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Santa Ana credit union helps unbanked Latinos create financial security

Customers use ATMs at a Wells Fargo Bank branch
Customers use ATMs at a Wells Fargo Bank branch
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For many immigrants, achieving citizenship is one step in making America your home, but it takes more than legal documents to really plant roots in this country. To really settle into a new home you need things like a job, or a car, or a church.

It can also be something as simple as a bank account.

Tucked away at an unassuming strip mall in Santa Ana is Communidad Latina Credit Union, its first and only branch. Opened in 2007, it doesn't have the spacious lobby of the Chase Bank around the corner; It's just wide enough for three teller windows, a few chairs along the wall, and not much else.

But what is special about the credit union is its mission to serve the Latino population, who often don't use larger, mainstream banks. 

While Los Angeles has a handful of banks dedicated to that community, Communidad Latina is a rare outpost in Santa Ana, where more than three-fourths of the city is Latino. Operations manager Vanessa Alonso says another thing makes the credit union stand out from other nearby banks.

"We can open a savings account where it doesn't require entering in [a taxpayer ID number] or a social security number," she said. "Which means that even people who are here unofficially can join Communidad Latina.

This practice isn't illegal, but most banks and credit unions require one of these from applicants as a policy. However, this credit union highlights that it doesn't require one as a way to show that everyone can have access to a financial institution.

"I feel that they get a sense of belonging," said Alonso. "Instead of having their cash stashed under a mattress, it seems like there's a lot more peace with them knowing that their funds are secured with an organization and with people they trust."

Santa Ana resident Maria Francisca Quinonce says that's why she came to the credit union for the first time with her husband and their son.

"It's because people like me feel more confident and secure to deposit here," says Quinonce.

However that kind of trust with people took time to build because many Latino immigrants are accustomed to living on cash, and have never used a bank before.

For example, according to a 2008 study, more than 90 percent of Americans have a bank account of some kind, but that number is less than 25 percent for Mexicans.

The CEO of Communidad Latina Credit Union Terry Agius says that doesn't necessarily change  once they cross the border.

"Approximately 35-40 percent of the Latinos living here in Santa Ana either do not use a mainstream financial institution or if they do, they use it in a limited way," said Agius. When people first come to Communidad Latina, "It's not uncommon for them to come visit three times before they open an account. They want to get to know who we are, who we are as people."

Once they're through the door, people like operations manager Vanessa Alonso will take the time to educate them on the finer points of banking that immigrants may not know about.

"They don't really know how checking accounts operate or how to even write checks. So there have been times where we explain to them what they have to write here, and it has to be in English even though Spanish is their primary language," said Alonso.

Agius adds that many Latinos are also skeptical of banks because in Mexico and Central America, they have a reputation for high minimum balances and fees.

"Many of our members are from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and we just hear the fear of banking with those organizations."

So the credit union developed a policy of lower fees and interest rates. That's why Roberto Flores Vega counts himself among its 2,100 members.

"This is where I was able to establish my credit and I was able to get a car loan through them," said Vega. "Wells Fargo was offering a higher interest rate, but here it was much much lower."

And the credit union offers one other important lure: the financial tools people need to help their children succeed.

"We meet with parents sometimes who want to transfer their students from the college to a four-year university," said Terry Agius. "But they have to put a deposit of some kind down for whatever. Might be housing, or what have you. And parents don't have any plastic in their wallets. There's no debit card, there's no credit card, there's nothing, and school won't take cash."

So having that checking or savings account — something that's second-nature to many citizens — can be a big step for immigrants to make them feel more at home in America.