Thirty years ago, Armando Mejia fled war-torn El Salvador and sneaked into the United States. He was 17, with a sixth-grade education and two dollars in his pocket. For the next two decades, he toiled in the kitchens of Washington-area restaurants, working his way up from dishwasher to chef.
Today Mejia, 49, owns three upscale Tex-Mex bistros in Northern Virginia, and a fourth in the District. A shrewd and genial host, he serves perfect frozen margaritas and supports local school sports. A fastidious boss, he insists that the bathrooms be cleaned three times a day. The strategy has won him a loyal and diverse customer base far from his roots.
“Why do I like it here? Because it’s got the old ‘Cheers’ atmosphere,” said Mary Stites, an administrator at NASA who was chatting with a friend at the glittering bar in Mejia’s El Tio cafe in Gainesville, Va., one recent afternoon. “Armando treats everyone like family,” she said. “And there are no sticky counters.”
In the four decades since a handful of refugees began a chain of illegal migration from El Salvador to Washington, the region’s Salvadoran community has swelled to more than 300,000.
Most entered the United States without authorization and stayed. Many are still illegal, which has confined them to menial or informal work in construction, food industry or personal service.
But as the area’s largest immigrant community has evolved, so have its ambitions. An increasing number of Salvadorans have moved up from worker to boss. No longer dependent on the whims of crew chiefs and bus schedules, they are meeting payrolls and giving orders.
Since it was established in 2001 with 35 members and an office in Alexandria, Va., the Salvadoran American Chamber of Commerce has grown to more than 400 members, with headquarters two blocks from the White House. According to its officials, Salvadoran Americans own more than 4,000 businesses in the metropolitan region.
“We Salvadorans are very enterprising. We can pick up a rock, paint it and sell it,” said Elmer Arias, 50, a former chamber president, who recently retired from the restaurant business and devotes his time to development projects in El Salvador.
Most Salvadoran firms in the area are modest, family-run businesses in traditional immigrant niches such as construction and cleaning, or ethnic shops and eateries that cater to Hispanics. Many Salvadorans without legal status run small informal operations out of a couple of vans, working as nannies, package couriers and building remodelers.
But as a growing number become U.S. residents and citizens, mostly through the sponsorship of an employer or relative, Salvadorans are gaining access to bank loans, operating permits and the holy grail of immigrant business aspirations: government contracts.
Legal status also enables them to compete with older Hispanic groups, such as Puerto Ricans and Cubans, who mostly arrived by legal means and once dominated Hispanic businesses in the region.
A few local Salvadorans have reached the business stratosphere. Jose Barahona, 70, built a large office-cleaning company in Annandale and then made a fortune by opening franchises of the fast-food chain Pollo Campero. Charles Vela, a research engineer in Potomac, Md., came to the United States with an advanced education and founded a firm called Afilon that develops high-tech systems for federal agencies.
Still, they remain exceptions.
According to the Pew Research Center in the District, Salvadorans nationwide have a median income level of $20,000, about the same as Hispanics overall, but 23 percent live below the poverty level and only 7 percent of those older than 24 have a college degree. Sixty percent are foreign born, the highest of any Hispanic group.
Mark Lopez, a Pew official, said there are no economic statistics on Salvadorans in the D.C. area, but since they constitute the country’s second-largest Salvadoran community after Los Angeles, the national figures accurately reflect their status.
Henry Bonilla, the chamber president, said even the most driven Salvadorans continue to face daunting obstacles, including difficulties with English, lack of access to capital and prejudice against Hispanics. Even hard workers, he said, may not adapt to the responsibilities and tough choices of running a competitive business.
“There are a lot of people with excellent résumés, but sometimes our looks and names still hurt us,” Bonilla said. Part of the chamber’s role, he said, is to help members navigate the ropes and overcome the “negative public perceptions” of Salvadorans as gang members and social burdens.
Bonilla, 40, fled El Salvador at age 14. He got his first break while working at a Wendy’s restaurant. The firm gave him management training and helped pay his tuition at Strayer University. In 1995, he opened an office cleaning company, then expanded to applying for small business loans and government contracts. In the process, though, he became a different man.
“People think I had it easy, but it took 28 years of hard work,” Bonilla said. “For years I kept my phone by the bed and answered calls from clients at 2 a.m. You have to make sacrifices and be tough,” be added. “Family is important, but you can’t afford to be preferential. You have to hire the best-qualified person.”
Yet many successful Salvadorans said they initially relied on relatives or fellow refugees for shelter, work contacts and moral support. Arias said one of his first jobs was washing dishes in a Georgetown restaurant with another Salvadoran named Jose Caceres. “We took turns washing and stacking. We kept each other going,” Arias said with a laugh. Caceres eventually became a prominent supermarket owner in Woodbridge, Va.
By the same token, many successful Salvadorans said they felt a duty to help those who came after them. Some business owners hired many low-skilled fellow immigrants or sponsored skilled workers for U.S. residency; others have provided social or legal services to those who find themselves in trouble.
Fidel Anival Castro, 33, a lawyer in Wheaton, Md., came to the United States as a 4-year-old. His father worked at three low-wage jobs, with little time for the family. Castro floundered in school and said he felt “like I didn’t belong.” But as a teenager, he found comfort at a Catholic church at which priests urged him to go to college and law school. Last week he opened his own law office, which has one desk, two chairs and is still without carpeting.
“I know what my clients have been through, so I don’t judge them. I try to help them find a way to climb out, like I did,” said Castro, who represents many Central Americans facing minor criminal or immigration charges. “I feel like I am doing God’s work.”
Mejia never did get past the sixth grade, but his outgoing personality, business instinct and close-knit family helped him build El Tio into a chain of lively bistros that specialize in Latino cuisine but cater to an ethnically and socially diverse clientele, from defense contractors to football fans.
“Latinos mostly go out to celebrate birthdays and special occasions. Americans go out to dinner all the time,” Mejia said. Among his most popular draws are beer discounts during National Football League games and margarita specials on Thirsty Thursdays. His outlets employ 125 people and take in about $55,000 a month. In December, the Salvadoran chamber honored him as business owner of the year.
On Thursday night, the El Tio in Gainesville was packed and noisy with laughter, music and TV sports talk. Mejia never stopped smiling as he moved among the tables, checking on orders and greeting regulars. Customers of all descriptions declared that the spot was their favorite hangout.
“We don’t advertise, but we make everyone feel welcome. People come by word of mouth,” Mejia said. As he surveyed the convivial scene, he grew reflective. “I crossed the river with my backpack like everyone else, but I was always a dreamer,” he said. “If you work hard and stay honest, this is still the best country in the world to build your dreams.”