When America and Penelope Lopez’s aunt disappeared for more than two months after crossing the border between Mexico and the United States, the whole family was on tenterhooks for nearly two months, not knowing where she was.
The woman had been kidnapped by a gang of traffickers and only managed to escape from her captors through the window of a public restroom.
“She told us she saw these stickers in bathrooms that ask sex trafficking victims to seek help by calling a number,” America said. “But those stickers only made her feel worse. How could she ask for help without access to a phone?”
That incident served to ignite the creative spark in the minds of the twins, better known as the “Cyber Code Twins.”
Both have been working for some time in a personal project: “Beacons of Hope.”
It is one of those small devices that are hidden in public restrooms that victims of human trafficking can obtained by pressing a button. The device emits a signal that can be received by the authorities so they can locate the victim of kidnapping.
“It is intervention device that helps at the moment the incident happens; is not for prevention and not for after the incident has occurred,” says Penelope, the quieter but “the craziest” of the twin, according to her sister America.
Tech Stemmed from Fear
It is not the first time that the twins work in an application whose goal is to protect other people or to increase the security of the communities.
Although they hardly have two years working intensively with the highest technology – “before, we never had access to it,” they say that, last year, they won a $10,000 prize to create a micro video camera to be used by the police to record their interactions with the public.
“We were inspired by Michael Brown’s in Ferguson”, they explain.
Where the desire to use their growing ability with technology to increase the safety of others comes from? we asked.
America responds bluntly.
“In the world of technology there are many people who are doing things for the individual’s convenience: an application to look for parking, or to make purchases in the market or to find parking”, she says. “We do not have any interest in developing the last application to find a fiancée. What we want is to do something with a social impact.”
But deep down, the motivation is very personal: both grew, with their parents in the Ramona Gardens public housing project in East Los Angeles and they were “very scared” when they were little, as both say.
“The Mexican Mafia controlled the project and all we lived in a constant fear of walking on the wrong street,” says Penelope. “We lived there for a long time, in that box, afraid.”
Now they look for, not only to excel in an area that inspires them – computers and computer systems- but to contribute in solving social problems, whether a crime, such as sex trafficking, or lack of Latinas and Latinos in the technology area.
Latinos in Tech?
America and Penelope Lopez are 25 years old and come from East Los Angeles where, traditionally, most of the young people do not have much access to computers or computer classes.
But both are opening a path that leads, not only to a professional future in the technological area, but also to become mentors and leaders for other young people so they can achieve it as well.
Penelope studies “Computer Information Systems” at Cal State LA and America is attending Pasadena College. They recently returned from an eight-month training class in San Francisco and just last week, they attended the Facebook conference in Palo Alto.
They gave them a virtual reality system there, a technology that both want to study.
“Now some companies are interested in helping underrepresented minorities to have access to this technology, which is extremely expensive,” explains America. “Let’s be honest, the technological world is full of white boys and Asians, no Latinos.”
In this, the twins also want to be a positive influence. They help as far as possible with the LA´s Best after the school program, talking to children about technology Also they help classmates to connect with resources and mentors who approach them [the twins].
The youngsters say that, if their mother had not got a computer as a reward after attending a class when they were in elementary school, it would have had never begun in this way.
Their fascination with learning helped them get mentors and attend, by chance, to the so-called hackathons,” 24-hour events sponsored by groups or companies offering beginners access to the latest technology and to teach them how to use them.
“But almost all of them are in the west side, where there are not Latinos,” the girls say.
“Young people need to be exposed to the technology and to have mentors who help them, because it is very difficult to make it by ourselves,” says America. “When people welcome you with open arms and tells you that this is your place, it is when you can succeed.”