VP's Work for Equity Informed by Her Latinx Culture
(Originally published Sept. 24, 2021) BECU’s Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Jackie Martinez-Vasquez, talks about her experience as a Latina, and her work to achieve equity for oppressed groups.
The wealth gap between Latinx people and white people is large and hasn't changed much in the last 25 years (PDF). As of 2019, the average Latinx family had about 21 cents per dollar of white median wealth, according to a 10-year study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
The same study found that individual financial decisions, and even going to a great college, aren't enough to ensure a bright financial future. That's because laws and policies that were designed throughout history to provide advantages for white people have had the ongoing effect of keeping people of color from building wealth and passing it on to their children.
As BECU's first Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Jackie Martinez-Vasquez is working to support oppressed people in the community and undo the racist structures and systems that continue to be barriers to their financial well-being.
We sat down with Martinez-Vasquez to ask her about how her experience as a Latina informs her work.
'Latinx' is a broad term. Can you talk about your racial and cultural identity and how you identify with the Latinx community?
I was born in Central America, in El Salvador, so I identify as a Salvadorian woman. Racially, I identify as an Indigenous woman.
I think identity is really fluid, even more so for the Latinx community. There's complexity to our community. "Latinx" isn't necessarily tied to race.
How we describe our identity changes, in part, because the term, "Latinx," has changed throughout the history of the U.S. There has been a desire to lump all of us together. Some people still use the term "Hispanic," or even "Spanish." In the Southwest, you'll hear the term "Chicano." Within the context of the U.S., our community gets lumped into this broad category.
At the same time, I do feel a shared identity and a shared experience with other Latinx people. I feel a connection and a sense of community with all these people from different parts of the world. A lot of that is because of our shared traditions and language: 90% of Latin America speaks Spanish. Being able to speak the language gives me a sense of being home.
Statistically, we know Latinx people are at a disadvantage financially in the U.S. — especially Latinas. Have you experienced or witnessed that personally?
Of course — the race gap and gender gap. For Latinas, we are the lowest in terms of compensation when you break it down by women and race. It's very real. (Read more about the pay gap for Latinas.)
A lot of it has to do with the fact that many of us are the first generation to grow up here and graduate from college, so we don't have the generational knowledge to know what's fair and what's not. My mom would never have been able to say, "That's not fair compensation." Often, we are just grateful to have been able to go to college, to get a degree and to have a profession. We lack generational knowledge to seek fairness in these spaces. There are a lot of knowledge gaps on things like how to buy a home and how to do financial planning. It takes several generations to gain that knowledge and be able to pass that down.
There also aren't enough resources that are culturally relevant for many communities. We just got my mom out of Section 8 housing. (Section 8 is a federal program that subsidizes housing for low-income families.) If she had, at some point, a resource or someone to teach her how to manage her finances or apply for a loan for a house, maybe this dream would have come true 15 or 20 years ago.
There are personal gaps, but it's also important to acknowledge and address institutional gaps, where financial institutions haven't successfully been able to support this specific community in reaching financial stability.
It's sad when you think about it because there's research that shows that the Latinx community, in particular, is very entrepreneurial. (Read more about Latinx entrepreneurship and barriers to securing capital.) You go to Latin America, and everybody has a small business. People run small businesses from the windows of their houses. Latinx are very business-savvy people.
Our community has been able to focus on small businesses and found our own communal ways of investing in ourselves because so many haven't had access to banking and finance for a variety of reasons. We use tandas — a communal way of saving and supporting each other. Maybe 10 people will give $100 once a month. Each month, a different person gets $1,000 until everyone in the group has a turn. It's an example of how we've had to figure out ways to support each other that serve our community.
How much of a factor is generational wealth?
It's a big factor. There is a lack of generational wealth for the majority of the Latinx community. Lack of education and access to information is a huge reason, especially among immigrants and first-generation Latinx people in the U.S.
There's an entry point for even knowing where and how to access systems, to get a home loan, for example. If your family does have wealth, understanding how systems work and what those access points are helps you pass down that wealth. We have a lot of non-Latinx friends whose parents gave them money for the down payment on their homes or paid for their college education. Those are huge advantages that lead to or preserve generational wealth.
The word "equity" is part of your professional title. What does that mean to you in the context of financial health and your role working for a financial institution?
The responsibility that I walk with every day and center my work around is accountability to the communities we serve. Jobs come and go, but in my work with institutions to create greater access and better the lives of individuals, I have accountability to the community, not to the boardroom. That's how I measure my success, and that's what guides me. If I'm not doing the most that I can, if I'm not pushing an institution as much as I can or should, I hold myself accountable, and I want the community to hold me accountable.
As someone who has experienced a lot of inequities in life, I have the opportunity to bring a unique perspective and change systems from the inside. I bring to light voices that aren't often heard from and bring them to the table. This is imperative as we focus on the products and services we offer. For example, someone came to me and said that, because of a lawsuit, financial institutions had to change their systems to give undocumented people access to student loans. My question was why did there have to be a lawsuit? My first inclination is to bring undocumented people to the table to tell us how to center our members and our communities as we're developing programs and products to serve them.
I don't aim to be viewed as an expert on behalf of a whole bunch of communities. I'm opening the door for those voices to come into the room.
This type of role, if you're doing it from a place of true accountability to the community and truly as someone who is embedded in community — it should be one of the most difficult roles in an institution. A big part of it is focusing on our policies, practices and products — moving us forward to have a collective analysis of institutional racism and changing systems so they are more equitable. Our systems were built without equal access. They were not built by people of color. We have to continue to ask if what we're doing will create equity. It needs to be operationalized in everything we do: How we interview, who we interview, who we hire, the products we offer, the locations where we do business.
How is a financial institution a good place to try to achieve racial and social equity?
I think back to the reason why I decided to come to BECU. If you would have asked me when I was a teenager, I would have thought my former position, leading the office of civil rights for a government institution, was the best place to focus on racial equity. But then 2020 happened.
It wasn't an awakening for many of us who have been doing equity work; it was a perfect storm of national attention to this work. Our community had very specific demands for King County and the City of Seattle to invest in communities of color. That call to action came at the same time I was being recruited to work for BECU. It became clear to me that getting access to resources and investing in communities of color doesn't happen without financial institutions playing a critical role.
Do you think it's possible to achieve equity?
I do think it's possible. If I didn't, I wouldn't have taken the job. I'm an idealist, but I'm also a realist. This work takes time. It takes changing people's minds and hearts and getting their feet moving.
In speaking with members of our Latinx Employee Resource Group, there was a big emphasis on mental health. Why do you think that is?
Our community has been under attack for many years. The political climate hasn't been kind to the Latinx community. When you layer on the lack of wealth, you don't have the option or the time you need during a pandemic to take care of yourself and your family.
Our community was most impacted by COVID. (Read more about how Latinx people were disproportionately affected by COVID-19.) We were those essential workers, the front-line workers, the farm workers. During the summer wildfires and COVID, we were still out there working. We don't have the wealth or the privilege to pause and make sure we're doing okay emotionally. A lot of us have lost loved ones. Our elders were hit really hard during COVID. We tend to live in intergenerational households. Maybe grandma is staying home to take care of the kids, but mom and dad are essential workers. They come back and expose the elders to COVID. We have experienced a lot of grief and loss.
There's also a real fear for undocumented communities about whether DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is going to be renewed, whether their work permits are going to be renewed, whether they are going to have a job, be able to stay in the U.S., be able to stay with their children.
What are the professional and financial consequences of all of those layers of stress?
A lot of us in this profession say racism is a public health issue. Racism for all communities of color is a determinant of how healthy we're going to be.
Without COVID, on any regular day, our health, in general, is disproportionately impacted by racism. Then you start layering on that your community is being targeted and you don't have access to jobs that allow you to work virtually. At the same time, employers are asking people of color to show up like they're just dealing with the regular things everyone else is. It leads to employers not addressing the whole person.
So many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) folks die early because we face this level of trauma and stress, and we just keep going. (Read more about how racism may shorten lifespans of people of color.) It's been normalized for us to not have access to resources to deal with mental health and physical health. We've also normalized the pain. You still have to show up no matter what. Quitting your job is not an option. We glamorize that we are able to persevere, overcome barriers and work through pain. I don't want suffering and persevering through pain to be the part of our culture that my children identify with.
When we try to decolonize the way we think, we have to also try to decolonize where we place our suffering.
Changing systems is a monumental task. Where do you start?
I don't think you can underestimate the importance of lived experience. I know what it's like to be homeless, to be very poor, to just start learning about financial health and wellbeing. It's important to stay grounded in community. That's the lens through which I want to do this work — from a place of understanding the challenges people in poverty face.
More About Jackie Martinez-Vasquez
Prior to joining BECU, Martinez-Vasquez was the Chief Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion Officer for Sound Transit, where she was responsible for the organization's equity and inclusion strategy, internal culture strategy and civil rights programs. For eight years before that, she served in community engagement, equity and social responsibility senior leadership roles at the YMCA of Greater Seattle.
She has expertise in social and racial justice, immigrant advocacy, civil rights, transit equity, educational access and women's rights. Martinez-Vasquez earned a bachelor's degree in Women's Studies/Ethnic Studies from Washington State University, a master's degree in Public Administration from Seattle University, and a doctorate candidacy in Education Leadership and Policy from the University of Washington.
Martinez-Vasquez also is an entrepreneur. She and her husband, Ray Garcia Morales, are the co-owners of Rebels & Scholars, a clothing line, the proceeds from which fund community efforts, including scholarships for undocumented youth in the Yakima Valley of Eastern Washington and Seattle area, where they grew up.
- Latinas Aren't Paid Fairly — and That's Just the Tip of the Iceberg
- Latino-Owned Businesses are Seeing Record Growth. Big Banks are Still Not Funding Them.
- Latinos Face Disproportionate Health and Economic Impacts From COVID-19
- New Study Shows Racism May Shorten Black Americans' Lifespans
- Edgar Villanueva on Closing the Racial Wealth Gap
- Women Leaders Share Vision for Path to Equity
- Credit Unions Positioned to Lead on Gender Equity