Staff Reporter

Just how effective have the major banks been in reaching out to the Latino customer? It depends on who you ask. Leticia Aguilar, a senior vice president at Bank of America, cites considerable progress in the past 20 years. But Robert Gnaizda, policy director of the Greenlining Institute, a San Francisco-based consumer activist group, has a different take.

Question: How well have large financial institutions addressed the needs of Latinos and are things changing?

Aguilar: I think if you go back 20 years and compare it to today, there's no comparison. Twenty years ago you didn't have bilingual staff to address the needs of the community you serve. Visit any Bank of America center and you'll see we staff it with people who can serve those needs. Now, we have more than 9,000 bilingual ATMs in the U.S. We've introduced products for Hispanics where you can finance a home with little or no down payment. And we've made it more accessible to get these products.

Twenty years ago, (Spanish-speaking) bank staff in Spanish-speaking communities was rare. Now loan officers, credit officers and bank managers speak the language and know the culture.

Gnaizda: Historically, banks have been grossly inadequate (in responding to the needs of Latinos), and that's been to their financial disadvantage. They see emerging markets in Brazil, but not in East L.A. The Latino market in California alone exceeds the gross national product of Mexico and of any other nation south of the border except Brazil. Except occasionally at Bank of America, no bank has had adequate upper-management representation of Latinos.

For every bank, it's a 2 percent solution. On average, only 2 percent of top management is Latino. When you consider that more than half the population in L.A. County is Latino, and more than half the new business opportunities involve Latinos, it's insufficient.

Q: So have there been efforts to specifically target the Latino community?

Aguilar: We work very closely with the Latino community. (Bank of America has) pledged $350 billion over the next decade for investments (nationwide). A total of $180 billion is going to small businesses, $115 billion is going for affordable housing, $30 billion for consumer loans and $25 billion for economic development. That's the largest commitment by any financial institution, which should show how committed we are to local communities, including Latino areas.


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