“It was in 1997. There was a war in El Salvador.”
Jaime Alfaro recalled a turning point in his life as he leaned against a table in the back of Cleaners of Takoma Park, a small dry-cleaning store filled with shirts, suits, pants and more.
At 17, living in El Salvador, Alfaro said, he was afraid of being pulled into the fights that continued even after the country’s civil war had come to an official end. He came to the United States.
He still can remember the date and time he arrived in Bethesda: July 27, 1997, 12 p.m.
Only a few days after the trip that removed him from the danger of war and placed him in a new country, he landed a job at the dry-cleaning business near where he lived. It’s the business he now owns.
Taking a break from the steady customer traffic one recent Saturday afternoon, Alfaro recalled his start at the business, which then was in Bethesda. Alfaro, of Aspen Hill, said he began as a rookie.
In El Salvador, he said, “I didn’t know dry cleaning exists.”
He began by delivering clothes and doing “a little of everything,” he said. He learned the ropes through hard work and the help of the family who owned the business, including Greg Moorin, whom Alfaro said was “very young” himself.
“When I arrived over here, I was by myself, I was 17 years old, and actually [Greg] is one of the men who [taught] me a lot of things,” he said.
Moorin was also the person who taught him the game of pool, which he now plays regularly. Billiards took Alfaro to Las Vegas twice for tournaments, in 2011 and last year.
Alfaro said he worked toward owning the business — a goal he achieved about four years ago.
“That’s one of my purposes in working hard, to learn the professional way to dry clean,” he said.
Hard work has been part of his life since he was young, Alfaro said. He was an active worker on his family’s farm in San Juan, starting at 8.
The farm, he said, was home to “lambs, calves, every kind of animal . . . except elephants.”
But his family would be forced to leave their home, Alfaro said, to get away from enemies of the army, in which his dad was enlisted.
“We left that place just with our clothes. We left everything,” he said. They ran away “because, by that time, they followed my dad. . . . They followed those kind of persons and they just kill. Just like that. No matter what.”
About five years later, Alfaro said, he asked his father to go to the United States to avoid either side of the ongoing conflict recruiting him and forcing him to fight with little or no training.
“They don’t give you training,” he said. “They always pick you up . . . and they just put you right away in front, fighting.”
After getting his father’s permission, Alfaro — the oldest of seven siblings — came to the United States alone, and illegally, but gained citizenship a couple years later. Over time, his parents, brothers and sisters joined him.
Alfaro said that he, like many others in similar situations, took on a lot of responsibility when he moved to the United States and worked not only to support himself, but also the people he left behind.
“Whoever lives over here [and] got business or doing better . . . [is] still supporting a lot of people over there, like families or friends that really need help,” he said.
Although the Old Takoma business has seen tough times, he said, its situation is improving. Alfaro remains a familiar face to his customers, many of whom are regulars.
John Godfrey of Takoma Park said he has brought his clothes to the business for more than a decade, a trip that has become “a morning ritual” on Saturdays.
Those trips include chatting with Alfaro about pool, soccer and family, said Godfrey, who shouted “See ya, Jaime!” as he left the store.
John Cavanagh and Robin Broad of Takoma Park — who have visited the area of El Salvador where Alfaro is from — said their conversations often turn to pupusas, a Salvadoran dish.
“It’s business, but then you just have these little conversations, or big conversations, on the side,” Cavanagh said.
Rosy Hill of Takoma Park said she has worked at the store about a month and already has struck up a friendly soccer rivalry with Alfaro.
“He’s a Barcelona fan, and I’m a Madrid fan,” she said, as a small TV in the store was tuned to a soccer match.
Hill said she has heard from Alfaro about his pool playing, his family and his life in El Salvador and loved to hear how he overcame his struggles.
Alfaro said he is happy with where life has brought him.
“I’m a family guy, I own a place, I have a place to stay, I’m a citizen, and I’m a good person,” he said.