educated Latino workers in the work force in the South Lake Tahoe community.
Nicolas Huerta was one of the most highly educated housekeepers in South Lake Tahoe in 2005. He had moved from Mexico to the basin with his pregnant wife and his two degrees in the hopes of securing a steady income as a psychologist that would enable him to support his family. But the only place he could find work was in Harveys Resort and Casino, cleaning rooms at minimum wage.
He had moved to what he calls the "land of opportunity" because he couldn't get a job in Mexico - a county where, according to Huerta, your connections matter more than your schooling at the start of a career.
He first came to Tahoe in the 1980s during a visit to relatives who were living in the area. In 1990, Huerta started working seasonally at the casinos as a housekeeper, bringing his wages back to Mexico every fall to support himself while he studied for his science and psychology degree at the University of Guadalajara and later a Gestalt therapy degree from the city's Western Regional Gestalt Institute.
"We came to this county seven years ago. I came every summer to work as a housekeeper. Every time I used to come to this county that was my job. I thought that was my opportunity to work here," Huerta said.
One summer, he decided to apply at a South Shore agency as a volunteer where he could work in some capacity as a psychologist or therapist. Huerta declined to give the name of the agency or of the woman who turned down his offer on the grounds that he didn't have enough experience counseling.
"That's when they told me I cannot even work as a volunteer in this county, even though I have all my degrees down in Mexico. At that time, I already had my master's, too," Huerta said.
Discouraged, he continued working at the casino. It wasn't until his sister convinced him five months after his move in 2005 to apply for a new position at the South Lake Tahoe Family Resource Center that he gave counseling in the basin another shot.
When Huerta showed up on the FRC's doorstep, Executive Director Delicia Spees could hardly believe her luck. Here was a highly-qualified applicant looking to fill the psychologist position at the center, and he was willing to work for low wages.
"He's been a blessing. He's been a shining light, he's highly respected by the people. I'm so excited he's with us. When he showed me all these degrees, the first thing I said was, 'I can't afford you,'" Spees said.
But for Huerta, who was earning $7.25 per hour as a housekeeper at Harveys, even $10 per hour was big money at the time. When Spees offered him $2 more than that, it was a dream come true, he said. Huerta took the job with FRC and a year later accepted another job with the the Mental Health Division of the Health and Human Services Agency with El Dorado County.
At Mental Health, he worked with the Tahoe Opportunity Project to help homeless residents in the basin gain self-sufficiency by getting back to work or back to school. Huerta also worked to engage Latinos with the county's services. When he started, the division had five Spanish-speaking clients. When Huerta left the agency two years later, there were 56 Latino clients.
Huerta returned to the FRC in 2009 and currently works as the bilingual counselor at the center. He's careful with his title, since he can't officially call himself a therapist until he transfers his credits from Mexico to the U.S. and completes the U.S. requirements for a psychologist's license.
Last year, he met with the Educational Records Evaluation Service. The Sacramento-based agency evaluates education completed internationally and identifies the equivalency of those courses in the U.S. ERES officials told him he had the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in science and psychology and recommended a year and a half of credits toward his master's degree.
ERES Executive Director Paul Reese said that the agency can't force employers or college administrators to accept the recommended credits though.
"We don't have the authority to impose. We're making a recommendation that this is fairly valid, but a college or employer can choose to accept it or not. There are employers who maybe don't trust it," Reese said.
Huerta said he's decided to start with a clean slate, and is currently researching online programs in psychology, social services, and education at Cal State University at Sacramento and the University of Southern California. But education in the U.S. can be crippling expensive, especially compared to Mexico, where all of Huerta's education was free.
Even the online programs can be costly. Credits for the USC Master of Social Work online degree cost $1,473 each during the 2012-13 school year. Overall, USC estimates total costs for a year of full-time enrollment at almost $43,000.
While Huerta researches his options, he continues to work with children and adolescents in the community, as well as young mothers and other clients looking for advice and therapy. Single mother Patricia Rodriguez, a member of one of the FRC groups, said Huerta has helped her raise her five children in a drug- and violence-free household.
"He has helped me a lot. He's helped me with my kids. I feel proud and I know that I'm not a perfect mother, but he's helped me a lot and I'm very grateful to this center. He's an excellent person," Rodriguez said in Spanish at the start of a mothers' therapy session in August.
Huerta expressed frustration that much of the popular sentiment in the U.S. revolves around a stereotype that all Latinos immigrate to the country uneducated and poor.
"It's just a lack of information, or ignorance. It's like they're sending the message that there are no schools in Latin America, and one of the advantages down there is that education is free," Huerta said.
"We were waiting in the community clinic one day, my wife, my new baby and me. In front of us was an Anglo person, and she made the comment, 'Another welfare baby?' At that point I was carrying at least $200 in my wallet. I felt frustrated, because sometimes you get that impression that people think we came here just to use the system. But many people here have a lot of skill," he said.