El Tiempo Latino
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DC area Salvadorans, once stuck in menial jobs, now becoming business owners

The region's Salvadoran community

Pamela Constable-The Washington Post | 10/2/2014, 3:57 p.m.
DC area Salvadorans, once stuck in menial jobs, now becoming business owners
Henry Bonilla (izq.) presidente de The Salvadoran American Chamber of Commerce premia al empresario Armando Mejía en una gala en 2013. Al centro, el empresario de la industria de la tecnología Charles Vela. | ETL

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.