Sitting in her office at the Bethpage Federal Credit Union branch in Freeport, you might imagine that it’s easy for 31-year-old Cania Infante to forget the hardships she faced when she came to Long Island from the Dominican Republic over 15 years ago.
Her factory worker parents left Santo Domingo when she was 10 in search of opportunity in the US, joining relatives who had settled in Nassau County. Infante, who immigrated with them in 1990, entered the sixth grade at Freeport’s Atkinson Middle School unable to speak any English, but was still mainstreamed into English-language classes. She struggled with the language barrier, and none of her relatives in the area had enough fluency to help her with her assignments.
“I was like, how in the world can I do this,” she remembers. “I came home from school and cried when I looked at my homework.”
Overcoming adversity, however, has been a theme in Infante’s young life. She’s only in her early thirties and already has an impressive achievement behind her: At 25, she was made the youngest branch manager at Bethpage Federal Credit Union. Now a regional relationship manager covering the western half of Nassau County for the Long Island company, Infante represents a culturally and economically diverse area and works to close the divide between the banking world and Latino immigrants, who can be targets for unscrupulous lenders, especially around tax return time.
“Many of these families just aren’t familiar with the tax system in this country or aren’t computer literate,” she says. “We’ve tried to cut down on those predatory loans by offering a free alternative for low-income families who may not feel comfortable filing their tax returns on their own.”
Infante receives a community service award from the Village of Freeport presented by Mayor Andrew Hardwick and current Deputy Mayor Carmen Piñeyro during Hispanic Heritage Month in 2009.
The program, run by Bethpage Federal Credit Union, is now in its sixth year, and Infante volunteers with the busy Hempstead location’s program, offering her financial expertise along with a common cultural and language connection.
When Infante counsels new immigrants, she feels she can relate to them since she’s shared many of the same struggles. She came to this country nearly bereft of English-language skills, but soon picked up the language and began to do well academically.
“Growing up, seeing my mom work long hours, I knew that I wanted something different for my own life,” she said.
A new challenge was around the corner, though. She became pregnant unexpectedly in the eleventh grade, and she feared her career aspirations might be derailed. Her mother had dropped out of school after ninth grade, and wanted a different life for Infante. Now a young mother, Cania needed to find strength in herself.
“Everyone said my life was over and that I’d never finish school,” she says. “I was determined to prove them wrong.”
At work at the Bethpage Federal Credit Union branch in Freeport. (Credit: Stanley Cadet)
Infante was lucky to have extended family to help care for her son, Jhon Abreu, and through a combination of night school and hard work she was able to graduate on time with her class. Although Infante’s experience as a teenage mother had a happy ending, the memory of the difficulty of that time in her life isn’t far from the surface. Even flipping through the channels and passing the popular MTV reality series “Teen Mom” can be emotional.
“I can’t even watch that show because it brings me right back to that pain,” she says. “I know exactly what they’re feeling.”
Although Infante’s pathway into the professional world was less traditional than some, she quickly climbed up the corporate ladder. She began working in banking in an entry-level position as a bank teller, and with a talent for customer relations in both English and Spanish, she worked her way up into account services. Then, at age 25, she became the youngest branch manager at Bethpage Federal Credit Union.
She doesn’t believe that it was a coincidence that her success happened at an organization known for community involvement. “I had mentors at Bethpage,” she says. “It was part of the credit union philosophy, to nurture your employees.”
Bethpage paid for her master’s degree in business administration, which she finished over several years while working full time. Infante’s belief in the benefits of education is as strongly held as it was hard-won.
“I could lose my job tomorrow but no one can ever take away my degrees, my credentials,” she says. “It’s hard for Latino teens to understand that they might get a job tomorrow, out of high school, that pays well now, but what about the long term?”
That’s why Infante volunteers with Project GRAD, a program that brings successful professionals to speak at Westbury High School, and why she serves on the Board of Directors for the Hempstead Chamber of Commerce and the Nassau County Youth Board.
She’s also working to instill her commitment to social justice to her now 15-year-old son, Jhon. With her support, Jhon spent part of this past summer volunteering in an impoverished Costa Rican village with a nonprofit group.
Infante says that now she’s almost ready to have the second child that she’s waited 10 years for, carefully calibrating the moment when she could finally feel that her career and education were stable enough. As for her professional future, she laughs: “Well, I’m not ruling out CEO.”
Feature image by Stanley Cadet.