Humberto S. Lopez’s earliest memories are of the ranch his family owned outside Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, in northern Mexico.
“I remember being chased by a goat,” he says, laughing.
The family mostly lived in the city, but with Lopez’s father in the ranching business, they were often out in the countryside.
“We used to go down to the ranch to ride the horses, milk the cows. It was fun for a kid.”
This idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end in 1957, when Lopez’s father died suddenly at age 51, leaving behind a wife and six children. Lopez, known as Bert, was the oldest at 11 years old; the youngest was one and a half.
“My father died without a will,” Lopez says. “My mother was an American citizen, and she didn’t know how to fight it. She never got anything my father had in Mexico.”
The impoverished family moved to Nogales, Arizona, to live with Lopez’s grandmother. The children spoke only Spanish, but they made quick work of learning English in the local public school.
Though he was just 11, Lopez immediately started working — “selling newspapers, knocking on the doors of neighbors, cutting grass, taking out weeds. Whatever needed to be done,” he says. Despite his efforts, his mother had to get welfare to keep the family afloat.
“You had to get in line,” he recalls. “My mother would get so embarrassed. She would have her head down. I remember holding her hand and telling her, ‘One day I’m going to take care of you. You won’t have to go through this.’”
When he grew up, he kept his promise.
Lopez got a degree in accounting in 1969 from the University of Arizona business school (now the Eller College of Management). Six years after graduation, he cofounded HSL Properties, which today is one of Arizona’s largest apartment and hotel owner-operated property management companies.
Currently, “We have 11 hotels, with over 2,000 rooms,” Lopez says proudly. “We have owned and operated over 30,000 apartments. We currently operate and own 11,000. We also own shopping centers, office and industrial buildings, including an interest in an automobile dealership. You name it, we have been involved.” The company currently employs approximately 2,000 employees.
But Lopez has never forgotten what it was like to be poor. Beyond fulfilling his promise to help his mother, he and his wife, Czarina Lopez, are widely known in Southern Arizona for their philanthropy, and in 2004, they created The H.S. Lopez Family Foundation for their philanthropic giving.
“We’ve been charitable throughout our lives,” Lopez says. After setting aside trusts for their two daughters and four grandchildren, the Lopezes intend for “100% of our wealth to go to the foundation.”
In 2018, the foundation bought a 301-room hotel in Tucson and converted it into a homeless shelter, The H.S. Lopez Family Foundation Center of Opportunity.
The couple also gives generously to UArizona, the institution that launched Lopez into his successful career. Recently, they gave $3.5 million to endow two academic chairs.
One gift, of $2 million, creates the Endowed Chair for Excellence in Cardiovascular Research at the Sarver Heart Center in the College of Medicine –Tucson. This university medical center is literally close to the Lopezes’ hearts: Czarina was once a patient there.
“By establishing this endowed chair,” says Nancy Sweitzer, director of the Sarver Heart Center, “they have in perpetuity expanded our ability to recruit world-class faculty.”
The other gift, of $1.5 million, establishes the Dhaliwal-HSLopez Chair in Accounting at the Eller College. It honors the late Dan Dhaliwal, department head in accounting from 1996 to his death in 2016.
“Dan was a very good friend of mine,” Lopez says. “He was highly regarded and appreciated by the school.”
The accounting department was crucial to Lopez’s life work, but he almost missed the chance to study there.
By the time Lopez was in high school in Nogales, he was working full time to support his mother and siblings.
“I started working at a grocery store at the age of 16 and worked in the store until I graduated,” he says. “I was working 40 to 44 hours a week.” He’d get out of school at 3 in the afternoon and work until 10:30 at night. “My only day off was Sunday.”
But his grades suffered, and his plans to go to UArizona were dashed when the school counselor told him he was not “university material.”
Lopez quickly regrouped. He enrolled in Cochise College, a community college in Douglas. He got a job in the campus cafeteria, but he also followed the lesson he’d learned from high school: He made sure he did his homework. He went to classes all morning, worked at midday, and studied all afternoon.
“I had very good grades,” he says. “I transferred to the university and did the same thing: I was a hasher (waiter) in a fraternity, and I’d get my free meal at lunch.” He took all his classes in the morning, worked at lunchtime, and studied the rest of the day.
In two years, he graduated with an accounting major. He and Czarina, who is from Mexico, married and headed off to Los Angeles, just in time for the California real estate boom. He took an offer from accounting firm Deloitte, Haskins & Sells, and because he made a point of working with the company’s real estate clients, he quickly became an expert in real estate.
Lopez experimented by buying a residential lot in 1971 by borrowing $1,000 from his uncle. Six months later, he sold it for a $3,000 profit. He was hooked.
Six years in, he left Deloitte and opened an accounting practice with his friend Glenn Toyoshima. Toyoshima handled accounting clients while Lopez bought and sold properties around the country. Before long, they shut down the accounting business and went full throttle into real estate.
“We took off!” Lopez says gleefully. “I was the deal maker. I’d negotiate the buy, and Glenn would carry it to closing.”
They made so much money that Lopez retired – briefly – at the age of 34 and moved back to Tucson with his family, which by then included a 10-year-old daughter. They were blessed with a second daughter 16 years later.
Not surprisingly, spending days on the golf course didn’t suit Lopez. He soon jumped back into the game: buying, selling, and, eventually, building.
Over his long career, he scored lots of wins and weathered four recessions.
“Every time, I come out better than before,’’ he says. “I always have cash. I’m able to survive.”
The coronavirus pandemic hit his hotels hard, but Lopez is optimistic that travelers will be eager to come back. In the meantime, he’s excited about the company’s current project in downtown Tucson, building luxury apartments on the site of the old La Placita Village commercial complex, which was demolished.
His nephew, Omar Mireles, is now at the helm of the business. At age 75, Lopez is acting as chairman, he says. “I still work 60 hours a week. I call it ‘work,’ but it is exactly what I like to do.”
He’s also busy with the homeless shelter. Operated by local nonprofits, it has everything in one place: Besides getting food and shelter, guests have access to “everything they would need, from dental, medical, addiction programs, mental health,” Lopez says proudly. “The last few months, the shelter has been placing an average of over 50 residents of the center into jobs.”
Prior to the pandemic, he adds, “We had six states coming in to see what we’re doing. I want to make it a model to the country.”
Looking back on the rough times in his childhood, Lopez declares, “I had a good life. If I had to do it all over again, that’s exactly the way I would want to grow up. It taught me how to work hard.”