About 15 minutes after Andreas "Elmer" Arias sat down for a meal of tacos and enchiladas at a Salvadoran restaurant in Arlington, a man on his lunch break walked over to greet him.
"You're always in a meeting," he said to Arias in Spanish, before loudly advising all diners in earshot that Salvadorans living in Washington region who "don't know Elmer . . . don't know anyone."
Restaurateur Andreas "Elmer" Arias is president of the Salvadoran American Chamber of Commerce.
(Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
Arias is well known in the Washington area's Salvadoran community for the role he has played in raising the visibility of Salvadoran business concerns. He has worked to unify the thousands of Salvadoran businesses that have been established here in recent years and to leverage the size of the group to get support from large American corporations for Salvadoran communities.
This year he has served as president of the Salvadoran American Chamber of Commerce, president of a civic association called the Cuscatlan Latino Center and president of the 20-team Central American Soccer League. He also owns La Hacienda, a popular Salvadoran restaurant in Springfield.
"I want to see my community grow," Arias said recently. "We're well known for being hard workers. We do our jobs, but I want to also see that our children do not have to go through what we went through."
The majority of the Arlington-based chamber of commerce's membership, like Arias, emigrated from El Salvador in the 1990s to escape the country's bloody civil war. Salvadorans are the largest immigrant group in the Washington area, with 104,000 counted in the 2000 Census. By the three-year-old Salvadoran chamber's count, 3,000 now own businesses.
In the nine months that he has been president, the chamber has held a series of workshops to teach its 135 members how to get a business started and how to apply for a U.S. Small Business Administration loan. The group has also crafted workshop sponsorship agreements with Royal Ahold's US Foodservice's Manassas division, Chantilly-based Budweiser distributor King Wholesaler Inc. and local branches of Citibank and BB&T Corp.
"Some large corporations listen. Others ignore us, but we have the data," Arias said. "Salvadorans who started as dishwashers and cooks are buying the restaurant when the owner retires. Many Salvadorans are making good money. They know our community is big and is growing in all kinds of business."
Next year, Arias wants the chamber to grow its membership to 500 and link with Salvadoran business chambers in Los Angeles, Houston and seven other cities.
He will also spend time working with another of his causes: pressing Salvadoran immigrant groups to direct more of the $2 billion they send to El Salvador to projects that produce jobs. Last year, he and community activist Jose Ramos joined the Pan-American Development Foundation, a Washington nonprofit group associated with the Organization of American States, to build a processing plant for an agricultural cooperative in a rural Salvadoran town creating 48 jobs. Next year, Arias said, they plan to raise $15,000 to build a similar plant for a group of poor Salvadoran women who peel and sell the tangy tamarind plant.
"I would like to see the community invest in productive projects," Arias said. "For many years we have invested in infrastructure or daily sustenance of our families, who are waiting for the remittances. They have become dependent on them. We have paralyzed the country. We need to create jobs."