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Immigrant Sends Hope Back Home

Jose Barahona Is a Successful Businessman Here, But He Hasn't Forgotten His Native El Salvador

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2004; Page E01

Six years ago, Jose Barahona purchased an 800-acre coconut farm on the Jiquilisco Bay in El Salvador with money he made from an Annandale-based cleaning company.

There were no roads or electricity on the land, but the sand was a sparkling gray and the water a brilliant greenish-blue. Barahona envisioned a Salvadoran Cancun, so he is trying to raise money to build hotels, restaurants, a fishing resort and a golf course. "I'm always looking for an opportunity anyplace I go," Barahona said.

The elderly residents of a home in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, are among the beneficiaries of Jose Barahona's philanthropy. He gave $10,000 to the church-sponsored home. (Lissette Monterrosa -- El Diario De Hoy)

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In three and a half decades, Barahona has gone from illegal immigrant to orderly at Suburban Hospital to co-owner of a federal contracting company, Able Services Contractor Inc., to owner of two popular chicken restaurants, part of the Pollo Campero chain.

Barahona, 60, who became a U.S. citizen in 1984, acquired the local franchise for the Guatemalan fried chicken chain. He has restaurants in Falls Church and Herndon and plans to open stores in Langley Park and Wheaton. Sales at the Falls Church restaurant, which opened in 2003, topped $60,000 its opening weekend, according to Pollo Campero.

Barahona declined to say how much money he has made or invested in any projects. He did say that much of the money has gone to Central America to buy a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, invest in a Salvadoran iguana farm and to buy the beachfront property. He manages his investments via cell phone and bimonthly trips to El Salvador. His frequent visits there contrast with the 23 years he spent without returning to his homeland because of the political instability brought on by a civil war.

Barahona's enterprises are examples of the financial ties that Salvadoran entrepreneurs have forged between the Washington region and Central America. As more immigrants become financially successful, those ties are expected to strengthen. "We have to give people hope and better jobs so they don't have to come here. We have to start creating more respectable jobs over there," Barahona said.

Barahona, who left El Salvador at 25, was born on a farm in Potonico, a rural Salvadoran town. One of 12 children in a poor family, he left his parents' home at age 10 after his father, a sugar-cane farmer, died. He was sent to work the land of an upper-class family, the Varahonas, who he said treated him almost like one of their own.

Barahona went to public school through the seventh grade and at age 16 became a liaison between the Varahonas and their workers. He measured the coffee and cotton picked by thousands of workers on the plantation and paid them in cash based on the weight of their harvest. "He was always very anxious and restless and a very hard worker," said Roberto Varahona, a Salvadoran civil engineer and financier a few years older than Barahona. "When he reached a certain age, he told us, 'I have to look for other opportunities.' "

In 1970, Barahona arrived illegally in San Francisco, where he studied English and found work as a sidewalk repairman. On a friend's advice, he moved to Washington in 1974 and found work as an orderly at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. He obtained a temporary work visa and months later took a housekeeping position at Sibley Memorial Hospital. There he met an intensive-care nurse from upstate New York, Kathy, whom he married.

Soon after they married, Barahona decided to start his own business. He had taken classes that taught him the rules and procedures that janitorial-service companies must follow, but realized it would be difficult. "I'm very good in producing ideas, but I have some limit in books and the language and explaining the law," he said. "It was very difficult. One bank denied me a $50,000 credit line. They said: 'Jose, your papers are looking very good, but come to us in two years.' I say the reason was my broken English. They think I'm going to be a risky loan."

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