Things were falling apart. Louis Barajas had been sailing along serving high-profile clients in Newport Beach, California, when his personal life unraveled. His grandmother who had raised him died unexpectedly, his godfather committed suicide, and his wife gave birth to their first child. After some soul-searching, Barajas realized he wanted to make a difference in the very un-wealthy community of his childhood, rather than helping the rich get richer. He turned in the keys to the beachfront office, said good-bye to the millionaire clients, and opened an office in East Los Angeles, the barrio where he’d grown up.
It was a huge leap of faith. Despite the rosy statistics about Hispanic economic potential, a disproportionate number of Hispanics live below the poverty line, and Hispanics have an enormous high school dropout rate. As Barajas struggled to serve the low-income clients around him, he realized that they didn’t simply lack knowledge: There were a number of “limiting cultural belief systems” that were holding them back–beliefs that he details in his new book, The Latino Journey to Financial Greatness (HarperCollins, 2003). Here’s a sampling.
Fatalism. “A lot of Hispanic people believe they’re poor because they were meant to be poor, because that is their lot in life,” says Barajas. “I tell them, ‘God makes fish and he makes nets, but he doesn’t put the fish in the nets. You’ve got to go out there and cast your nets.’”
Negative connotations of wealth. “When I go into the Hispanic community and ask people what they think if they see a young Hispanic man wearing nice clothes and driving a Mercedes, the response I get is, ‘Oh, he must be selling drugs,’” says Barajas. “But I have a lot of young Hispanic business owners who are doing very well. We need to get past that [negative] cultural conditioning, and believe in what we’re capable of.”
Tendency toward dependence. “Latinos will tell you that their number-one value is family. And that’s great,” says Barajas. “The problem is while that dependence works in the cultural context of the family, it doesn’t work from an economic standpoint: we become dependent either on our families, on Social Security, on the promise of a big company’s pension, or on welfare. We need to be economically independent.”
Barajas has traveled the country debunking Hispanic myths about money, and has a second book and more speaking engagements in the works. “Financial literacy is not the problem: There are a growing number of financial literacy programs being put on for minorities across the country,” says Barajas, whose now-successful financial planning firm in East L.A. caters to a mix of low-, middle-, and upper-income Hispanic clients. “It’s these cultural barriers I’m working on, the ‘why’ more than the ‘how.’ Once people have a big enough ‘why,’ they’ll find the ‘how.’”