Growing up as a first-generation Latino in historically impoverished Boyle Heights, Juan De La Cruz remembers the times he and his siblings did their best not to get sick. Like many other Latinos in under-resourced neighborhoods, the lack of health insurance meant panic, a memory that fuels his work today.

For the last 16 years, De La Cruz has dedicated his life to philanthropy, serving in different capacities with the Los Angeles Unified School District and Young Men’s Christian Association. Today, he manages an $11.3 million budget as president of the Adventist Health White Memorial Charitable Foundation (AHWM), a nonprofit that supports research in the medical field and education.

As a leader in philanthropy, De La Cruz is an industry minority, an inequity he hopes to change by spreading awareness and promoting himself. Although Latinos currently account for 18.9% of the U.S. population, and are expected to jump to 30% by 2050 according to the Latino Community Foundation, they are largely underrepresented in charity leadership positions. A recent study from nonprofit membership association, Council of Foundations, shows that Latinos only occupy 1% of foundation CEO positions and hold just 9.3% of program officer positions, a narrative De La Cruz hopes to counter using personal knowledge. 

“We had limited resources growing up and understanding my lived experiences allows me to do my best to combat that for other families and generations,” De La Cruz said. “Knowing that I was going to have kids, I wanted to make sure that our communities as a whole have access to health care.”

Juan De La Cruz shared the story of his upbringing at AHWM’s 2022 gala. Photo courtesy of AHWM Charitable Foundation.

Personal life

In his upbringing, De La Cruz was hindered by the emotional and physical beat downs of his Guatemalan father, who he now understands likely suffered from anxiety and PTSD from migrating to the U.S. and being homeless at a young age. The abuse he, his mother and siblings experienced lingered for years, leaving a psychological wound that would fester well into his 20s. He said that depression sunk in shortly after and as a young man he came to the realization that in order to reach his full potential, he needed to heal mentally first. Through years of therapy and creating a support network for himself, De La Cruz was able to meet his goals, graduating from UCLA with a degree in sociology and Chicano Studies and completing a Masters in education at Whittier College. 

Through lived experiences, he recognized how unhealed trauma perpetuates a generational pattern of psychological suffering and hopes to break that cycle by shedding light on behavioral health. By building partnerships with the Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce, Keck Medical Center, LAUSD, ELACC and local business owners, AHWM formed an advisory board to grow and develop programs that support the community. De La Cruz helped form a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) at LAUSD, which uses federal funding to offer primary and preventative care to underserved communities, regardless of their ability to pay. 

Latino Representation

Aside from health care, De La Cruz is mindful of the bigger issue at hand, including the lack of Latino representation in positions that administer resources to that demographic. He believes that until inequities in philanthropy become a mainstream conversation, Latinos will continue to be marginalized in the field. Before settling into his current position at AHWM, De La Cruz was hesitant to put himself out there and share his story of how he overcame adversity and cultural barriers. Through therapy and mentorship from colleagues along the way, he learned his self worth and was able to advocate for people of color. De La Cruz emphasizes strength in numbers and acknowledges the separation among different Latino cultures, which he feels prevents them from making progress in the field.

“Frankly, throughout my career people have tried to undermine me because they felt like I didn’t have a seat at the table,” De La Cruz said. “And so what’s happening right now is that we, as Latinos, don’t organize together and until we start developing strategies and frameworks with a holistic approach, there’s a reason why we can’t make it in these positions.”

While they account for such a slim percentage of leaders in health care, education and other fields, Latinos are the backbone of our economy. According to Bank of America’s 2022 Metro Latino GDP Report, California’s 2018 Latino GDP is $707 billion, which If it were its own state would be the seventh-largest state GDP, larger than the entire economic output of the state of Ohio.

Work experience

For the past 60 years, David C. Lizárraga has pioneered economic and educational development for underserved Latinos not only on the Eastside, but also nationally. As founder and chairman of The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU), Lizárraga grew the company into the largest community development corporation in the country, managing more than $700 million in assets. As chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he advocated for more than 2.5 million Latino businesses across the nation. A lifelong career in philanthropy leadership taught him how important it is to share the spotlight with upcoming Latinos in the field. 

“I get concerned when [Latinos] finally get an opportunity, they get that seat at the table of a corporation or board of directors and they feel they’ve made it,” Lizárraga said. “That’s when you have to work hardest to try and get some more at that table as well.”

For Lizárraga, philanthropy is much more than just throwing money at a problem in hopes to solve it. It’s about opening the door for opportunity as well as providing advice and support that paves a pathway to higher education. He notes that nearly half of all Latinos enrolled at a four-year institution will drop out before completing their degree and believes that since many of them are first-generation college students, they don’t know how to navigate the system compared to somebody whose parents graduated from a university. Lizárraga echoes De La Cruz’s message of paying it forward to the next generation of upcoming scholars which he hopes will breed a new generation of philanthropic leaders.

“It’s a job of always advocating,” Lizárraga said. ”If you’re for something then move ahead to expand the opportunity for others because when you bring people with you, it just elevates you further.”