Tonantzin Carmona was born and raised in Chicago. She lived in Little Village when she was young, but her family eventually moved to Pilsen. Both of these neighborhoods are enclaves rich in Mexican-American culture and traditions.
Today, Carmona is committed to a two-year research stint with the Brookings David M. Rubenstein Fellowship program, studying the topic of wealth inequality. She is among one of the 10 early to mid-career policy professionals accepted for this fellowship. Before working with Brooking Metro, Carmona worked in the realms of public policy, communications, community outreach, politics and philanthropy, which helped make her a standout candidate for the program.
Carmona told CALÓ NEWS that she always wanted to help the Latino community and other underrepresented communities, but initially thought that she would do it as a doctor or lawyer. Carmona began her studies in medical school, but life gave her an unexpected turn that led her to become a policymaker.
“Although I did not intend to begin my career in government, I applied for a policy associate opening at the Chicago Mayor’s Office, thinking that a research-related position would enhance my application to medical school,” Carmona said. “After their interview process, I was hired and soon began working in public policy.”
After that, Carmona said that she immediately fell in love with working in the public policy sector because she was able to help address the injustices and disparities that Latinos and other marginalized communities often face in Chicago. The experience she gained from being a policy associate helped her earn a staff position as Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Deputy Press Secretary on Capitol Hill. Later, Carmona worked for Warren’s presidential election campaign in 2020 as the Illinois Political Director.
“Working for the Senator was a formative experience, and at her office (and later her campaign), I learned a lot about economic and tax policy, as well as ways to rebuild the middle class,” Carmona said. “Her consumer advocacy work and her ambitious plans for structural change have also inspired a lot of my own present work on closing racial and ethnic wealth gaps.”
Given the vast experience that she gained under Warren’s tutelage, she realized how much bad governmental polices negatively affect Latinos and other communities across the nation and that she wanted to help do something about it.
“I became interested in the topic out of curiosity at first, but as I began digging deeper, I saw that the underlying wealth gap between Latino and white families was often misunderstood,” Carmona said.. “I thus wanted to unravel the complexities of Latino wealth and translate the findings for diverse audiences, including Latinos.”
Now, Carmona says that she believes the power to influence and help Latinos and others can be rooted in better policy-making, and that former bad policies can be improved or removed. She is committed to doing that work.
“I’d also say that the strongest policies are those that are informed, designed and implemented with those directly impacted by them and by those historically excluded from decision-making tables,” Carmona said.
Growing up, Carmona, and her family, faced more than their fair share of wealth inequality, and at times the notion of going to college, finding a well-paying job and creating personal wealth felt out or reach.
However, she would go on to attend the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and earn a Master’s in Public Administration, and before that she earned a Bachelor’s in political science, with a minor in Latina & Latino studies from Northwestern University. As is the case for many Latinos who choose college, her dreams of higher education came hand in hand with crushing student loans. For some, that debt becomes impossible to pay.
In spite of all the financial difficulties, Carmona is proud of her accomplishments. She wants people to know she also loves Latino history because it is her culture.
“Reading history has illuminated and helped me better understand the contemporary challenges that we face,” Carmona said.
CALÓ NEWS recently sat down with Carmona to talk about governmental policies and the work that needs to be done to improve Latino’s wealth.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tonantzin Carmona, 33, Washington D.C., She/Her, Mexican American
WHY IS HAVING GENERATIONAL WEALTH IMPORTANT AND HOW WOULD YOU SAY LATINOS CAN ACHIEVE THIS?
Wealth, in general, is important because it paints a holistic picture of a family’s economic security and prospects for upward mobility because its income is incredibly important. And we’ve had a lot of discussions about income, but recent scholarship has highlighted that it allows families to build wealth … wealthy gets wealth. So you can continue to build wealth with wealth. It’s what allows you to pay for a home, pay for a college education and start a business. It’s incredibly important for seed capital. But it’s also really important when hard times come, wealth enables you to weather financial storms. If you have equity in our home or if you have savings, that also enables you to do more, to kind of position your family in a better place were you’re not to have it. And so it’s kind of a two-fold issue. And wealth is also, just like I mentioned, iterative, wealth begets wealth. And so, in terms of how you help Latinos, and just families in general achieve it, you have to look at the underlying causes of existing disparities. And oftentimes, those disparities are structural in everyone and tend to point to individual behaviors being the reason why people don’t build wealth. Still, research is showing that it’s actually the issue that is far more systemic. And so things like discrimination, things like racism, things like one’s immigration status, you know, that’s something one individual can’t just automatically change, for example, and that impacts their ability to get certain jobs [which] allow you to get certain things like retirement benefits or not, depending on your status. Discrimination impacts what types of [interest] rates you get when you’re trying to purchase a vehicle. The list goes on and on.
CAN YOU EXPAND ON THE RACIAL STRUCTURE PREVENTING LATINOS FROM GENERATING WEALTH?
So I think one important thing that I wanted to point out in my research is that Latino communities are incredibly diverse, diverse in terms of national origin. You have people from all parts of Latin America, we have diversity in terms of immigration status and we also have racial diversity. And research is showing that in terms of when it comes to racial diversity, you will find that white-identifying Latinos tend to fare better than black-identifying Latinos. And there have been just many cases and examples that show the types of barriers that, say, a black Latino might encounter in the U.S. And the same is the case in Latin America, you do see instances of racial barriers, but also colorism. And so that in itself points out that not only do we have these wide ranges of experiences, i.e., the diversity of Latinos, but there is also a wide range of starting points. When different immigrant groups come into the United States, they’re not all starting from the same point. No, some come from lower socioeconomic status. Some have a higher socioeconomic status. Now compound that with race with gender, and so you end up seeing that then you have different groups that have different starting points and, therefore, different barriers. After then, that’s just one aspect of it that starts to change once you start to see generational differences too, such as second and third generations tend to fare better once they’re in the United States. But more work is needed to show whether it’s the case for everyone, or if you start to see some differences based on, let’s say, racial diversity, for example.
WHY DO LATINOS HAVE SO MUCH DEBT, AND WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INSECURE AND SECURE DEBT?
So debt is a really important component of wealth. I call for more research from a variety of different fields. The debt isn’t often talked about, but the way that you think about secured debt is a debt backed by some type of collateral, and unsecured debt is not backed by collateral. Those are very technical terms that usually come from finance. And they’re actually from the perspective of the debtor because the debtor would want to have secured debt, knowing that they can get their money back, for example, or the lender would want to get their money back. Having collateral on that serves the lender more. A better way of thinking about debt is almost as simple as good debt versus bad debt. Good debt is the kind of debt that enables you to build wealth. So an example is mortgages: that’s a good type of debt because you’re able to build wealth off of it. Bad debt is the kind that doesn’t necessarily help you build wealth. So examples could be everything from credit card debt to payday loans. Payday loans are egregious forms of debt with high-interest rates and can further put people into a hole. So that’s an example that doesn’t necessarily help you build wealth. In fact, it creates more barriers to it.
WHY IS THAT? CAN YOU EXPAND IT FURTHER?
Payday loans give you a loan in a short period immediately, and they give you the loan amount, but their interest rates are so high, and the date by which they need their money back is also probably very short term. And so what ends up being is like, let’s say, you took out $500 loan, you end up over time paying sometimes double that, depending on whether or not you’re able to meet their deadlines, their interest rates. You might be paying off a little by little, but you’re not even paying off the principal. You’re paying off the interest. And so many people find that those types of loans are riskier, and they put people into more debt.
ARE THERE ANY FEDERAL POLICIES THAT CAN HELP LATINO’S WEALTH-BUILDING AND OPPORTUNITIES?
Often a lack of financial institutions, products, or services is available to certain communities. There was a period starting, like the 1980s, when banks started leaving low-income communities and communities of color. So then what pops up in those places ended up being the check cashing services, the payday loans, alternative financial services pop up, and they say, “Oh, we’re doing it in the name of access.” But that access comes with conditions that undermine the benefits, like the fact that they’re riskier, more expensive and can actually put people into more debt. And so yes, the solution would be, how do you provide incentives for these banks to ensure that they’re serving all communities equally? And so that would be something where the government either decides we are going to subsidize the banks. That’s one option. The government can decide to hold them to account. But again, these battles end up being where you have very powerful lobbying groups at banks and whatnot. But there are actual policy solutions to a lot of these things. And so rather than say we offer low-income communities, communities of color, Latino communities, something different, why can’t we offer them the things that we know actually work that are safe and tested? And so that’s where the policy solution lies.
ARE THERE ANY REALISTIC POLICIES THAT CAN BE IMPLEMENTED?
I have five. I’ll start with one. But this is not going to close the racial wealth gap. But I do think it is something that has come up again, and again, in my conversations, I’ve been holding focus groups with Latinos, and there’s really a need for short-term, small loans, with low-interest rates for everything from helping you to start a business or expand a business or those for cases of emergency. That is something you can require banks actually to offer. That is something that you can work with the SBA to try to expand existing options or make them more accessible because this administration has been working really hard to try to make those types of loans more accessible to minority-owned businesses. But I think, just in general, how do you create loan products that actually serve the needs of communities? Sometimes we will do not need, tens of thousands of dollars. They need a small $1,000 to $5,000 loan, and they will go in debt when they have to seek out more expensive options. So why don’t we make those more accessible? And so finding ways to create loan products that actually meet immediate needs, without being expensive or burdensome, is one short-term solution. On the one hand, in terms of larger-scale solutions, one thing I often talk about is baby bonds. And that’s not my idea.
I’ve heard it from Derek Hamilton. I know Senator Cory Booker has talked about it. But the idea is that every child, when they’re born, is set up for financial success by creating this fund. Whereas if you’re from a lower-wealth family, you get more put into your fund over the years. If you come from a higher-wealth family, you get very little, but the idea is, by the time a person reaches 18, they can use that fund to partake in a wealth-building activity. So everything from buying homes, starting a business or going to college, they have a fund ready for them. But it starts when they’re born. And it’s an idea that some states are taking up because, at the federal level, it’s being discussed, but it hasn’t gotten the momentum it needs. And so a lot of states are starting to try it out. Connecticut was one of them.
HOW CAN STATES AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT POLICIES AFFECT LATINO WEALTH BARRIERS AND OPPORTUNITIES?
Part of it is thinking through what are the biggest extractors of wealth. So at the local level, there are examples where even government policies can extract wealth. So everything from how they collect fines and fees. They’re distinct from taxes, in that a fine, what you pay for is government service. An example is something like parking tickets. Some communities of color have been shown to be disproportionately ticketed compared to white families. It leads to a lot of debt for a lot of communities. We saw it in Chicago, and we see it in Washington, DC. There are so many examples all across the country. That’s an example of a policy that governments can change now in terms of ensuring that they’re not inequitably raising their revenue on the backs of low-income and poor people and communities of color. One way for local governments to think about wealth building or how they support wealth building is to scan existing policies and ensure that they’re not unintentionally extracting wealth already from communities. You don’t want to put people into debt. For example, Latinos really struggle with things like medical debt. And why do they do that? Well, you have a sizable population that lacks access to health insurance. And so I think the state of Illinois, for example, was trying to find ways to expand access to health insurance, or I think it was Medicare, Medicaid, to undocumented populations. When you do things like that, you’re serving the need from a healthcare perspective. You’re essentially addressing the medical debt issue, too, because they’re not paying as much out of pocket to meet basic needs.
My final point is that you can go asset by asset and see what role does the government play in each of those to help people try to either build assets, reduce debt or eliminate debt. But in terms of what individuals can do, part of it is thinking truly about it from a policy perspective, like how can you push your local governments to serve your needs better? It is so hard to buy a house, just being able to pay a down payment. And there are actually a lot of local governments that provide support, but also federal governments that provide support with your down payment for your house. And so, how do you expand those programs if you’re an individual taking advantage of those existing programs because they help you?
HOW CAN INDIVIDUAL LATINOS GENERATE THEIR OWN WEALTH?
In terms of retirement, younger populations now might have more of a chance to benefit with things like an IRA or get the types of jobs that enable them to put money aside through a 401 K. But again, my point is always that it really does rely a lot on policy. That’s actually how a lot of white households were able to benefit and were able to build wealth. But those stories aren’t often told because we just kind of see in the present day that disparity, and we’re not thinking back to how we actually got here. And it’s because white households benefited from decades and decades of policies that enabled them to build wealth. And there were periods when whole populations, like Black and Latino communities, were excluded, so we don’t have that inherited wealth to pass down. So we’re essentially starting at a different place. And so, while we know that policies have worked in the past for other communities, the big push should be for communities of color to say we deserve these types of policies that help us build wealth too.
MANY LATINOS ARE ALSO IMMIGRANTS HERE IN THE U.S. IS BUILDING WEALTH FOR THIS COMMUNITY STILL HIGHLY POSSIBLE? ARE THERE ANY SETBACKS?
Immigrant [wealth building] will definitely vary in terms of their immigration status. Because yes, it’s like everyone is at a different starting point. Some people might not have access to basic financial services, and others do. And so, it’s certainly important to think about the fact that people are starting from a wide range of starting points. But what I would say in terms of the immigration piece, then that’s also a really important reason why we should be looking to pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you want to see the wealth of not just one household but entire households and communities, we should be trying to pass comprehensive immigration reform as well. It is part of what I think about in terms of retirement. If you have a certain status, you can’t get certain jobs. Therefore you can’t get certain retirement benefits. That’s holding back a lot of Latino wealth. And there are so many examples like that, too. And so this shows the need for just these holistic policies, and it’s all tied together. We’re always talking about immigration reform, so distinctly from wealth building, but it’s so tied. And so I hope it also kind of renews a call for pushing policies like that forward.
DO YOU ALSO HAVE ANY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR LATINOS WHO WANT A BETTER SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC LIFE?
Obviously, it’s important to inform oneself about the topic. But understanding the bigger picture of how we arrived at these disparities is equally important. One thing I hear in our community that I hope to dispel is a lot of self-blame. That the reason I’m not building wealth is because there’s something that I did, and certainly, individuals play an important role. But there are also a lot of structural factors that play into issue that is very much systemic. And so, in thinking about it that way, I hope it does compel people to at least start to pay attention to some of the policy discussions around these things and how they tie to one’s economic mobility. Because there’s so much work happening not just at the federal level, but at the state and local levels, and so if populations remain engaged civically, they can see what is happening at their local level to enable them to grow their assets or minimize debt at the state level at the federal level.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD LIKE TO ADD?
The topic of wealth just deserves more attention. Latinos are a very understudied group in the United States. And the second thing I was going to highlight again is that there is such incredible diversity in the Latino community, which also makes the topic a little harder to examine. Still, it’s such a worthy topic, and you end up finding out so much context and nuances by centering the diversity.