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Walk through the doors of Comunidad Latina Federal Credit Union, turn the corner, find the cubicle in the back, and you’ll likely come across Azul Sanchez, president/CEO at the $9 million asset credit union in Santa Ana, Calif. Even if she’s busy, she’ll sit down with you to dig into your financial well-being—or she’ll direct you to the right employee to address your needs.
“Members just pop their heads in and say, ‘I need help,’” says Sanchez, a 20-year industry veteran who accepted her first CEO role at Comunidad Latina in 2022. “At my previous credit unions, I’d schedule time to go into the branch to understand the member and employee experience. Here, I have no choice because our branch is so small. However, I enjoy being so connected with the members and staff. Our tiny but mighty credit union has such an impact in our community.”
That impact takes effort. It’s why Sanchez makes after-hours calls to people across the country who reach out after seeing a TikTok video about individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) lending.
“I look up credit unions in their state that offer ITIN lending and provide them the information,” Sanchez says, adding that every credit union employee provides that same care. “Our entire team was hired from the community. They all understand firsthand the unique challenges of this community. I think this is why we are so popular—everyone treats our members with empathy, dignity, and respect while building connections.”
The catalyst came when Sanchez mentored individuals through Templo Calvario Church’s series of financial education workshops. She eventually taught the series, which morphed into a member-led learning circle primarily attended by Latina women who are new to the U.S. and unfamiliar with the country's financial services.
The first session is about values. Then they discuss smart goals, budgets, income, hidden costs, and more before creating a personalized vision board on what they learned, how they’ll apply it, and how to reach their goal.
“All of them have stories. At the end of the workshop, everyone’s either crying or smiling, because of the connections that are made. This is the power of learning via story sharing,” Sanchez says, recalling how one participant grew frustrated because she didn’t know how to reach her goal of being an accountant. “It became a group discussion about being a Latina woman. It was beautiful to see all the women come together, share their experience, and learn from each other.”
At the end of the workshop, the aspiring accountant outlined the steps she’d take to achieve that goal, Sanchez says. “In our workshop, she realized she could be a good wife and mother while also putting herself as a priority.”
As a first-generation American, Sanchez understands the pressure members feel when navigating financial services. She recalls how a series of events—check-cashing fees, bad contracts, and identity theft—made her realize the importance of credit at a young age.
While it took time to overcome those obstacles, she eventually became the first person in her family to attend college, own a home, and travel outside the U.S.
“I'm glad that my life turned out the way it did, but I can imagine how much easier my life could have been with guidance,” Sanchez says. “It's our mission to help other people understand that they're not alone. How can we expect our world to be better if we don't take steps to help people be in a better place?
“Even if we’re not going to give someone a loan, we’ll give them direct feedback. We’re going to be there for them, we’re going to give them the tools, and we’re going to call them, check in, and follow through.”
She wants to see that same care and connectivity consistently throughout the credit union movement.
“So many credit unions in our area reach out and want to support us. We’re the little credit union everybody loves and takes care of,” Sanchez says. “Comunidad Latina Federal Credit Union is a prime example of the cooperative spirit. We were funded with the support of 13 credit unions that came together for a cause. The efforts were led by [$28.8 billion asset] SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union [in Tustin, Calif.]. Eighteen years later, we’re still here. That cooperative spirit is so important because people depend on a credit union like ours.”