ITE Alum Diego Huerta: Law School, Cast Iron Skillets, and the Sonoran Soil

Diego Huerta, ITE alum since middle school, is taking another step in the unfolding journey of his life. Just this week, he successfully defended his master thesis, an analysis of chemical effects on a rural mining community, and in a mere matter of days, he’ll be off to Georgetown Law School. Before he left, we wanted to sit with him and share stories of ITE over the years, as well as wish him good luck on his journey. We were curious about what he has noticed in himself, his community and this land since he first started exploring with ITE as an 11-year-old, as well as what he is most excited for in the unfolding next steps. 

With the future dangling in front of us in his imminent departure, we started there. Law school. As the son of two lawyers, Diego found it funny that he, too, was walking a similar, though different, path. He knew right away that for him “law is the right path to go down in terms of helping people,” and when asked about the importance of helping people, he said that if there was one thing that he could do in his life, it would be to help people, and that there are countless ways to do that. 

“Coming from a privileged background, both of my parents are lawyers, and it became apparent to me how many people don’t have a safety net, or a net of any kind. I know what it’s like to have Eric and Suzy who have always supported me and believed I could do anything. That’s its own type of net. For some, they need the nets of food, water, shelter, as well as financial and emotional care…”

The type of net Diego is crafting is one that is intersectional, and related to his own world, a net of both “sustainability and stability.”

Diego continued to reflect that the more unstable someone feels, the less they can interact with everything. He compared it to a lesson his gardening teacher taught him in middle school at Kino School, a progressive education school here in Tucson. The teacher shared that if you have to uproot a tree to a new place, you must go carefully, making sure you take care of the center and root ball of the tree, keeping the soil in place and the roots connected. The more of its original place you can keep with it, the better a chance it has to survive. That’s the type of care that people need. 

So how then, we wondered, does he plan to bring his own place, his “root ball and soil,” with him to the east coast as he begins school this fall? He answered quickly, knowing his soil well. He spoke of his parents helping him transition for a few days, as well as his friends; “it’s all the little things like that.” And then, he got specific. Diego has always had an infamous love for food within the ITE community, and so it was no surprise that food played a role in his roots. 

“I have my cast iron skillet and wok that my parents got me…The way cast iron works, it has this nice patina from all these meals that I made in Tucson and I’m taking it with me to make stuff somewhere else.”

Thinking about Diego cooking in a cast iron that holds all the seasoning, flavor, and recipes from Tucson while he makes Washington DC home was the perfect fusion of how food, culture, identity and place all intersect in the patina of a skillet. Like ITE, all of the different pieces are woven together. 

The conversation shifted from culinary musings, including reminisces of taco seasoning taffy, to thinking back to growing up here, the lessons learned and gathered along the way. Diego spoke about mindfulness as one of the major lessons he learned through ITE. 

“As a middle schooler, you’re not really focused too much on mindfulness but I remember on a lot of trips, maybe every trip, we’d do this thing where we’d spread out. Eric would drop people off along the trail and you couldn’t see anyone else. It got totally quiet except for nature; it was peaceful where you were. He would tell us to journal, or do whatever. Just be in nature by yourself.”

When thinking about how we humans ultimately have our relationship with ourselves as the foundation to our being, Diego reflected, “No matter what, you’re your own person in your own body; you can have all these connections but you still have yourself. It’s important to have the relationship with yourself developed…it’s about self trust and self efficacy.” ITE teaches you, he continued, how to disconnect, how to not always be connected with everyone around you. These are the practices of presence.

ITE has also helped Diego become more comfortable going on a hike by himself, and really, “doing whatever by myself.” He explained, “People often feel the need to have other people around, and that’s good, that’s fun, but it’s not always necessary to do the things you want to do. You can be comfortable doing it by yourself.” That comfort in discomfort is one of the life skills Diego will be taking with him. Even though he has traveled to New Mexico and other places with ITE as well as friends and family, this will be the first time he is learning to call another place home. Describing what it might feel like, he talked about orienting. 

“I don’t feel that I’ve ever really oriented myself to a new place. I’ve oriented myself to Tucson. I know all sorts of things about the trees, the rain, stuff like that that comes from living in a place for so long, and now that I’m moving to a new place, instead of being with things I grew up with, I will have to consciously orient myself, especially in a larger city…”

But that sense of orienting is something he is familiar with. It’s what he learned to do with ITE. He talked of how he learned, early on, to not just see Tucson as a city. “We’re in Tucson, and we’re in the Sonoran Desert, which is on the earth…the ability to see all of that at once is what makes ITE.”

The world keeps moving and moving, and transitions continue to unfold for everyone and everything. That’s one of the things that Diego thinks ITE does well– in the face of transitions and time, it knows how to move slowly. ITE is the ironwood tree it is named after, a gentle growing legume of the Sonoran Desert that takes hundreds of years to reach its potential. 

“I think the world moves fast and ITE does a good job of taking its time and doing things well. Everything that’s famous nowadays is on social media for one or two days and then you never hear about it again. ITE does a good job of having stay power, both stability and sustainability. It lets people think, gets people to engage in nature and environmentalism…It’s very cool that ITE’s been around so long, and it’s had this place-based approach to education for as long as it has been here. It’s a tradition in a way, to have something so long-standing.” 

Ultimately, he said, it’s also about the fun. “I think that’s something underrated for kids especially. Climbing over rocks is fun. Catching lizards is fun. One time we went out to Madera Canyon and Eric caught a click beetle, and it made this sound. Every time it got spooked, it made this click, click, click and Eric just had it in his hands, clicking away.” Those are the types of moments people remember. 

As he moves forward, he thinks about how it’s important to care about the small things, the click beetles, the cast iron skillets, the people who create our community around us.

“As a young person, it’s very attractive to not care about things. We live in a very individual society, and it’s much easier if you don’t care about other people, and what they are experiencing in the world in general…but ultimately you have to care about something if you’re ever going to have happiness and meaning in your life. You want to have a purpose. People seek purpose, I think, all the time in all sorts of ways. I think really caring about people can really help you find that.” 

Compassion. Play. Presence. Purpose. As Diego moves forward in his journey, orienting to Washington DC and all that comes with it, we know that he’ll carry Tucson, the Sonoran Desert, and ITE as part of his soil with him. He may be transplanting, but he’ll always have this community as home.