He sneaked over the U.S. border with an alias, forged papers and what he calls "a whole lot of lies." First he cadged day jobs in Los Angeles, then the District and later Virginia, where he stood in parking lots waiting for contractors to hire him, and when he had enough cash, he slipped his wife into the country as well.
His story could be that of any number of Salvadorans in Northern Virginia today, waiting in the early morning at a 7-Eleven for a job in the region's booming construction industry -- except that today, Carlos A. Castro is a millionaire who dines with politicians and sits on various Northern Virginia civic boards mainly through the success of his brainchild: Todos Supermarkets. These two sprawling emporiums, which he founded, stock ethnic foods and clothing, cash checks for customers and sell insurance. One Todos includes a quick-service restaurant specializing in the chicken-filled pupusas and gorditas.
The two stores, in Alexandria and Woodbridge, along with a check-cashing operation and a small gift shop, employ 86 people and generated $9.4 million in sales last year. The Virginia Chamber of Commerce this year named Todos one of its Fantastic 50, an annual honor roll recognizing the state's fastest-growing businesses.
Castro, who has since become a U.S. citizen, along with his wife, admits his past of nearly three decades ago. "Of course, we broke the law. . . . We came and found jobs and worked," said Castro, 51. "It's my reality. I cannot hide from it." He sympathizes with day laborers but questions the use of taxpayer money to help undocumented ones.
But his success, he said, is also proof that with hard work and luck, a day laborer waiting at a 7-Eleven for a job can make it in this country.
"I tell people my story so they know day laborers can do more than janitorial jobs, construction. I made it," he said.
Castro said the best way to change the perception of immigrants and to change laws to legally open U.S. borders to more of them is by telling his story to the recipients of his frequent donations -- from charitable organizations to Republican and Democratic candidates who tap him for contributions.
It's a message he is eager to spread now that the issue of day laborers is roiling communities from Gaithersburg to Herndon and immigration is sparking controversy in the Virginia governor's race.
But even he admits to mixed feelings on the day-laborer issue, conceding that, yes, some Hispanic men are loitering, not just waiting for jobs. And even he shoos laborers from the parking lots of his stores.
"The one thing that makes me ambivalent is that I've been there. Some are just hanging out. If we have only the good people, I would say, yes, let's do it," he said. "It's a very complex issue. Within the same community . . . there is discontent. . . . Now, you are talking about Hispanic people complaining about Hispanic people."
For those reasons, he said, he does not support the Herndon Town Council's recent decision to spend taxpayer money on a dedicated site for day laborers.
That does not mean that day laborers should be vilified and used as a campaign issue, Castro said.
It's a precarious position: rising to the top and being caught in the middle.
He got to this country with help from a professor in Mexico, who gave him false documents; developer Sam Dunn, who hired him and sponsored the Castros for citizenship; and Northern Virginia real estate agent Gwen Cody, who gave him a check for $30,000 when the first Todos almost went under.
"In a way, this is what I dreamed of," he said as he walked along a stone path in the scenic back yard of his six-bedroom, lakefront home in Woodbridge.
Castro, one of seven children, grew up poor in San Salvador. His father, a construction worker, did his best to fix up their small house. "The neighbors made fun of us. They called it the 'cardboard house,' " he said. "The front door came from a church my father had worked on. . . . The home had no glass in the windows, but we still locked the door each night."
Work came first and education second, so he went to high school at night. "I looked at it as a dream. I was first in my class. I think I worked hard for this," he said, twisting the high school class ring he still wears.
He likes to wear suits and jewelry -- the class ring on his left ring finger and a gold band encrusted with diamonds on the right. A gold stickpin, topped by a diamond-tipped C, adorns his ties every day. A gold watch jangles on his left wrist. "It just looks expensive," he said, recalling that he paid $85 for it at Costco.
Castro said he was studying engineering at National University in San Salvador when a family friend suggested he think about going to the United States. El Salvador was embarking on a civil war that would last 12 years.
Castro and a cousin, Ignacio Rivera, decided to go for it in 1979, and Castro left behind a daughter from a previous relationship, a 1-year-old son and his wife, Gladis.
He and his cousin were caught and spent nearly seven weeks in an El Paso jail. He said he volunteered to clean the jail and was paid $1 a day. "Those 48 days were the most positive of my life," Castro said. "I had the time to think about my child and my wife, what to do next."
When he was released, he lied and said he was from Mexico so he would be deported no farther than the border country. In Guadalajara, he and his cousin met a professor who gave them documents saying that they were students at a local university, he said. His new name was Carlos Escovera.
They trekked over mountains, getting lost and paying $600 each to a gun-toting "coyote," a person who smuggles immigrants out of Mexico, to get them to Los Angeles in March 1980. A month later, he came to Washington. After a number of dishwashing jobs, he hit the street as a day laborer, and with his experience in construction and limited knowledge of engineering, he quickly gained a reputation among developers in Georgetown.
Dunn recalled Castro's skills and dedication to his job. "I'm not surprised that he is where he is today," said Dunn, who sponsored work visas for Carlos and Gladis, who entered the country illegally in 1982. Later that year, their son, Carlos Jr., arrived legally. Developers encouraged Castro to venture out on his own. As his renovation career began to thrive, Castro longed to do something more and wanted his wife to stop cleaning houses. "Carlos dreams big," Gladis Castro said on a tour of the Alexandria Todos on Richmond Highway, where phone cards, religious candles and Latin American foods are bestsellers.
Castro juggled three jobs: construction worker, real estate agent and grocery entrepreneur.
He created a family business that now includes Carlos Jr., 26, and daughter Gina, 19, a student at Northern Virginia Community College. Daniel, 8, fluttered around his father at the Woodbridge store on Route 1 during the summer.
Todos became well known in Woodbridge during Thanksgiving 1990. Castro was looking for a way to make the then-small store competitive.
"On the first Thanksgiving that Todos was open, we didn't close, because we knew everyone would close," he said. "We left fliers all over. We were chased out of apartment complexes."
They had three turkeys and hundreds of chickens. Desperate shoppers bought every last one, Castro said. "We cleaned up. We learned a good commercial lesson: You don't close one day," he said.
So Todos is open seven days a week and never closes for holidays.
But Castro was a novice in the grocery business, and by 1998, he was nearly bankrupt. Cody, a colleague in his real estate business, came to his rescue.
She asked him how much he needed. " 'Is that all?' She said: 'Here, go fix your business,' " Castro recalled, and she handed him a $30,000 check.
Cody said Castro had a magnetism that assured her she would get her money back and then some. "I asked him to speak to my Rotary Club. I titled his talk, 'From Wetback to Millionaire.' Isn't that racy? I did this to shake up my Rotary Club," she said. "After the speech, we offered him a cup or a pen, and you know what he did? He gave us a check for our Annandale Rotary Club foundation for $1,000."
Castro said he tries to give back. "My father always said, 'When you do something for someone, you are really doing something for yourself,' " he said. "Most of the people in management [at Todos] come from the bottom."
Yet he struggles with his ambivalence on immigration issues.
Times have changed a bit, he said. In 1980, people welcomed him, for the most part. He recalled Dunn ordering him to stop calling him "Mr." because "he said we were equal." He also said he has hired illegal immigrants and has sponsored them for visas. But stricter laws have stopped that practice, and he said he wants those laws changed.
Now, Castro said, as more immigrants arrive in the suburbs, tolerance seems to be vanishing. Thousands of newcomers, particularly from El Salvador, are changing the landscape. In Prince William, Salvadorans make up nearly 19 percent of the county's foreign-born population, rising from 5,392 in 2000 to an estimated 10,948 in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
He said he is appalled at the anti-immigrant sentiment growing in Virginia.
"The [political] candidates -- they use this to get into office," said Castro, who contributes to Democrats and Republicans.
From his point of view, giving illegal immigrants a chance could mean big returns for U.S. society. He makes his spiel at Republican and Democratic fundraisers one handshake at a time: "We have to make a difference in the way they think, the way they feel and the way they look at people. We have to reach out to the heart of people."