personal finance

How Financial Empowerment Helped One Woman Rise Up From Poverty

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For poet and educator Jessica Helen Lopez, empowerment and financial knowledge go hand-in-hand.

Lopez, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was the city's poet laureate from 2014 to 2016, grew up poor in Los Angeles. Her father stayed home to take care of the family while her mother went to college.

"A lot of it was hand to mouth," she recalled. "It was hard to navigate a system where you were always at a deficit — lacking monetary resources, lacking health care and renting a low-cost housing unit."

Despite her humble upbringing, Lopez learned the power of financial knowledge from her mother, and after getting her first job through a summer program at age 14.

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By then, the family had moved to Deming, New Mexico, where her mother hailed from. In fact, when her great-grandmother was born there, it was part of Mexico, she said.

"I would always save my money," said Lopez, who identifies as Xicana. The "x" recognizes the indigenous aspect of her Chicana identity, she explained.

"I had to buy school clothes and school supplies in the fall," she added. "It made me feel really proud of myself.

"I would budget for when school-time shopping would come around."

What she didn't get was a formal education in personal finance. In fact, even now New Mexico doesn't mandate a personal finance class in high school. A bill in the state legislature that added it as a graduation requirement in math coursework died during the most recent session, according to Next Gen Personal Finance's education bill tracker.

Jessica Helen Lopez grew up in poverty and now teaches poetry and Chicana studies.
Source: Mariah Be Photography
Jessica Helen Lopez grew up in poverty and now teaches poetry and Chicana studies.

Fortunately, Lopez's daughter Mia, now 19, was able to get a finance education through college prep outreach program AVID in middle and high school.

Lopez also helps young students through her work as an educator. She teaches at both an Albuquerque charter school, Native American Community Academy, and at the University of New Mexico. While she doesn't specifically teach finance, she touches on empowerment through her poetry and Chicano studies classes.

For Lopez, poetry is not only about her personal self and experiences, but also invoking change.

"It is a powerful tool for social justice and advocacy," she said.

To be sure, Latina women are far behind when it comes to pay. Those working full-time, year-round were just paid 57 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men in 2020, according to the National Women's Law Center.

Lopez believes that financial literacy equals accessibility. When getting an education in personal finance, it sets up generations for success, she said.

"It is like planting a seed that germinates," Lopez said. "You cultivate it."

Yet there has to be more resources available to the Latino community, she noted.

"Financial literacy and understanding money and money management is a really important factor in achieving that equity that we are trying to attain," Lopez said.

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