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What I’ve Learned: Pew Hispanic Research Director Mark Hugo Lopez

Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center.
Photo of Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center. Mark Hugo Lopez

NAME: Mark Hugo Lopez

AGE: 48

HERITAGE: Mexican-American and Chicano

HOMETOWN: Whittier and Los Angeles, California, now living in Washington, DC

OCCUPATION/TITLE: Economist and Director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center

Mark Hugo Lopez is director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center. He studies the attitudes and opinions of Latinos, Hispanic views of identity, the political engagement of Latinos in the nation's elections and Latino youth. Lopez also coordinates the Center's National Survey of Latinos, an annual nationwide survey of Hispanics. Lopez received his doctorate in economics from Princeton University, is an author of reports about the Hispanic electorate, Hispanic identity and immigration, and frequently appears in national and international media in both Spanish and English.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be an airline pilot when I was really young. And also an architect. And a journalist. And I wanted to be - I know this will sound dorky and nerdy - I wanted to be an economist.

If you ever saw the TV show "Family Ties," Alex P. Keaton, that's what they used to call me in high school. I loved following current events; I used to keep a daily journal of evening news. In junior high school I loved plotting the Gross National Product and the Gross Domestic Product - these were the things I liked to do! But I also wanted to be an astronomer or a physicist and my biggest hero, the one person admired the most at that time, was Carl Sagan. According to my mom, I would run home from school in junior high to watch "Cosmos." I fell in love with it, I was really into the whole thing and thought I would be an astronomer or a physicist. At the same time, I was really into Frank Reynolds on ABC news, who was a journalist and focused on public policy and economics… all these interests were happening at the same time.

When you look at it, they all do tie together because policy affects the public and I think I always had the thought that I would pursue something with a connection to public policy.

Were you the first in your family to go to college?

No, actually. Right about the time when I was born my father had gone back to college at the age of 32. He had been a meatpacker before that and had been involved in all things related to the community - the job situation, protests in the civil rights movement in Whittier, California. He ran for the school board, really pushing for dual and bilingual education … That's the environment I grew up in.

Within my own immediate family, my two sisters and brother had at least gone to some community college so there was always that element, but it was always college while living at home.

What was new for me was the chance to go away to college, and my dad expressed surprise that universities were pursuing me during my junior year of high school. I had interest from Harvard, Yale, UCLA, Berkeley and I didn't do a lot of pursuing them. It was more like "Hey, we're having an event - you should come to meet us." For my father it was, "Wow, mijo, this is interesting they are coming looking for you."

I aimed as high as I could and I remember filling out the application for Cal State Fullerton, just to be safe. I was sitting at my desk and my dad said, "Mijo, this big giant letter came from Berkeley for you." Subsequently, others came, but I didn't get into Harvard, which helped narrow things down, and I ended up going to Berkeley with relatively few of my high school class who got into schools outside of Los Angeles or California.

With so many interests, how did you settle on a course of study?

I had played alto sax all through elementary school and marching band was a big part of my high school experience, so when I went to Berkeley it seemed pretty clear: I want to be in the marching band and I'm going to be an economist and an astrophysicist. I took the math qualifying exam and I didn't pass it with a high enough score so my adviser said to hold off on going into physics right away. So instead I took a calculus class. I got an "A," but I have to admit, I questioned whether physics and the sciences was the right place for me. I took spring semester physics and economics and got a better grade in economics and I realized that the sciences were going to be very challenging and that I liked economics more.

Graduate studies must have been new for your family, how did you decide on Princeton?

I had done a faculty/student research program at Berkeley and one of my teachers said, "Are you interested in a summer program? It's back East and they're looking for students. The deadline for application has already past but get it together and we'll turn it in." I did and it turned out to be a program designed to get minority students from Berkeley, UCLA and Stanford to get into Cornell, Yale and Princeton by studying and preparing for a doctoral program.

So I got in and was admitted to Princeton for the summer and got to work with [former Chairman of the Federal Reserve] Ben Bernanke and that experience is what turned me on to the idea of graduate school in economics. I really enjoyed it, I fell in love with Princeton and saw what I could do if I got a PhD.

My dad said, "Well, mijo, you're probably going to be a professor," but for me, it was a whole new area. No one in my family - not even on either side of my extended family - had gone for a doctorate. So I came back to Berkeley energized, took my courses that fall and applied to 12 top institutions - and got into 11. In essence, I had my choice of where I wanted to go, including Princeton, and some of the offers were even more lucrative than what Princeton was offering m,e but I knew the school and felt comfortable there so that's where I went.

Tell us about the path to your big gig at Pew Hispanic.

It was taking a course on the economics of education with someone who would ultimately be my adviser, Cecilia Rouse, who is now the Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. We talked about where my career could go in studying Latinos within school systems.

Working with professor Rouse and [the philosopher] David Carr, one of the skills I learned was to take it to the data and see what data has to say - and they didn't call me the King of the Cross-tab for nothing. I did research on the impact of bilingual education on student achievement, which gave me focus and it helped me land a teaching position at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy - and I was really proud of that!

However, despite Maryland being a great place to be, I didn't get tenure and that did send me into a real tailspin. I thought about leaving academia entirely, which led to a reboot of my career when I joined the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). That experience and those connections brought me the opportunity to join The Pew Hispanic Center in 2008 and I've been here ever since.

For some of us, your post at Pew is a pinnacle of success, a holy grail. Did it feel like you hit the lottery right away or did the enormity of the work you do dawn on you slowly?

There's no denying that this is pretty close to a dream job as you can get. I enjoy the opportunity to travel the country and the world to talk about the Latino experience, especially growing up in a household where we talked about the struggles of that experience.

But it's about data telling stories - in a non-partisan and non-advocacy way - that makes it fun to do. We study all kinds of things, tell the community how it's changing and informing the community about itself as well as telling those stories to others.

This has been the hardest job I've ever had. [When I first started] at many times I didn't think of myself as even being associate director, I was just working really hard to get the next report out. One day my boss said to me, "Hey, have you ever thought about being director?" and I hadn't even been considering something like that.

I don't want this to come off like, "Oh well, Mexicans can be really humble about their success…" but I honestly wasn't thinking, "I'm going to be director someday." But the opportunity has been incredible - using data to tell stories without taking any positions, letting others use it for advocacy - it's powerful.

Are you a rock star at home, too?

Ha. I think one of the things many Latinos might encounter that I encountered with my own family is that when I was pursuing my PhD a lot of folks didn't quite know why. It was like that with a few things, like even when I was in marching band, some of my family members would say, "Why are you playing the sax? Why are you out following the band around on weekends?" but they eventually started to see the value of these things.

It's funny but I remember, when I was a professor, having a conversation with my brother and he asked me, "What do you do?" and I said, "I teach three classes a week." And he said, "You only work six hours a week?!" and I said, "Well, no, I spend the rest of the time thinking…" and it was hard to explain. It wasn't until I got to the job I'm in now that my family can understand what I do. On one hand, they see me in the media, in the newspaper - it's tangible and the information we put out, we want the general public to read and understand it.

At the same time, when you talk about economics, a lot people don't know what that means. Sometimes it can be alienating. Even to this day folks don't completely understand what I do, so sometimes it's hard to share my professional life with my family. But we're both coming along in that process.

My father passed away when I was in grad school and my father understood it, but though it took some time for others in my family to really get it. Now they get mad at me if I was on the radio or on cable and I didn't let them know. They'll say, "Marky, why didn't you tell me you were going to be on TV?"

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda

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