Directing the Way

By Christina Catalano

As the Director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center, Mark Hugo Lopez, has had a large impact on the research in civic engagement and voter turnout for the Hispanic Community and on the nation as a whole. His perseverance to help influence policy all started at home in LA.


Hugo Lopez has a background in economics, but he is not just a numbers guy or only interested in the stock market – he applies his knowledge to make a real impact in the Hispanic community. Hugo Lopez grew up in Whittier, California, and is a third generation Mexican-American. His grandparents came to the United States during the time of the Mexican Revolution.

How was his Chicano culture a part of growing up? It was a central part of his childhood.

Who is Mark Hugo Lopez?

  • Occupation: Researcher, Learner, and Doer

  • Loves working on his car

  • “You can take the Angelino out of LA, but you can’t take the LA out of Angelino

 Hugo Lopez grew up always thinking about the struggles in the Chicano community: “I grew up in a household where Chicano culture was a central part of everything that was in the family. I grew up in the 70s and into the early 80s. My dad was a part of the local movements (specifically, the Chicano Movement), and he worked very hard on education as a teacher and a junior high school principal.” Thus, Hugo Lopez found a hero in his own father in the form of civic engagement.

It was always in the forefront of my experiences that growing up in a state like California, in a place like Los Angeles, being of Mexican origin, and being a Chicano particularly was always at the forefront at everything that my parents and I did at the time.

Hugo Lopez knows that his family’s impact made an imprint in his life, and inspired him to pursue a life in policy with the Chicano Movement in his research, in his spirit, and in his heart: “Often times, my father and I would have long conversations about the impact of public policy on Chicanos in Southern California, on Hispanics throughout the country.” This type of upbringing was rich with grassroots experiences.

Throughout his childhood, Hugo Lopez had countless direct experiences with the Chicano movement: from protests to advocating for his family members to be elected, he is no stranger to civic engagement or civic duty.

With the inspiration to inform policy, Hugo Lopez then attended the University of California Berkeley and earned his bachelor’s in economics. He then went on to pursue his Ph.D. in economics at Princeton University.

His passion for the subject pushed him to keep exploring the world of policy, so much so that he became a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland.

However, he had a setback that inspired him to go towards policy hands-on in full force: “I did not become a tenured professor… and then I ended up switching gears about halfway through at Maryland to a career looking at youth civic engagement, voter turnout, how young people get involved in their communities with a focus largely on Latinos, immigration, immigrants, Native American, and trying to look at groups at young people and how they get involved in their community at Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) - that is the program that I became the Research Director of.”  

Philosophy on Leadership

  • RESPECT “I think it’s important to be respectful of others. Do not just kill an idea.”

  • TEAMWORK “I think it’s important to have conversations with your staff with where they are heading and what they want to do.”

  • MENTORING “In the meetings I have with my staff, during our professional management conversations, it is truly about mentoring and how can people get to the next step in a number of ways.”

This gear change to CIRCLE led Hugo Lopez to eventually find his way to Pew. In 2007, CIRCLE was moving to Tufts University, but the University of Maryland wanted Hugo Lopez to stay as a professor. He didn’t simply roll with the tide, but saw opportunity in another change of gears: the previous Director of the Hispanic Center had stepped down, and a search for a new director was underway. A Maryland professor, whom knew the hiring director of at Pew, encouraged him to recommend experts for Director position of the Hispanic Center at Pew. Hugo Lopez made a list of names of people, but didn’t include himself. The hiring director saw Hugo Lopez’s potential, and decided that he was the right person for the job.

Hugo Lopez, who thought he was going to Boston, stayed in Washington, took on the challenge, and then rose up to become the Director of the Hispanic Research Center at Pew.

So what advice does Mark Hugo Lopez have for other Latinos? The key is to participate in mentorship. But his idea of mentorship does not only entail helping his junior staff to improve their work and rise up in their own careers.  

Hugo Lopez believes in mentoring young Latinos (or anyone) who reaches out to him. He has a lot of young Latinos reach out to ask him questions about his work at Pew: “If I can, I will always take the opportunity to have even just an hour-long conversation over a cup of coffee with someone just to talk about the work of the Pew Research Center, my path, and their own paths. That is mentorship.” 

In turn, what other role does mentorship play to him? Mark Hugo Lopez believes in always being a learner, and often learns something new about how young people think, which aids him with his work at the Pew Research Center.

It is without question that Mark Hugo Lopez is both a learner and a doer.