Miguel Lopez, bilingual and bicultural, says working for First Community Bank of Batesville has been his “dream job.”
Lopez is a son of Mexican immigrants and was born and raised in Sherwood. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, he was working at the Little Rock Regional Chamber when a meeting with First Community executives led to his current position as the bank’s Hispanic resource officer.
“I told them there really isn’t a bank making a strong push to reach this [Hispanic] demographic. They said, ‘We’d like to remedy that. How do we do that?’” said Lopez, a member of Arkansas Business’ 20 in Their 20s in 2018. “I said, ‘You hire someone who looks like them, talks like them and understands the cultural nuances.’”
The bank did just that, creating the position for Lopez a year ago. As Hispanic resource officer, Lopez works with members of the Spanish-speaking community to increase participation in banking.
According to an FDIC national survey in 2017, as much as 50% of the Hispanic population in the United States may be either unbanked or underbanked — 14% unbanked, 28.9% underbanked and 7% unknown. Nationally, 6.5% of Americans are unbanked and 18% are underbanked.
The FDIC considers someone underbanked if he or she has a bank account of some sort but also relies on services outside the banking system.
“To say that Hispanics are underserved is a huge understatement,” Lopez said.
Arvest Bank is also reaching out to the Hispanic community. In its Fort Smith market, Alex Sanchez is the bank’s Hispanic business development officer.
Sanchez, who has been in the position for several years, said his job is bank- and culture-related; if the Hispanic community has an event, he attends as an Arvest representative.
“I am the liaison between Arvest and the Hispanic community,” said Sanchez, 50. “If there are any kinds of events, we try to be present. We work with the Fort Smith public schools and provide translators for parent-teacher conferences. We give general financial information to our community: how to open an account, what documents you need. That is a way for us to reach out.”
‘Trust Is Very Important’
Lopez and Sanchez are both fluent in Spanish and English, but they said the key to reaching potential Hispanic customers goes beyond just being able to speak their language.
“You have to understand the culture with some of these people you deal with,” said Sanchez, who was born in Mexico but moved to Chicago when he was 3. “It’s not just speaking Spanish. You’ve got to build relationships to gain their trust. Trust is very important when it comes to the Hispanic culture. They have to trust you before they give you their business.
“[If] they’re looking at someone across the desk that looks like them, that creates a little bit more of a bond, if you want to call it that. It’s not ‘Hey, I speak Spanish but I’m blond and blue-eyed.’ I look like you.”
Lopez compared the Hispanic community to others new to America in the past, such as German or Irish immigrants who formed tight-knit, insular communities that gradually integrated. Hispanics are no different, something he understands firsthand.
“I’ve always straddled the Hispanic community and the Anglo community going to school,” said Lopez, 28. “I have always seen myself as a bridge to bring both sides together. Hispanics have a tendency to [self-segregate], and I think that is to the detriment to both [communities]. Ultimately, the first generation is like that and then as time progresses, they tend to assimilate a little more.”
Lopez said Hispanic outreach won’t be a quick fix. It is worth the investment — for both the bank and the community — because Arkansas has a growing Hispanic population, attracted to the state’s agricultural and transportation industries.
“Your financial situation is one of the most sensitive things you can talk about, and even if you speak English or speak it limitedly, it doesn’t feel quite right to talk about,” Lopez said. “I’ve seen how people let their guard down when they talk to me. We are able to peel that onion back and say, ‘What are you trying to do? What are your goals?’
“There is a lot of distrust of financial institutions in the Hispanic community.”
Lopez said using a bank’s service is important for several reasons, including safety and credit-building. Lopez said he has dealt with Hispanics who keep their money in coffee cans or under mattresses. Since they don’t have bank accounts, they may walk around with a large amount of cash, making them robbery targets.
Lopez’s father still runs a Mexican grocery in Sherwood, and he said building credit is important for Hispanic entrepreneurs. To expand and develop a business, entrepreneurs will need to have built some credit.
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Using a bank for checking and savings accounts also eliminates the reliance many have on check-cashing places or debit cards, both of which can have punishing fees and interest.
The FDIC study showed that among the reasons Hispanics avoid banks are that they believe they don’t have enough money to need a bank’s services, they don’t trust banks and they think bank fees are too high. Those worries are the driving force behind promoting financial literacy, which both Lopez at First Community and Sanchez at Arvest stress.
“Arvest has some marketing material that is in Spanish, and we’re trying to educate them to what all we can do for them,” Sanchez said. “It’s not just about cashing your check on Friday. By creating these marketing materials in Spanish, we are saying we can help you with whatever you may need.”
Lopez said he recently helped a Hispanic customer save $10,000 through use of bank services. Lopez believes similar success stories are just waiting to happen.
“Hispanics have never felt like they could get a bank account or they never felt welcomed or no one had ever asked them to come bank with us,” Lopez said. “The bank had the foresight to say if this is the demographic of our community, we need to do everything we can to serve it. We know it is the right thing to do whether it affects the bottom line or not, but once the community sees we are invested, eventually they will come and do right by us.”