My family came to the United States 16 years ago when I was just eight years old. At the time, my days were filled with school and making friends in my new East Los Angeles neighborhood. I remember everything seemed simple at that age. From our games at recess where winning was fair and square, to lessons inside the classroom where raising our hands gave us a chance to voice our opinions, learning and friendship transcended culture and background.
Yet as I completed high school, community college and then university, I became increasingly aware of the challenges facing many in the Latino community – from immigration to voting rights to what many refer to as financial inclusion. The more I learned, the more I understood that life was not the level playing field I once imagined. To make the Latino voice heard, I discovered it would take much more than raising our hands.
This growing awareness ignited a fire in me to help empower those around me and amplify the voices of those in my community. In some areas, we are making significant progress and the Latino voice is louder than ever. Notably, the Pew Research Center estimated that a record 27.3 million Latinos were eligible to vote in 2016, representing 12 percent of all eligible voters. However, the Latino community continues to be underrepresented, and thus silent, in another important area – the mainstream financial system.
In the Los Angeles area, nearly 47 percent of Latino households are unbanked or underbanked, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. These families have no or only a limited relationship with a traditional financial institution, such as a bank. Instead, they often rely on alternative financial services, such as check cashers and payday lenders, to manage their money – from cashing a paycheck to paying utility and other bills.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Just as voting provides a platform to include more voices in the political discussion, financial technologies have the power to bring more families into the financial mainstream. With rapid growth in technology, ranging from mobile wallets compatible with prepaid cards to the ability to pay bills online, Latino families can manage and use their money in a more efficient, secure and affordable way.
These tools can be an important bridge to the financial mainstream – but only if Latino families know they exist and how to use them. This takes education, outreach and empowerment, and like so many other movements for change, I believe young people have a crucial role to play.
A 2014 study found that 40 percent of parents learn how to use technology from their children. While the study focused on technologies such as computers, mobile internet and social networking, many kids and young adults also teach their parents about financial technologies.
I know I did. I rarely ever go to the bank and typically conduct all my financial transactions online or through an app on my phone. Meanwhile, my parents will often go to the wireless store to pay their cellphone bill or to the electric company's office to pay their utility bill. This back and forth takes an incredible amount of time, especially when you consider that there is technology that would allow them to complete the same task from the comfort of their own home. As simple as it may seem, setting my parents up with online accounts to pay their bills helped saved them hours every month that they used to spend paying bills in person.
Though I don't expect life to be as simple as many of us remember our childhoods, I do think we can learn a few things from the elementary school students we once were. We need to operate on an equal playing field – one where everyone has access to basic financial resources and the opportunity to make their voices heard. With today's technology and the sharing of knowledge between generations, we will be one step closer to making this vision a reality.
Alma Maldonado is a 2016 graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. She now works with pro-immigrant organizations.