She’d arrived in the United States at age 4, taken from the people she was closest to by parents who sought a better life. It was her aunts and her grandmother who raised her from birth, filling in for a mother suffering depression after the death of her brother. But it was a different set of aunts and uncles who joined Lopez and her parents and siblings on their journey across the Rio Grande, up I-35 to Dallas.
Partly in reaction to the stark realities of her new life, Lopez became fiercely independent and smart. She was hustling for food by age 6, in a gang by 9. She faced racism and prejudice—even, she says, within the Latino community. She was called every name in the book.
“She is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. But underneath it all, she is tough. She has got grit.”
She learned to deal. She was the first in her family to learn English. If she missed the bus in the afternoon, to avoid getting jumped, she would sprint out to the portable classrooms and then climb up on top. When she was called “beaner,” she had a shirt made. It was a bean. In a backward hat. Chile pequín, is what her dad took to calling her—spicy chile.
The spice had the backbone of some very real anger. In addition to the teasing and getting ripped away from loved ones, there was also physical and sexual abuse at home. Lopez says she was not a bad kid but, she would grant you, a “problem child.”
Eighth grade was in minor ways a reprieve. Her mother had just birthed twin sons, and Lopez missed school a lot to help out. She had always been the family cornerstone, the 10-year-old in the delivery room translating for the doctors. Somehow her teachers at Edison, where she spent just a year after getting kicked out of W.E. Greiner, grasped that in a way nobody else could. “They saw that, holy cow, this kid is actually freaking awesome,” Lopez says. “When all this time they had me in such a bad light.”
Her teachers weren’t the only adults to leave an imprint. She credits volunteers at the Bataan Community Center with playing a crucial role in her upbringing and the Trinity River Mission, a West Dallas nonprofit that pairs students with mentors, with giving her a refuge outside of school. “Whenever I felt lost or felt like I needed help, it was the only place I felt I could go and be safe and just think, or find someone who was going to help me,” she says.
by 2005, lopez had made her way through impossible circumstances to a job programming software for Pitney Bowes. About a year and a half in, she got a call from Dolores Sosa Green, the CEO of the Trinity River Mission. Sosa Green was new to the job, just its fourth chief executive even though the organization has been around since the early 1960s.
The Mission was originally designed to serve Native Americans relocating to the area. It changed focus in the 1980s and became a nonprofit serving the Hispanic community. Today, it runs a variety of programs to help kids succeed in and outside the classroom. Its Believe & Achieve program, geared at grades six through 12, points kids toward college and rewards graduates with scholarships of $4,000 each. Lopez graduated from the program in 1998.
Sosa Green claimed she wanted to get lunch, that’s it. Just the new chief getting to know a successful alum.
“Bull,” says Lopez. “She set up that meeting to tell me she wanted me to quit my job.”
Lopez never hesitated, although her family had reservations and she had to take a big pay cut. She came on as program director, and, in 2017, she was promoted to chief program officer. And then last year, when the previous CEO decided to step down, there was only one person the Mission’s board considered. It was the woman who had their programming firing on all cylinders.
“She is one of the nicest people you will ever meet,” says David Sheahan, an executive search consultant with a seat on the Mission’s board. “But underneath it all, she is tough. She has got grit.”
Vicente Argueta, one of Lopez’s mentees, says she knows how to relate. “On top of education and academics and all that stuff, she would hear you out,” says the former West Dallasite, who graduated from a private college in Iowa last year and now works in marketing in Des Moines. “She was always there for me, and for my family, too.”
“The fact that I know what it feels like to lose your innocence and not to have a childhood, that’s the most powerful thing I can give a child.”
When Argueta decided he wanted to blaze his trail outside of Texas, it was Lopez who talked with his mom about the decision, easing anxieties for mother and son in the process. She understood the impulse. Years earlier, Lopez had landed on Massachusetts for undergrad. She moved east only to get the news that back home, Alfredo Lopez had been shot and killed. Alfredo was technically her uncle, but she was older and had helped raise him. Lopez calls him her brother. She never enrolled and left Massachusetts a few months later. Not long after, one of the aunts who’d taken care of her back in Mexico died.
It all sent Lopez down a path. She says she was depressed for a year and a half, but eventually she returned to herself, to her family, to her dream of finishing college. Her 4-foot-11 frame got ahold of the 7-foot personality within.
She graduated from DeVry University, started to volunteer at the Mission, and earned her job as a programmer. Sosa Green called with the program director position, and Lopez sort of fell into a scholarship to earn a master’s degree, too. But perhaps even more than the degrees, she says, the most useful tools in her career have been the troubles that marked but didn’t define her youth, bringing her so close to a different outcome.
“The fact that I know what it feels like to lose your innocence and not to have a childhood,” she says, fighting away tears, “that’s the most powerful thing I can give a child.”
Lopez is currently trying to get more kids into elite colleges while building the Mission into the Ivy League of nonprofits. But two key donors recently left—one died and the other rebudgeted funds—and price increases spurred by the Trinity Groves development, a mile and a half away, are creeping down Singleton Boulevard. Habitat for Humanity owns the Mission’s building and is looking to sell, Lopez tells me one afternoon inside her office. Add to that a perpetual shortage of mentors to work with Mission students, which means the waitlist continues to grow, and the fact that cash constraints limit salaries, so some of the nonprofit’s employees now struggle to outrun the cycle of poverty the organization seeks to break. A one-time $110,000 boost from Lyda Hill Philanthropies in December helped, but the Mission’s greatest need is reliability—reliable donors, reliable tutors, and reliable mentors.
“We’re constantly in this survival thing,” Lopez says. “It’s like, how can you take it to the next level when you’re in that mindset?”
The last afternoon I visited the Mission, Lopez had good news. Habitat had found a buyer willing to sit on the property, meaning the Mission can stick around. It’s signing a 10-year lease with a rent increase of about 9 percent, a reduced rate from the market’s 13 percent.
Lopez, who is 40, is still working through some of the events of her earlier years. But it’s no longer the trauma that’s in control. “What fuels me is just walking across the hall and seeing what each and every one of those kids could be,” she says. “I have the opportunity to give them what someone once gave me.”