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Where Credit is Due

John Herrera set out to provide local Latinos with affordable banking services. In the process, he helped change our perceptions of the Triangle's fastest growing minority group.

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One afternoon in May 1999, John Herrera made his pitch for starting a credit union for Latinos before a powerful audience. Sitting across the table from him were officers of the N.C. State Employees Credit Union and the Community Center for Self-Help, the latter a Durham nonprofit that offers loans and other financial services to minorities.

Local Latinos, Herrera explained, were pouring their hard work and hard-won paychecks into North Carolina's economy. But for a number of reasons, recent immigrants from Latin America were effectively cut out of financial institutions.

Spanish speakers had trouble setting up accounts with English-only banks. Cultural mistrust of banking institutions in their native countries carried over to life in the United States. Without traditional bank accounts or credit histories, Latinos were forced to rely on predatory lenders, like pawn shops, to borrow money. Money transfer services tacked on high fees for wiring money back home. Worst of all, word had gotten out that many Latinos, particularly migrant workers, kept their money in cash as a result of these difficulties and had become prime targets for muggings and home-invasion robberies.

"We knew he had already done a great job of organizing Latinos," remembers Randy Chambers, Self-Help's finance and accounting manager. "John then reached out to people in the credit union movement and said, 'Can't we do this?' He literally looked in the eyes of the presidents of the largest credit union in the state and the largest community development group in the state and said to each of those men, 'What are you going to do to make this happen?'

"For me it was very sobering moment," Chambers recalls. "We came out of the meeting knowing he had the vision and the commitment to get the credit union going."

It would take more than vision and commitment, it would also take seed money. Herrera marshaled support from civic groups, churches, foundations, credit unions and commercial banks, pulling together $2.5 million in deposits. Last June, the Cooperativa Comunitaria Latina de Credito (Latino Community Credit Union), North Carolina's first Latino-focused financial center, opened for business in the old Wachovia building at 201 West Main St. in Durham. The planners set a modest goal of 500 members within the first year, but today, barely five months later, they have signed up some 750 members.

"There are two things that I feel are the greatest projects I have ever taken part in," Herrera explained in an interview with The Independent. "One is my son, Nelson Alejandro, who I named after Nelson Mandela, one of the heroes of my life. The second thing is this cooperativa. I feel that this project is going to have an impact on the lives of many people today and millions of folks in the future. Their kids are going to be impacted; they will have an education because their parents are able to save today. And I'm a living example of that, so I know it works."

Herrera's migration saga was not exactly typical, but it familiarized him with the ins and outs of setting up a new life in the United States. Born in Costa Rica, the youngest of 12 children of working-class parents, he came to the United States in 1983 after receiving a scholarship to the University of Delaware. Pursuing a degree in agriculture, Herrera married fellow student Karen Current in 1988.

In 1992, Herrera and Current moved to the Triangle to pursue master's degrees--his in community development at N.C. State, hers in social work at UNC-Chapel Hill. Herrera's thesis focused on portrayals of Latinos in local media.

"Latinos were represented unfairly, represented as helpless victims," Herrera says to summarize his findings. "You can be a victim, but there are victims who take the necessary steps to stop being a victim." One of those steps, he realized, would be to change public and media perceptions of Latinos, the fastest- growing immigrant group in the state.

In 1994, Herrera and Current decided to throw a party. La Fiesta del Pueblo was the biggest Latino gathering in state history. Held in Chapel Hill, it helped break stereotypes by bringing the Latino community together to celebrate its vast and varied arts, culture, food and work. Six years later, La Fiesta is still going strong, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the two-day event.

Herrera saw quick results. Where once the press had focused almost exclusively on stories of victimized farmworkers, news organizations made a dramatic shift in their coverage. They began to portray the Latino population, he says, "as a community that is new, that is contributing to the economy, that is culturally enriching this state, that is settling here and that this is good."

Guadalupe Tomas, an administrator with Durham's El Centro Hispano, which helps run the new credit union, says Herrera's work has helped elevate the public standing of Latinos. "He has taken our community up by presenting it to this higher level," Tomas says.

Local Latinos--there are an estimated 75,000 in the Triangle alone--also gained a new sense of solidarity from La Fiesta. "The festival helped bring us together, all Latinos, to develop an identify as the Latino community in the Triangle," Herrera says.

The success of the fiesta sparked other organizing efforts, and Herrera was gratified to see that the public was beginning to learn that "Latinos are not just producers of culture, we are producers of knowledge. We can think by ourselves and contribute in meaningful ways to the economy and to the whole environment and life of this state."

The goal of the cooperativa is to eliminate Latinos' sense of financial isolation and vulnerability. The staff is bilingual, and all of the deposit slips and other banking papers are printed in Spanish and English. Flags of many Latin American countries hang from the ceiling.

"We give the royal treatment to every member," Herrera says. "To have someone to smile at you and to speak the language and say 'Bienvenido.' And not only that, but to tell you that you have a voice and you have a vote in this credit union. You are a shareholder."

The credit union also offers competitive rates on the services that members need most. Check-cashing is free. Money orders cost 25 cents. Members can wire up to $5,000 to El Salvador or Guatemala for just $6.50 (others typically charge up to 10 percent of the amount). By December, Herrera says, the credit union will offer wires to Mexico of up to $1,000 for just $8. The cooperativa also holds regular training sessions to introduce members to the finer points of maintaining a checking account, using ATMs and electronic deposits, and managing money for long-term expenses. Anyone, not just Latinos, may join. Individual memberships are $20 and families are $30.

"We are creating a generation of bank clients," Herrera says.

"Without [Herrera's] dream and his leadership there would be no Latino credit union and there would still be hundreds--and eventually thousands--of Latinos here without access to financial security that they are getting now through the credit union," says Self-Help's Chambers, who also serves as treasurer for the cooperativa.

What's more, says Tomas of El Centro, Herrera has stayed true to his roots, even as he hobnobs with political and corporate leaders to line up support for local Latinos.

"When you get into a certain situation higher up, in this role with the money and power, you forget sometimes where you are coming from and what your first goals were for when you were going to get there," Tomas says. "He's doesn't forget that easily. He knows where he is coming from." EndBlock

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