After nearly a decade of working to make financial systems work for low-income families, 45-year-old José A. Quiñonez received one of the greatest recognitions for his work on Wednesday. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded him and 22 others a $625,000 “genius grant.” The grants – given out over a period of five years with no strings attached – are so-called because there’s no application. They’re simply awarded to people who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” The winners can do whatever they please with the money.
At age 9, Quiñonez crossed the border with his siblings from Mexico to California after the death of their parents. In 2007, he launched the Mission Asset Fund to help low-income communities build better credit and access loans through lending circles, where a group of immigrants chip in money and provide interest-free loans to one another, without pressuring borrowers to pay them off quickly. Mission Asset Fund helps low-income families “participate more fully in the American economy, and obtain financial security.”
Many immigrants had already created their own lending circles based off the informal Mexican borrowing system called tandas, but Mission Asset Fund has them sign a binding contract. Also, the non-profit reports them to credit bureaus to help them establish credit.
Not having credit presents many hurdles, including making it impossible to rent an apartment, take out loans, and buy a car. Quiñonez doesn’t believe they should be punished for their circumstances. “We have this notion in our society that poor people are poor because they are broken, or bad, or making bad choices,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Here is a successful program based on completely different assumptions about poor people, that there is something good and honest in them, to survive and thrive regardless of the obstacles.”
It goes further than just helping people gain access to things they couldn’t normally afford. There’s also lending circles for citizenship and for DREAMers.
Mission Asset Fund has made 6,300 loans totaling $6.2 million possible. Lending circles made sense to him because that’s essentially what he did as a kid. He lost both his parents by the time he was 9. And he says the only reason he and his siblings made it is because they worked together. But now, he’s helping people on a larger scale.
Quiñonez’s the only Latino winner of the grant this year, but cultural historian Josh Kun also received the award. The Professor of Communication at University of South California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism research touches on globalization, the US-Mexico border, and Jewish-American musical history. He founded USC Annenberg’s Distinguished Lecture Series on Latin American Arts & Culture, which he runs with the USC Latino Alumni Association.