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Tenacity Drives Immigrant's Dream
Guatemalan Restaurateur Is One of Many Transforming Area's Economy

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.

Scouting a Location

Less than 24 hours after saying goodbye to his former co-workers in the fall, Tenas headed to a brown-brick strip mall in Manassas about 10 miles from his home. It contained a Benjamin Moore Paint store, a Big Joe's Pizza restaurant, H&R Block, Leticia's Barbershop and the Holy Family Catholic gift store. At the center sat an empty storefront that used to house an Italian restaurant. Tenas took over the eatery's $2,400-a-month lease.

Tenas thought the place ripe for a Guatemalan restaurant. The Latino population in Prince William has been surging, doubling in 10 years to 47,000, as immigrants stream to the suburbs in search of affordable housing. "The apartment complex down the street is full of Latinos," he said as he pulls up to the restaurant. "They can walk here."

A few months after entering the country in 1988, Tenas and a cousin moved to Northern Virginia, drawn by rumors of jobs. His wife, Maribel, came a couple of years later. Back then he was working double shifts flipping burgers for McDonald's without a work visa. Maribel found work as a babysitter. Each month they sent $200 or $300 to their children in Guatemala.

Tenas was finally able to get a work visa in 1997, when he became kitchen manager at the pub in Centreville and the general manager sponsored him. That summer he moved his children -- then 12, 11 and 9 -- from Guatemala into the crowded house he owned with his wife, his brother, his sister-in-law and his sister in Manassas. Four years later, Tenas and Maribel sold their interest in the little house to his brother Otto and bought a nearby $250,000 two-story house with a big porch.

Now his oldest, Yasmin, is in her second year at Northern Virginia Community College, Milvia will soon graduate from high school and Eric Jose wants to join the U.S. Navy.

Tenas spent much of the Christmas season buying supplies -- dishes, lamp shades, tables, chairs, a stove with six flames and a restaurant-size oven. He paid contractors $25,000 to fix the fireplace in the dining room. He had hoped to open by the end of the year, but the rejection by the fire marshal a few days after Christmas made that unlikely.

Latinos stopped by each day asking, " Cuando vas a abrir ?"

Tenas has no idea when he will open. He tells them next month.

A $10,000 Change

One day in January, a Prince William County code compliance coordinator calls Tenas to a meeting at the county's red-brick administration building. He is one of half a dozen county staffers Tenas must deal with to get the seven permits he needs to open Cuna del Sol.

At the meeting, Tenas is relieved to find a county engineering assistant who speaks Spanish. The guy explains to Tenas that the big stove and oven and other changes to the kitchen require him to file new architectural plans for the restaurant. The government orders him to stop any remodeling in the restaurant until a new set of architectural plans are drawn and approved. The permits he has applied for are all rejected.

"They are just doing their jobs," Tenas says after the meeting, but he has made a costly mistake. An architect charges Tenas $10,000 to draft the plans.

The difficulties Tenas faces brings out his faith. "God willing, I will open this restaurant," he says. Tenas prays constantly. After he pays the architect $10,000, he begins to fast. No water. No food. "I am giving a sacrifice to God," he tells his family. His wife persuades him to begin eating again after two days.

In 1997, the census counted 695 businesses owned by Latinos in Prince William County. By all accounts that number has risen, but the county lacks the kind of Latino outreach services found in the District and Montgomery County, which have official government liaisons to Latino communities and translate many documents into Spanish. Prince William has plans to offer its employees stipends for proficiency in a second language. The county has a brochure that lays out its permitting process step by step, but it has not been translated into Spanish and Tenas cannot understand it.

By March, Tenas has submitted the new architectural plan to the county. He drives over to the building development office every few days to ask whether the plans are approved. The other workers, contractors and small-business owners sign in to get help from the next available representative behind the L-shaped counter, but Tenas ignores the protocol. He hangs back watching for 15 minutes until the Spanish-speaking engineering assistant passes through.

" Buenos días ," Tenas says to catch the employee's attention. They speak in Spanish.

"I came to check on my plans," Tenas says softly.

The engineering assistant goes to the back to inquire, but the plans are not ready.

"You should have an answer tomorrow," he tells Tenas, shaking his hand.

Tenas thanks the man, but mutters, " Mañana, mañana . . . Tomorrow, tomorrow," as he leaves the building.

He drives directly over to the county's health department, which also is reviewing the architectural plans.

The health inspector slides Tenas a three-page letter under a glass partition. Tenas takes the letter outside into the afternoon sun and reads it quickly.

"I think everything is okay," he says, smiling, not understanding that the county had just asked him to make 25 changes to his architectural plan in order to win the health department's approval. Tenas later faxes a copy of the letter to the bilingual architect he hired.

The delays begin to take a toll on Tenas. His daughters worry about him. He loses five pounds. His hair grows a little long and bags settle under his eyes. Every month the credit card bills get higher and higher.

For advice and consolation, Tenas calls Andreas "Elmer" Arias, a Northern Virginia businessman from El Salvador who helped him find the restaurant site. "This is a nightmare," Tenas tells him. "Hang in there," Arias says.

Tenas has spent more than $250,000. About $70,000 of that is credit card debt. Arias says Tenas's situation is not normal. Some Latinos have faced obstacles, but with an investment of $150,000 and three months, most open. If it takes longer than that, most just give up, Arias says.

In May the county approves the architectural plans for Cuna del Sol.

Inspection Gantlet

Tenas begins preparing for the seven inspections required for final approval to open his restaurant.

He easily passes the gas, plumbing, mechanical and electrical inspections. The next inspection is the one that worries him most. On a Wednesday morning in June, the spectacled, balding health inspector arrives with black briefcase in hand.

Inside Cuna del Sol, the strong air conditioner keeps the heat outside at bay. The tables are set with red, purple and orange cloths sent by Tenas's mother from Guatemala.

Tenas shadows the inspector as he walks from the front of the restaurant to the back with his clipboard. He points out a small space between the cabinets and the wall. Bugs can enter there. A violation of code 1550.

He pulls on another old cabinet and it nearly falls down.

He continues inspecting the place, and leaves a yellow list of 20 code violations and stamps the form NOT APPROVED.

Tenas is determined to make the changes within 24 hours. He calls Franklin Muñoz, a contractor from Venezuela who has become a friend, and they work until 1 a.m. Muñoz, calling Tenas a brother, says Tenas does not have to pay him until his restaurant opens.

On Friday morning, Yasmin, her brother and cousin skip breakfast and arrive at Cuna del Sol by 8 a.m. Yasmin takes a broom and sweeps away the dust the contractors left. The place smells of Ajax when the same inspector pulls up a few hours later.

"We tried to do the best we can," Tenas says. He is at the inspector's heels. Eric Jose, who skipped the last day of school to be here, follows closely behind his dad.

It looks a lot better, the inspector says when he walks into the kitchen. Light bulbs in the hood have been changed and the kitchen is brighter.

The health inspector is making checks on his paper. Yasmin and her cousin look on, giggling. The inspector tells Tenas that he passed.

Later that day, Tenas easily passes the fire marshal's inspection.

"If this is all I need, why wait? Let's go!" he says to Yasmin and Eric Jose. "I've passed all the inspections," he laughs.

"Let's go, homies," Eric Jose says. His iPod is tuned to rapper 50 Cent.

Eric Jose goes with his dad to the county administration building. When they step up to the counter, Tenas asks for his occupancy permit.

"What is the permit number?" the administrator asks.

"2005-11118," Tenas says slowly, like a prisoner reciting his inmate ID number.

She clicks on her computer, pulls up his record and says, "You're not ready yet."

Tenas drops the humility he has carried into this office week after week and sternly jabs his finger. "You have it," he says.

She pulls his manila file from a cabinet in the back. All of the permits are in order and she hands him a certificate of use and occupancy.

Tenas hugs his son.

"All of this for a piece of paper," Eric Jose says.

Opening With a Prayer

On opening day, July 1, Tenas and his son pull up to Cuna del Sol at 5 a.m. greeted by chirping birds. A half-hour later, one of the prep cooks, Anna Martinez, shows up. She is one of only two people who work at the restaurant who is not related to Tenas. She and Tenas enter the kitchen and bow their heads on the stainless-steel table. Martinez says a lengthy, fervent prayer in Spanish. Tenas closes his eyes tightly, clasps his hands and moves his lips silently.

"Bless this business, Holy Father. With you there is nothing impossible, my God," she says.

In a bowl Martinez mixes kosher salt with water and rose petals. Tenas picks up a worn Bible, and they walk backward from the back door to the front door.

He reads the 91st Psalm as they walk: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. . . ." Martinez sprinkles the salt water and rose petal mixture throughout the restaurant.

The blessing is complete and the kitchen mobilizes for its real test: paying customers.

At 10 a.m. they pop in a compact disc of Mexican romantic music . At 10:13 a.m. a guy named Rich calls in the first order, a Plato Tipico with enchiladas totaling $18. Tenas takes the first dollar out of the register to be framed. Customers and phone-in orders continue to trickle in. By noon the cash register drawer pops in and out, filling with bills.

At lunchtime, La Campeona radio station's emblem-emblazoned van pulls up in front of Cuna del Sol. Tenas has paid the Spanish-language station $300 to do a remote broadcast. He takes a break from the kitchen for a live interview.

"We have a friend here. A brother Guatemalan," the radio announcer says. "The owner of Cuna del Sol, Jose Tenas. Say good afternoon."

"Here we are waiting for the entire Hispanic community," Tenas says. "You are welcome."

An Inspiration

Each day, Cuna del Sol is filled with Latinos. A week after the opening, pupusas, nachos, and steak and onions are taking 15 or 20 minutes to cook rather than 30 or 40. Tenas is no longer stuck near the grill. When there is no rush of orders, he mingles with customers or orders more food. He's expecting another credit card bill to come soon and this month Tenas will begin paying off the debt.

He hires a Honduran neighbor to run food from the kitchen to the tables, and Tenas's younger brother comes by on his days off as a manager at McDonald's to help bus tables. After a week of juggling her schedule, his niece Anabella quits her job at Logan's Roadhouse and begins working in Cuna del Sol's kitchen full time.

Tenas's brother Otto is now kitchen manager at the Centreville pub. He leans on the door frame, watching the dance of the cooks preparing the rich food, and dreams of one day opening a restaurant of his own.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company