CSMGEP Profiles: Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew Research Center

Using Data to Tell the Story

Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of Hispanic Research, Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.

When he was very young, growing up in Southern California, Mark Hugo Lopez often listened to the evening news with his dad, and he kept a daily journal of all topics in which he was interested—like the GNP, for example. Later, in high school, Lopez admits he was a geek, and his nickname was “Alex P. Keaton,” after the television show “Family Ties” character. He realized he was also interested in physics, but he says, “I did better in economics.”

When it came time to choose a college, he was influenced by his father, who was involved in the local Chicano movement, and with whom Lopez often discussed topics that were important to the Latino community. One of his dad’s favorite colleges happened to be the University of California at Berkeley. Beyond that, Lopez says he chose Berkeley because he “fell in love with the atmosphere and energy of people talking about all the important issues of the day.”

During his junior year at Berkeley, his paperwork earned the notice of a dean in the graduate school, who asked Lopez if he would like to go to a summer program at Princeton. He went and found himself serving as a research assistant to Professor Bernanke – yes, Ben Bernanke, later chair of the Federal Reserve. Based on positive feedback, encouragement and support from Bernanke, Lopez decided to go to Princeton where he earned a Master’s degree in 1993 and a PhD in 1996. Asked if he would have changed his graduate school experience in any way, Lopez replies that he was too shy to ask professors questions or to push back on a point. “I should have had more confidence in myself.” He adds, “Nothing happens unless you make it happen. You aren’t sought; you have to seek.”

After Princeton, Lopez worked for 13 years at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Affairs as a lecturer, assistant professor, and research assistant professor. There he also served briefly as co-chair and chair of the Maryland Leadership Institute. For six years he was also the research director for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Lopez says, “CIRCLE is where I renewed my passion for research.”

Toward the end of his time at UMD, he was approached by a colleague who asked for a list of names for a new director of the Pew Hispanic Center. Lopez provided some names but neglected to list his own. His future boss Paul Taylor (the acting director of the Pew Hispanic Center) contacted him to discuss the list of names, noting that each was not necessarily a good match. But at the end of that conversation Taylor encouraged Lopez to apply for the position. Lopez was soon appointed Associate Director.

Lopez says Taylor was the greatest mentor he had in his professional life, and beginning in 2010, Taylor began grooming Lopez to take over the Hispanic Research Center which he did in 2013. Lopez claims that the highlight of his career as an economist is his current job. He says, “It’s exciting and has given me a chance to travel the world and tell the story of U.S. Hispanics, and how they are changing the U.S. and how the U.S. is changing them.”

Lopez’ current focus is on the Hispanic Trends Project at Pew. The project “seeks to improve public understanding of the diverse Hispanic population in the United States and to chronicle Latinos’ growing impact on the nation.” Researchers collect data through public opinion surveys, including the annual National Survey of Latinos and prepare reports on a wide range of topics including economics and how it relates to personal finances, Hispanic/Latino identity, education, health care, and immigration trends, etc. The Hispanic Trends Project’s website http://www.pewhispanic.org/ contains a huge collection of publications based on the Center’s research and findings.

Of course, when Lopez tells the story of the Latino community, he does it through data. One of his graduate thesis advisors, David Card, used to tell him, “Take it back to the data.” For example, one interesting report based on the most recent National Survey of Hispanics showed that, when asked who the most important Latino leader is today, two-thirds of Latinos could not name one, and another 10% said “no one.” With these kinds of data, Lopez says he can “create a conversation: scientific research can lead to discussion.” He is often on television and radio shows to explain the data and open up dialog.

To get accurate data, Lopez says it’s important “having researchers who understand nuances in cultural awareness specific to Latinos and others.” Moreover, Lopez believes it’s important to produce data and analysis that are nonpartisan and impartial. (The Pew Research Center calls itself a “Fact Tank” and not a “Think Tank” for example.)

Such impartiality is key for Lopez, who claims that if he were not an economist, he would have pursued a career as a journalist. That way he could still tell the story with data for a broad range of audiences.

Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century, made most famous by Marcel Proust's answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

  1. What is your idea of a perfect day?

There are so many different kinds of perfect days! Spending time with my mom making enchiladas is among the best kind. But so too are days when the Cal Bears win a football game while enjoying my signature cocktail—the Lopez.

  1. What’s on your nightstand?

A clock radio…so I can listen to the news as I fall asleep.

  1. How do you treat yourself? What’s your favorite indulgence?

A day washing, polishing and waxing my Camaro, making sure each wheel shines.

  1. Whom do you most admire?

Tough question. I admire my former boss Paul Taylor tremendously for his ability to tell stories with data. But I also admire my parents. They sacrificed plenty for me and my siblings so we could have a chance to succeed.

  1. What trait do you most deplore in others?

Rudeness, which includes talking over people, not respecting others, and cutting in line.

  1. What is your greatest regret?

I didn’t get to tell my dad how much he mattered to me before he passed away.

  1. What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Being the director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, which has allowed me to travel the world to talk about the nation’s growing and changing Latino community.

  1. What’s your favorite movie or book?

I have three! Bless me Ultima by Rodolfo Anaya, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

  1. Which is your favorite city?

Los Angeles—my hometown.

  1.  Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

There are three! “Not enough hours in the day”  “See what happens when you hang out with a Mexican?”  “Who approved that?!”