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Making the banks abierto 

In a relatively short time span, leaders of the Triangle's Latino communities have made major strides in opening up banking services to Spanish speakers, helped by the banks' desire to reach a huge, still-untapped customer base.

Two different initiatives were unveiled last week, one funded by a for-profit bank and the other an expansion of a non-profit community lender. Both are aimed at removing barriers to financial services and credit that still exist for many Latinos.

On Nov. 19, BB&T Corp. launched a free series of Spanish-language audiotapes about basic banking and emergency-preparedness. The Winston-Salem-based bank put up the money for the tapes--which will soon be expanded to include sessions on credit and home ownership--and is distributing them through local churches, community groups and on request at area branch banks. The project was a collaboration between BB&T, the governor's Office of Hispanic/Latino Affairs and the advocacy group, El Pueblo. It was produced by Bridgeworks Inc., a "Hispanic culture consulting firm" in Apex.

There's a hefty dose of self interest involved for the bank. Latinos are now the largest minority group in the country, with an expected buying power of $1 trillion by 2015, according to the state's Hispanic/Latino Affairs Office. But at the moment, fewer than 27 percent of Latinos in BB&T's market have a bank account.

Funding for the series came out of the bank's marketing budget and the tapes contain numerous references to BB&T. The main character in the "novella-style" stories, which follow a format popular on Spanish TV, is a woman named Beatriz Bienvenido Torres, or "Bibi," who works--naturally--at BB&T.

Leaders of the community group, El Pueblo, say the bank's program is a boost to ongoing efforts to increase access by Spanish-speaking residents to banking and credit services. Hilton Cancel, a board member of the Raleigh-based organization, noted that without bank accounts, Latinos lack economic clout and remain vulnerable targets for robberies and home invasions. "We think this venture is going to open doors to making our community a safer place," he said.

But the unveiling wasn't without a note of criticism. During a question-and-answer session, Jaime Leon, president of the Latin American Association of North Carolina, said that while he supports the idea of a free audiotape series, "I don't want to be a promoter of a particular bank. If it looks like we're promoting a particular name, it makes it harder for us in the community."

Martinez responded that at a time of state budget deficits, private/public ventures--even ones with promotional strings attached--are a way to ensure that Latino issues get attention. "We have no reservations in joining a North Carolina corporation in putting out information that, if it doesn't get out, will cost the Latino community in the future," he said.

Three days after BB&T's announcement, the state's first Latino Community Credit Union celebrated the opening of a new branch office on Hardimont Road in Raleigh. The event drew state and local elected officials, church leaders and the new Mexican Consul.

Founded in Durham in 2000, the credit union expanded to Charlotte in 2001 and now has more than 7,500 members and $12.5 million in assets. On its first day in Raleigh, the member-owned institution opened seven accounts and made one business loan.

For information on the audiotape program, call El Pueblo at (919) 835-1525. For the Latino Credit Union, call (919) 530-8800.

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