During his college years, Heberto M. Sanchez knew fellow students who were forced to sleep in their cars. “They had nowhere else to go,” he says. “They were in college and couldn’t afford an apartment. Still, they wanted to succeed.” This struck a chord with Sanchez. His parents were paying his tuition, but he was not taking school seriously. “I realized that I had an opportunity that I was squandering,” Sanchez says. The realization triggered a lifetime of commitment to helping his fellow Latinos obtain higher education.
Today, he runs the Latino Educational Fund, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to help pay for books, food, and incidentals for college students and provides them career development, financial literacy, and zero-interest, low-cost microloans. “We give people the opportunity to start micro-businesses, like a taco stand on the corner, if they can’t afford a license or permit,” he explains.
We’re all not very different. We all want a better life.
Many of the fund’s recipients are immigrants who have an entrepreneurial drive but who can’t get large loans from commercial banks. For them, a microloan of $100 to $500 can be a game changer. “A lot of the time, immigrants looking to start a business don’t have financial resources,” Sanchez says. “We want to be the catalyst.”
Immigrants start businesses at about twice the rate of U.S.-born Americans. In California, immigrants make up 27 percent of the population but comprise 38.4 percent of its self-employed.
From an early age, Sanchez’s immigrant parents taught him the importance of civic engagement and to always make a positive contribution. His father, who was born in Mexico, was a union meatpacker in Los Angeles, and his mother, who immigrated from Nicaragua, worked as a beautician. Sanchez was born and raised in Koreatown. Every time there was an election, Sanchez’s dad would work at the polls and painstakingly explain the propositions and ballot measures to his son. “He would tell me, This is how you know what is happening in your community, and where to focus,” Sanchez recalls. “I found that helpful in developing who I became, and wanting to help my own community. In Los Angeles, we have all different ethnicities and nationalities, but still, we’re all not very different. We all want a better life.”
When Sanchez’s father passed away from diabetes-related complications, Sanchez became even more committed to community engagement. He launched the Latino Diabetes Association, in memory of his father, and served as its chief executive officer. He earned a master’s in public administration, served as a commissioner on the Tri-City Valley Mental Health Commission, and was a planning commissioner for the city of Pomona. Sanchez also served on the board of directors for the East Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
For Sanchez, reforming U.S. immigration policy is the right thing to do. “I believe we should secure the borders, but at the same time, those people who have gone to school here and who are contributing to the economy, who have children going to school — they deserve a pathway to citizenship,” he says. He believes today’s immigrants should have the same opportunities to work hard and participate in civic life that his own parents had. “I believe one of the strongest things that this country has is our ability to assimilate immigrants. No other country in the world has that ability.”