While commentators and scholars argue about whether the United States remains the "land of opportunity," many of the new immigrants in the Washington area say they have little doubt about it.
So many of those washing dishes are counting on owning a restaurant some day; So many of the small-time street vendors expect to own a store. To a remarkable extent, they remain convinced that hard labor, here and now, will be rewarded by entrepreneurial success in the future, a conviction bolstered by the example set by many who walk among them.
To watch Jose Reyes quietly seat customers entering the restaurant he owns in Georgetown, it's easy to envision a scared and sad 21-year-old telling his father in El Salvador that he was leaving home, that he was going north. Even now, as he sits in his place of business he speaks poetically of growing up in the Eastern Province of La Union, "working the earth" on his father's farm.
Reyes came illegally to the United States 13 years ago with $1,500 in his pocket, much of it from his parents. "I needed to better my situation," he says simply.,
His first job was as a dishwasher at Pier Seven Restaurant, 650 Water St. SW. For a year he washed dishes, mopped floors and cleaned walls for a little more than $100 a week. Reyes saw this wasn't going to get him anywhere, so he got two more jobs in restaurants -- working three jobs at once. For another year he worked this grueling pace, all the while making time to learn English.
Then came his turning point. Reyes was hired as a busboy at a Mexican restaurant. For the next five years, Reyes worked there, all the time watching, all the time learning.
In 1980, Reyes opened a small pool hall on Florida Avenue NW. Over two years, his two-table hall became a hangout for the ever-growing Salvadoran community in Washington. Then in 1982, combining his savings with that of a brother who followed him to Washington, Reyes opened his restaurant at 1785 Florida Ave. NW, naming it El Tamarindo for a tree common in El Salvador, the source of a popular fruit drink.
With the help of his wife, whom he married in 1979, Reyes and his brother Francisco, began cooking Mexican and Salvadoran cuisine. For the next two, lean years, Reyes struggled to make a go of things, all the while learning the ways of business much as he had learned the language years earlier.
Then something happened. Something clicked. Word got out and suddenly Reyes was seeing a clientele that was 90 percent American, 10 percent Hispanic. A year later Reyes opened a second El Tamarindo restaurant at 4910 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
Now, a naturalized U.S. citizen, he's waiting for business and alcohol permits before opening a restaurant in the lucrative Georgetown market. His goal is to have four restaurants in the city. If there's one thing Reyes has learned, the way to achieve that goal is through a lot of hard work -- and a lot more luck. "They come, I serve them."
Such simple formulas abound among the new immigrants, particularly those who are making it in business. One rarely hears talk of gimmicks or "concepts."
"There's no magic," said Hoan Dinh Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant and owner of the Pacific Department Store in Clarendon, explaining his family's success here. "From November, 1978, until about three years ago we never did take one day off . . . . "
When he and his wife Yen Hoang opened the store in 1978 there was a huge, empty space in the middle of it. They had run out of money to buy more inventory. In desperation the Nguyens took a truck and brought back large boulders, some bags of small rocks and with the inventive use of several bonsai trees created a Japanese-style rock garden to fill the space.
Now inventory is not a worry. The store fills two floors of a building on Wilson Boulevard, selling furniture, dry goods and groceries. There is also a restaurant upstairs.
Why do they work so hard? It's not just a matter of a nice home and a full pantry, they say. "We Vietnamese have always been very insecure," said Nguyen. "We lived constantly under the fear of death, because of the war. We feel we have to try to build up some security, to work harder."
When Lan Do came to America with her husband and children in 1979, "I didn't know any English, not even the number one," she said. A volunteer with the Maryland Vietnamese Mutual Assistance Association would write out Lan's destination on a piece of paper so she could give it to bus drivers.
Now she is fluent enough in English to sometimes volunteer with the mutual assistance association and translate for newer refugees. She and her husband, who served in the South Vietnamese army, both work at a Beltsville plant that makes metal parts and seals for airplanes. Lan is an inspector who supervises eight people.
About two years after their arrival Lan and her family bought a small home in Brentwood. Three years ago they moved into a more spacious home in a subdivision in Beltsville. "We worked a lot of overtime," said Lan.
Their frugality persists. Lan's husband, Hai Nguyen, works the day shift at an airplane parts factory. She works the night shift. "We don't have to pay for a baby sitter," she said. "I don't know how to say it exactly . . . . I needed to do something for my children. In my country, we had lost. I want my children to be successful."
For Bikas Das, a 39-year-old Indian who came to the United States 17 years ago, the way to success means learning more than language or a skill. It means continually adapting. In a sense, for many who seek a better life, the adjustment never ends.
Das left his hometown of Uttarpara, about 20 miles north of Calcutta, in 1970 to study physics at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He didn't intend to stay beyond his college years. But the longer he stayed, Das said, the more opportunities he saw.
From Carnegie-Mellon, he went to Amherst to pursue research. From Amherst, he moved to University of Maryland. And there Das realized he would have to adjust his career plans to fit a changing economy. Once an academic researcher, he changed his field of concentration from physics to engineering and specifically, computer engineering, to better ensure himself a job. Today, he works for a private computer contractor in Silver Spring.
"Professionally, it is more challenging here. There are more opportunities than in my home country," he said. "I had strong ambitions and wanted to stay in my field but I also realized I needed to tame those ambitions to get ahead . . . . Staying in the United States, it wasn't a decision that happened overnight. One thing leads to another.
"I guess I saw something in this country," said Das, "something vibrant, new. Something you come to love. It does something right for me."