Celebrating Latino Leaders: Jorge L. Perez
"There is no difference than with any other ethnic group. You have to get educated. You have to work hard. You have to consistently improve yourself. To me it’s doing the right thing, trying to make a difference in somebody’s life."
Jorge L. Perez
Connecticut State Dept. of Banking Commissioner
Hometown: New Haven
Jorge Perez was born in Havana, Cuba, to parents who were anti-communists. The family received political asylum from the United States after his mother was at risk of being shot for her political views. They fled, relocating to the Bronx.
“To me it was a trip. I was eight years old and didn’t know what we were doing,” says Perez.
Life in the Perez household was hard. Perez’s father battled alcoholism and could be abusive toward his wife. They were poor.
“Section 8. Welfare. We ate more grilled cheese than I could care to count,” recalls Perez.
When Perez was a sixth grader, he caught the chicken pox and missed so many days from school that he was held back from seventh grade, even though he had mastered his subjects. Disappointed, he repeated the familiar lessons and by the end of the year was eager to move on.
“My father, he tells me, ‘Don’t bother going to middle school. Nobody in this family has ever gone to college; half of the family never even graduated from high school, including myself and your mom. You’re going to end up working in a factory anyway.’
So, that drove me to prove him wrong. I like a good challenge.”
An Early Influence
Perez and his mother moved to New Haven’s Hill Section when he was a young teen. He entered Troup Middle School and aced his first marking period with one exception – a C grade in Mrs. Hope’s English class. He thought she must have made a mistake and went to see her after class.
“She said, no, the problem is that you don’t have a concept of verb tenses. Your thoughts are good, you write pretty well, but your verb tenses are terrible.”
Perez didn’t listen to this answer, thinking instead that she simply didn’t like him. He went to the principal and asked to be moved to a different class.
“The truth was, I needed help,” admits Perez. “She wouldn’t budge and the principal wouldn’t take me out of the class. So I had to learn how to do my verb tenses if I wanted to do better than a C grade.”
On His Profession
The first in his family to go to college, Perez graduated from Richard C. Lee High School and then the University of New Haven, Cum Laude with a degree in accounting. After a long career in private banking, starting in the mail room and working his way up to vice president of commercial lending, Perez became the first Latino Banking Commissioner in Connecticut’s history.
As Banking Commissioner, Jorge has jurisdiction over Connecticut’s laws pertaining to state charter banks, credit unions, consumer credit, broker-dealers, investment advisers, securities, and tender offers. He oversees a department with approximately 116 employees. In his capacity as Banking Commissioner, Jorge serves as a voting ex officio member of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.
Throughout his life, Jorge Perez has stayed committed to the Hill neighborhood, one of the poorest, highest crime areas of the city.
“Even though I could live anywhere I want at this point in my life, I live two blocks away from where I was raised. I love the neighborhood. Either you’re part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.”
He was first inspired to enter local politics through an experience he had as the treasurer of a newly formed nonprofit.
“What got me into local politics was my involvement in Habitat for Humanity and helping them start the New Haven chapter. The alderman in the area wouldn’t meet with us or help us. So I decided to run against him and I won. Now I’ve been the alderman for 28 years.”
During his tenure on the Board of Aldermen, Perez has served as president twice and was the finance committee chairman for a decade. Throughout his career, he has also assisted numerous nonprofits including the Community Action Agency, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, and the Hill Development Corporation, and most recently, New Haven Works.
“Someone said to me, you can run away, like most people do when they can, or you can try to stick around and make a difference. I said I’ll try to stick around,” remembers Perez. “The neighborhood still has its challenges, but it has changed a lot. Like I tell people, even when I die I will continue to live in the Hill since I bought my plot in the cemetery located in the neighborhood.
My daughter was born and raised [in the neighborhood], and she will be graduating from Yale University in May. And hopefully she will not move more than a few blocks away from where she was raised.”
On what it means to be a successful Latino and what is needed for more Latinos to be successful
“There is no difference than with any other ethnic group. You have to get educated. You have to work hard. You have to consistently improve yourself. To me it’s doing the right thing, trying to make a difference in somebody’s life. It’s not about money. It’s not about prestige. It’s not about recognition. I try to instill in kids, society doesn’t owe you anything except a fair chance, which you’re not going to get most of the time. So the few times it pops up, it’s up to you to take advantage of it.”