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.
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."
In 1978, Barahona and a friend of his, Buddy Erdman, an American he worked with at Sibley, put their savings together and started Able Services Contractors Inc. Barahona, who became president, owned 55 percent of the company, and Erdman, who became vice president, owned the rest.
In 1984, Able entered the U.S. Small Business Administration's 8(a) program, which sets aside contracts for small and disadvantaged businesses. By the late 1980s, Able had about 800 employees and contracts with federal agencies and private companies, including Washington Gas and Georgetown University, Barahona said. He said that over 25 years, Able got work visas for 994 people, mostly from Central America. Eighty percent of the company's employees were Salvadorans, many of whom fled the civil war there.
The early 1990s were tough years for the company. In 1992, Able had to leave the 8(a) program because federal rules permit companies to participate for only a certain number of years. In 1993, Erdman died. A short time later, a group of Able employees sued the company, alleging that Able had not paid them time and a half for working overtime and on weekends. Able settled with the employees out of court.
Over the next few years, Able's business, faced with stiff competition, fell off. It now has about 300 employees. In 2001, Barahona sold his share of the company to his two children, now 21 and 24, for an undisclosed amount. Able's estimated sales for this year are $1.8 million, according to a Dun and Bradstreet report.
Barahona turned his attention to his other investments and nonprofit work. In the mid-1980s, he had bought a coffee plantation in Costa Rica for an undisclosed amount, before worldwide coffee prices sank. Now, with the beans worth only about 50 cents a pound, he said he gives most of the harvest to the plantation workers.
In 1990, Barahona bought a farm in Orlando, from which sand is mined.
In 1996, he invested in a Salvadoran company that breeds and exports 120,000 pet iguanas each year. Barahona earns a percentage of the company's profit, which he would not disclose. He liked the investment because iguanas bring back fond childhood memories of El Salvador, where iguanas are considered one of the country's natural assets. The company donates about 5 percent of its iguanas to rural areas of El Salvador, where the iguana population has thinned, he said.
Barahona has a number of social investments in El Salvador, which began when he returned in 1993 after an agreement was signed to end the civil war. "I saw so many children with nothing," he said.
He met Jesus Antonio Carpio, a Catholic priest in the Salvadoran town of Zacatecoluca. Barahona and Carpio became friends, and Barahona began donating money to Carpio's projects, including $10,000 to build a home for the elderly and $1,000 a month over three years to support a Catholic orphanage.
The home for the elderly, which houses about 80 men and women, was built with money from Salvadorans living in the United States. Barahona is one of the largest donors. A pewter plaque bearing his name is nailed atop one of the men's dormitory rooms. Frail 80 year olds -- some found on the streets of San Salvador, others abandoned by their families -- roll through the gray building in wheelchairs or amble along slowly. They are cared for by nuns.
Five minutes away is the orphanage, which houses 43 children. Their twin beds, school uniforms and shoes are paid for by donors such as Barahona. Once a year, Barahona takes the children to a fancy brunch in a nearby hotel. "His help is much needed," Carpio said. "With this kind of help, we can increase the number of needy people we help."
Barahona said he has also paid people's rent and medical bills. A poster on his office wall displays photos of a young Salvadoran girl with patches over her eyes, holding a pink-haired doll. Without a $3,000 operation, she would have gone blind. Barahona paid the bill.
As Barahona's involvement in El Salvador increased, he enlisted Carpio as his legal representative, giving Carpio the power to sign contracts and negotiate deals for Barahona in the country. Barahona's largest project in El Salvador involves the resort planned for the bay of Jiquilisco, which Carpio helps him manage. Carpio said Barahona acquired the property by paying off its debt, which was a little over half a million dollars.
On a recent afternoon, Barahona sat in his office, reclining in his green leather chair. He wore a gray suit and orange tie decorated with drawings of chicken and pigs.
His office is a reflection of his past. There's an aerial photo of his hometown in El Salvador. Nearby is a 1999 certificate from Republican members of the U.S. Senate thanking him for his financial support. He said he was politically active in the Republican Party in the 1990s because he believed its policies were most beneficial to small-business owners. In 1999, he gave $1,000 to George W. Bush's presidential campaign. Today Barahona says he is an independent, backing the candidates he believes are most likely to support programs beneficial to Latinos.
On his wall, there is also a three-panel painting. In the first scene, a young Latino is trapped in a labyrinth. In the last panel, the youth is climbing out of the maze and up to what Barahona says is the United States. He said the paintings depict his journey to this country, where he has prospered and where he sees new opportunities.
"I have so many things in my head that I want to do. I just saw a piece of land the other day that I want to buy. Ten years from now I can sell it" for a profit, Barahona said. "I want to build a bakery for the Pollo Campero chain. I would like to build a whole shopping center. I saw some land in Reston and called this morning.
"The day I stop is the day that God is going to take me away from this world."
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.