Inside a small jewelry store in a strip shopping center at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard in Langley Park, more than a dozen men labor over gold crucifixes, diamond rings and stubby gold chains.
The jewelry store, Silver Spring Jewelry, which belongs to Cuban immigrant Ramon Garcia, soon will be a crowning jewel in a $10 million, 100,000-square-foot mall going up at 1401 University Blvd. East in Langley Park that is part-owned by the energetic Garcia.
The mall is the first major construction project in many years in an area of single-story strip shopping centers and detached bank buildings clustered around the intersection, according to local businessmen.
During the 22 years since he emigrated to the Washington area from Cuba, Garcia has gone from waiting tables at the Washington Hilton and selling jewelry out of a suitcase to running his successful jewelry manufacturing business, which employs 25 persons and grosses about $1.5 million a year.
Garcia and his father, Alejandro, also own a small Latin grocery store less than a mile away that caters to that area's international community and stocks items such as Cuban coffee, malt drinks and Spanish sausages.
"I wouldn't call myself a wealthy man," said Garcia, 41, who likes to wear diamond-encrusted rings and a thick gold chain around his neck. "A truly wealthy man doesn't work 70 hours a week."
If anything is outwardly indicative of Garcia's success -- he drives a 1979 Cadillac El Dorado and lives in a modest house on University Boulevard five minutes away from his business -- it is the mall.
Garcia and four other Latin businessmen, one of them his father, pooled their resources to build the shopping and professional office center that will be called Plaza International.
The mall will cater to the diverse ethnic groups that live in the areas fanning out from it -- East Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Langley Park -- and to the international community in the greater Washington area, the developers said.
In recent years, the area around East Silver Spring and Takoma Park has become a mecca for refugees from Central America, but there also are Vietnamese, Cambodians and other ethnic groups living in the area.
"What we are trying to do is bring to this building a number of goods and services that otherwise would not be found in the regular American shopping center," said Jose Reig, a Cuban-born nuclear engineer and one of the partners in the venture.
Reig said the three-level, Spanish-tiled mall will have a variety of ethnic restaurants, as well as a grocery store and smaller specialty shops, with offices in the back.
Garcia's jewelry store will occupy a prominent spot at the front of the mall, and shoppers will be able to observe his employes making jewelry.
Reig said getting the project off the ground has not been easy.
"When we started with the concept, none of us were developers, so we didn't know what we had to go through to make this a finished product," he said.
"We went to see several development companies and they wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole. They said, 'There's not enough of a market, three floors won't work,' and they said, perhaps to themselves, 'These foreigners are crazy.' "
Reig said he and the other investors also had trouble finding a leasing agent to rent the store and office spaces for them. "We went to five different agents who said, 'You'll never fly because you have three stories and no one is going to want to rent the third story.'"
Despite the pessimism, the mall is under construction. Reig and his partners were able to get $10 million in industrial revenue bonds through Prince George's County to purchase the property and finance the construction.
"Prince George's County has gone out of its way to accommodate our needs. They have welcomed our international plaza," Reig said.
Reig said he is certain the mall will attract Hispanics and other ethnic groups who live in surrounding areas, as well as international residents from throughout the Washington area.
A 1981 study done for Radio Mundo, the local Spanish radio station, showed that the area that straddles the boundary between southeastern Montgomery County and northern Prince George's County has a high concentration of Hispanic residents.
"I looked at the demographics six years ago, and the more we looked at them the more convinced we are that Langley Park is the proper area for us," he said.
Local business leaders agree that Plaza International should do well.
"I think they are in the right place at the right time," said Erwin Mack, president of the Takoma-Langley Park Business and Professional Association.
James Hubbard, executive vice president of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce, said Plaza International's location is "probably one of the best in the Washington metropolitan area" because of its proximity to the Capital Beltway and its ethnic residents.
"It has the potential of being a success depending on how it's marketed and what kind of clientele and services they provide," he said.
Reig said he is heartened by the fact that almost half of the mall's retail and office spaces already have been rented, including some on the third floor.
"The mall will either be a tremendous success or an absolute failure," he said. "But I cannot believe it can fail. That's totally beyond my comprehension."