Speaking in code with computer science prize winners America and Penelope Lopez

Cal State L.A. computer science major Penelope Lopez and her twin sister America took the top prize in the Women in Tech Challenge at the 2015 AT&T Developer Summit and Hackathon held in January in Las Vegas. .

Penelope (left) and America Lopez in the Cal State L.A. 24-hour Access Lab | Cal State L.A.


Growing up in the Ramona Gardens housing projects twins America and Penelope Lopez did not know what computer science was, let alone coding languages like Python or Ruby. In January America and Penelope took home the top prize from the Women in Tech Challenge in Las Vegas, where they participated in a 24-hour hackathon, designing a body camera application that includes face-recognition technology. Privacy and transparency were on the minds of the 24-year-old twins, who were inspired by the recent police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

But before the hackathons and body cameras, Penelope took a robotics course at Cal State L.A. The course prompted Penelope to invite her older sister — by five minutes — to a coding event.

“My interest with computers started when my sister convinced me that Meetup.com was not a dating website and that we could learn how to code going to meetup groups,” says America.

To say the sisters are busy would be an understatement. On top hosting and teaching courses on basic coding languages, and now creating a tutorial website for beginners, both sisters sit on the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council. And recently they received accolades for their win at the Women in Tech Challenge from Supervisor Hilda Solis. In this interview they touch on coding with kids, Latina/o influence in tech, their first computer and riding around town on their Honda Rebel 250cc.

Do you feel that the LAUSD provided you an adequate exposure to the tech world? Did you have to go out of your neighborhood to attend competitions, conferences, workshops or other events?

Penelope: We had to go to hackathons because it [was]where students like us could try out the latest hardware, APIs and software and go stalk the top notch experts all night long  and have them teach us a thing or two about how to use their product or service. We attend conferences a lot up in the Bay Area to keep up to speed in tech.

America: I did not learn how to program in high school, but I’m very proud to be a Lincoln Tiger. I was a bit surprised when legislation passed that all LAUSD high school students had to pass all UC requirements in order to graduate from high school, but computer science is not being taken as a serious issue. Computer science and data science are the future and not having enough computer-literate students would have them miss out on the opportunity these jobs provide. I see parents so focused on looking for dual language programs in charter schools and in LAUSD schools, but they are ignoring the opportunity to demand schools teach code as a second language. Students should be given the option to learn two years of Spanish or take two years of Java, Python or Ruby or Rails or any other coding language to satisfy their high school requirements. You will be surprised how far students will go.

Who first sparked your curiosity with computers? Are they still in your lives?

America: LA’s BEST program staff sparked our curiosity with computers when we were little, but there were no coding activities. Surprisingly we gave a talk at the Los Angeles Public Library to kids from the LA’s BEST program last month. The kids already knew how to program in Scratch. The tech we showed to the kids was virtual reality and motion-sensing technology.

Penelope: We had them try the virtual reality headset known as the Oculus, trying out a roller-coaster game and it was quite funny because many of them have not ridden a roller coaster due to height restriction at the theme park – they were third graders. We taught them how to quickly program their Scratch games with the Xbox 360 Kinect. We had them play a shark game. The kids control the shark in the game, and when they spread their arm wide, the shark mouth opens, and when they close their hands, the shark mouth closes.

What is the current atmosphere in the tech sector like for women? For Latinas?

Penelope: They do not take equity pay for women as a serious issue. I admire this one woman governor from Rhode Island who started an equity pay hotline for employees to report companies” that discriminate.

America: Because there are not enough Latinas and females prepared enough for tech jobs, it puts Latinas in the double minority. That means we are a minority for being women in tech, but we become a minority in that minority for being Latinas in tech. Given this status, we have to overcome even higher and stricter expectations from the tech sector due to our race, gender or both. We are breaking glass ceilings for taking on this challenge.

How did your family first respond when you told them you wanted to get a computer? What is their response now?

America: The digital divide is real. We couldn’t afford one when we lived in the Ramona Garden’s housing projects. It was not a possibility until my mom attended a computer training class for parents while we were attending Murchison Elementary School. When she completed the class, the training program gave all the parents a Gateway Desktop computer and that’s how we first got started with computers.

Penelope: We didn’t have a public library in Ramona Garden’s and the elementary school didn’t have their computer lab open very often for after school programs. So we asked for a computer to do our work and Mom found a way.

The both of you ride a motorcycle, is that right?

America: Yes, we love to ride the Honda Rebel 250cc. We love riding with East Side Moto Babes Club in Los Angeles. They are a great community for bikers to get together and ride out in town. We share the motorcycle together.

Penelope: The motorcycle is perfect for our student budget and it’s the only thing that can keep up with us when we want to go to tech conferences, meetups, and hackathons that are close by.

The Lopez sisters and their Honda | LACC Foundation.

Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis’ stories, reviews and photos at Avenue Meander.

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