Andreas "Elmer" Arias was all nerves. Perspiration beaded on his brow as he waited to begin the first awards dinner held by the Alexandria-based U.S. Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce.
The dinner last Wednesday night in a meeting room at an Arlington office building was running 45 minutes late, and about 100 Salvadoran business men and women, three Salvadoran dignitaries, a couple of local politicians and a half-dozen photographers from the Spanish-language media were growing impatient.
Then the man Arias was expecting arrived: El Salvador's vice minister of education, bearing a commendation to the chamber from the country's president, Elias Antonio Saca.
It was the highlight of the evening and a milestone for the three-year-old chamber, Arias said, even though the group had hoped to host the president, who sent his regrets.
Awards dinners are routine annual affairs for many Washington area business groups, but for the Salvadoran chamber, just pulling off such an event was one more sign that the small-business owners of the growing immigrant community are starting to come together and gain influence.
In the local Hispanic business community, the Salvadoran chamber is the new kid on the block. The majority of the Salvadoran chamber's membership, including Arias, emigrated from El Salvador in the 1990s to escape the country's civil war. A survey conducted by the chamber, whose membership and activities are concentrated in Northern Virginia, puts the number of Salvadoran businesses in the Washington area at more than 3,000. The chamber has 160 members.
"We need to be united to have more power," said Arias, the chamber's president, whose restaurant catered the dinner of Salvadoran cuisine.
The chamber's leaders hope to gain enough clout to influence state and local politics, Arias said. So the group invited Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R) and James P. Moran Jr. (D) to last week's dinner, although they, too, sent their regrets and cited previous engagements.
Virginia Delegates Adam P. Ebbin (D-Arlington) and Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax), who are up for reelection, showed up.
The chamber is "like a bridge showing that the community is to be taken seriously," Ebbin said. "They are not just laborers. They are business owners. They are not just new arrivals. They are voters."
The chamber's leaders met with Sickles and Ebbin this year when the General Assembly considered a bill to deny undocumented immigrants public benefits, including access to local health care services. That bill became law. Another measure, to allow Virginia State Police to arrest convicted felons who had reentered the country illegally after being deported, died after the chamber and other immigrant advocacy groups expressed fear about the potential for misuse of such a law.
Arias's group has been welcomed by the District-based Ibero-American Chamber of Commerce, the region's oldest Hispanic chamber, which last year signed an agreement with the Salvadoran chamber to share information and support each others' events. The Ibero-American chamber was founded in 1976, and its members are mostly federal contractors.
"I see a great necessity" for the Salvadoran chamber," said Raul Cano-Rogers, president of the Ibero-American chamber. "Some people tend to create more ties with their country of origin. They want to have that nostalgia."
The Salvadoran chamber draws small retailers and service-oriented businesses that the older group does not. When it started in 2002, the Salvadoran group had 45 members -- mostly restaurant owners. Restaurants still make up the majority of the membership, but it also includes grocers, construction firms and money-transfer companies.
Its newly appointed 10-member board of directors includes some of the area's more established Salvadoran businessmen, including Carlos Castro, owner of Todos Supermarket, one of the area's largest Latino grocers; Jose Barahona, owner of the local Pollo Campero franchise; and Ernesto Magana, foreign business manager for Banco Agricola, one of El Salvador's largest banks.
This year, each member of the board of directors gave $1,000 to the chamber. For the past two years it has had a small office and an executive director.
Chamber member Carlos Aragon is planning to start the organization's first offshoot in Prince William County, where the Central American immigrant population community has doubled in recent years.
Aragon, owner of Radio Fiesta, a Spanish-language radio station in Woodbridge, said, "We are at the beginning."