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 undocumented, 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.