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Paying it Forward: How a Father’s Lessons Shaped a Family’s Commitment to Philanthropy

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In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), the Trust is featuring a series of conversations with Latinx philanthropists and leaders who are making a difference in the region. This article is the last in our series—be sure to take a look at our previous interviews with Doris Salomón & Angel Gutierrez, Karin Prangley, and Sally & Luis P. Nieto, Jr

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Siblings Tanya Cabrera and Martin Cabrera Jr. took different paths in their professional lives—one into higher education, the other into finance. But the values instilled by their parents and community fostered a shared commitment to service. Tanya Cabrera is assistant vice provost for student inclusion at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Illinois Dream Fund, which provides college scholarships to undocumented students in Illinois. Martin Cabrera is the CEO and founder of Cabrera Capital Markets, which provides global investment banking and full service global institutional brokerage services to a substantial and diversified client base, and the CEO and founder of Cabrera Capital Partners, which provides national real estate investment advisory services. He is a member The Chicago Community Trust’s Executive Committee.

They both recently sat down with Meghan Lewit, communications manager at the Trust, to discuss their philanthropic journeys, the importance of Latinx voices in philanthropy and the impact of giving across generations. Some questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Meghan Lewit: Tell me about your philanthropic journey.

Martin Cabrera: It started with our parents. Our parents are both from Mexico and we grew up in Little Village. One story that stays with me is when I was with my father and we were getting on a bus. There was a young mom with her daughter, and she didn’t have enough money for both of them to get on the bus. So my father volunteered that we would get off and they could take our spots. I looked at him like, “we’re going to walk? It’s really far from home.” I had to have been about five or six years old, and he said, “that’s okay, we’ll be okay.” And we walked.

I didn’t realize the lesson at the time because I was too young to comprehend it, but that’s who my father was. Even if he didn’t have anything, he would still find a way to give to people in the neighborhood. And our family instilled that in us.

Tanya Cabrera: Our father passed away when I was only 10 and Martin was 16. Our older brother, Luis, was epileptic and so Martin began working and helping my mom with the mortgage. I worked at a local bakery. Being a single mom with three kids—one with an illness—was very hard on our mom but were just always there supporting each other.

I think all those hardships made us stronger. And when we hear stories of individuals who are in need or struggling, we are very empathetic and compassionate because we were there once. And we’re fortunate enough that we can now pay it forward.

Meghan Lewit: What brought each of you to the Trust?

Tanya Cabrera: In 2011 Illinois enacted legislation through the Illinois Dream Act that made scholarships, college savings and tuition programs available to undocumented students. It also established the Illinois Dream Fund, a privately funded scholarship fund. In the first year of the fund we raised about $250,000 but we didn’t even have a bank account and were struggling to find a fiscal agent. The Trust stepped forward and provided a home for the fund. We now have over 290 alumni—undocumented students have been able to successfully complete their undergraduate and graduate school degrees. We have four students in law school and five in medical school right now. These students are already paying it forward and if it wasn’t for the Trust, I don’t think that would have happened.

Martin Cabrera: I’d been familiar with some of the work the Trust was doing to support undocumented students and organizations serving the Latino community, and I thought I could bring a perspective on some of the organizations that are doing great work in these areas.

It’s been very rewarding as a member of the Executive Committee to really look at all the Trust does and think about, “how do we make it better? How do we make sure those dollars are getting to families that are most in need and uplifting communities—whether it’s the African American community, the Latino community, the Asian community?” We have an ability at The Chicago Community Trust to lead the nation in the foundation space and to really be an example for some of the other foundations around the country.

Meghan Lewit: What contribution or philanthropic achievement are you most proud of?

Tanya Cabrera: My husband works for the Boys & Girls Clubs and knew a family of nine and all of them had tested positive for COVID. Three of the children had other health issues and were epileptic—which really hit home with us. Their car was stolen while they were recovering from COVID. Bad things just kept happening. When I heard that I said, “let’s start making calls and see what we can do.” We were able to raise $11,000 for the family in less than 24 hours. We collected clothes and were able to get them a van to replace their stolen car and a car seat. During this time of social distancing, to be back in the neighborhood again and bringing people together to support this family was amazing.

Martin Cabrera: One of the most impactful programs I’ve been involved with is The Stock Market Game. It’s a program for 4th to 12th graders that gives kids $100,000 to virtually invest and learn about the stock market. In my senior year of high school, I thought I wanted to be an architect. But I ended up taking an economics class where we played The Stock Market Game and I fell in love with it. I changed my focus to finance and got into the financial industry. Now, through my company, we’ve sponsored hundreds of thousands of kids across the country to play for free. The students who are top performers get a trip to New York and a tour of The New York Stock Exchange. Some of these kids are like me, and it’s their first exposure outside of their own neighborhoods. We want the kids who participate to understand that the possibilities through education are limitless. Whether they become doctors, lawyers, teachers or investment professionals, we hope they will know how to handle their money in a better way and will plan and save and prosper.

Meghan Lewit: Can you talk to me a little bit about the importance of Latinx voices in philanthropy?

Martin Cabrera: We try to strongly encourage those in the Latino community that can to give back. If you look at the Latino population in Chicago it’s roughly 30 percent. We’re the largest minority population and we need to step up and give to our own community. While it might not be at the level of some other major donors, every bit counts, and it should be part of our DNA. I see that growing in the community, as the younger generation comes up, they’re starting to think, “What am I going to do to make an impact?”

Tanya Cabrera: My father would always say that we’re all on borrowed time here, and what we do with that time impacts generations. Philanthropy for me is about accountability, reaching out to our friends and saying, “hey, I’d appreciate your help at this time,” or, “if you can’t give your money, can you give your time?” It’s important that we step up, not just Latinos but people of all races and backgrounds throughout the city. We can all have an impact and it’s important that we leave a footprint behind with the work we’re doing and give whatever we can, when we can.