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Tenacity Drives Immigrant's Dream

Jose Tenas and his niece, Anna Gonzales, read food orders in the kitchen of Cuna del Sol.
Jose Tenas, who just opened his first restaurant in Manassas, Va., is striving to be part of America's fast-growing immigrant entrepreneurial class. (Margaret Thomas)
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005

Jose Tenas holds a piece of paper and stares at the word circled in blue ink: "REJECTED."

His 20-year-old daughter, Yasmin, helps him translate the fire marshal's report. The sprinklers are dirty and need cleaning, she reads.

Tenas calls the landlord. "Right now the fire marshal just came. He said we need to fix the sprinklers. My daughter will explain to you," he says in halting English, as he struggles with yet another delay in his effort to open his restaurant. He then hands the phone to Yasmin.

Tenas came to the United States from Guatemala almost 18 years ago. For six years, he managed the kitchen at a Centreville pub, directing the cooks and grilling steaks and burgers. Then last fall, he left his $45,000-a-year job, took out a $90,000 home equity loan and accepted another $90,000 loan from his nephew to start the business. He named his restaurant after the area where he grew up, Cuna del Sol, which means cradle of the sun.

"If one doesn't risk, they don't win," he recalled telling his wife the day he decided to quit his job and become part of the region's fast-growing immigrant entrepreneurial class.

Politicians tout the defense, biotech and technology firms that set up shop in their districts. But in many pockets of the region -- such as Manassas, Arlington, Woodbridge, Gaithersburg, Langley Park and Mount Pleasant -- immigrant entrepreneurs are creating jobs and transforming the economy by moving into aging strip malls, abandoned shops and older offices and opening restaurants, grocery stores, barbershops, painting firms and landscape businesses.

Like Tenas, many of these entrepreneurs struggle with English, have never owned a business, have only a few assets and are bewildered by the confusing tangle of regulations that face many small businesses.

The financial stakes can be high. Studies show that restaurants are expensive to start and require more permits and approvals than almost any other kind of small business. On top of that, three of five restaurants close within the first three years.

Yet some immigrants are by nature risk-takers. When Tenas boarded a bus in Guatemala nearly two decades ago, he left his wife and children behind. He spent 16 days crossing through Mexico on foot and by train and rode illegally into California on the back of a truck.

A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that the same tenacity immigrants draw upon to leave their home countries makes them a little more likely to take the entrepreneurial plunge. The rate of self-employment for immigrants is 9.3 percent, compared with 8.2 percent for others.

It is highest among those who come from countries with large numbers of self-employed people. Tenas's father farmed and sold vegetables. His mother sold bread from their home. He quit school in third grade to help her.

"Life was really hard, but that taught us to know life and respect people," said the 43-year-old Tenas.

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