El Salvador: Summary of Interview with Carlos Castro

El Salvador: Summary of Interview with Carlos Castro

Carlos Castro was born in Playitas, La Union and raised in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. He left El Salvador when he was 25 years old due to the civil war (1980-1992). He has owned and operated many businesses in Northern Virginia. Currently, Carlos Castro successfully owns two Todos Supermarkets in the DC metro area. Todos Supermarket first opened in 1990 to fulfill the needs of the growing Latino community and eventually expanded to serve other communities. Carlos Castro’s Todos Supermarket not only offers products, but also operates as a pillar of the local community.

Life before migrating

Carlos remembers about his childhood: “I come from a very humble beginning, we did not have any money, no land or business to inherit from my parents. My dad was very strict because he never went to school so he always wanted us to go to school. My mother also never went to school. She barely knew how to write her name.” Carlos mentions the fundamental role of his family in shaping his worldview and identity: “I was inspired by my dad. He was always telling me to build my own future and work for it. I was instilled with the core values of hard work, integrity, and persistence, but also to help others. He was always telling me, ‘don’t wait to be asked, just help others.’ That became part of our lives and made me a problem solver because I would always try to find ways to help. Also, faith plays an important role in my life; faith in God, faith in ourselves.”

Carlos started attending a night school after 6th grade and, by the age of 12, he was a laborer assisting his father, who was a builder. He remembers: “As a child, I was very shy and disciplined and focused on my future; my dream was to provide for my parents what they could not provide to us because of conditions of poverty and a lack of education.” He graduated with honors from high school and then went to college to study industrial engineering: “Every day, I was thinking, ‘what I can learn today that could help me build better my future.’ After working with my father for four years, I transitioned to a major bakery factory, the only one in El Salvador. However, I realized that I did not like the culture of the company and the way they treated people, so I decided to move on. I resigned and found another job that was promising. I worked there for four years. I became a plant manager and my dream was to work for a U.S. company. From that job, I jumped into a U.S. manufacturing companyI worked as a technician in this company and that was the best job that I had in El Salvador.”

Reasons for migrating to the United States

Carlos had these jobs when he was still in college. He did not graduate from college because, in the late 1970s, the civil war and the unrest in El Salvador had started. He remembers: “I was very disciplined and did not go to the demonstrations. The Cubans came to El Salvador to indoctrinate college students. They also indoctrinated farmers and construction workers. They started developing guerrilla fighters. The situation started to become violent, and they got weapons. The city that I was raised in was overrun by the guerrillas twice, and then the soldiers came to confront them. In one of these conflicts, I was feeling the bullets flying over my head. I tried to join the guerilla side, but then when I was in the organization, I realized that they were not in El Salvador to help the people but to grab power. So, I stopped.”

Carlos continues: “The mother of my middle school classmate visited El Salvador. She saw all the violence and wanted to help me. She offered my friend and me money so that somebody could sneak us through the border. I had to make this decision on the spot. Because I had seen all the violence that was going on, I knew what I had to do. I was seeing dead people every day on the way to work. Furthermore, the violence created a lot of instability. At the complex where I was working, the guerrilla and the unions had already shut down several factories. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the company that I was working for closed.”

In 1980, Carlos left El Salvador but got caught along the way. He says: “I did not make it to Los Angeles. They had me in a detention center for almost two months. During that time, I learned what the next step would be, how I would go back to El Salvador. I had no hope. So, when I was returned to El Salvador, I tried to find money and tried to cross the border one more time. I borrowed money from a friend. I suggested that I’d give him my motorcycle as collateral, but he refused my offer. He gave me some money without taking my motorcycle - he was a very good friend of my father. My father had helped him in the past so he thought that this was the chance for him to return the favor.”

Carlos mentions: “The second time, it was my cousin and I that made it across the border. We met wonderful people on our way who would be willing to help us. As a person of faith, when we reached the temple of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Guadalajara, Jalisco in Mexico, I knew that God was going to help us. Indeed, some people helped us a lot. While we were still on our journey, we were learning that violence was escalating back in El Salvador, so we knew that we could just not go back. By the grace of God, we arrived in Los Angeles where I stayed with my cousin for a while. Then I took the plane to Washington, DC, which was where my friend from middle school was living. I still remember the first time I saw the nation’s capital from above – I was thinking my dream came true.”

Language Acquisition and First Employment

Thinking about the first years in DC, Carlos says: “I knew that I had to start as a dishwasher first, because my English was not that good. I knew English from school but it was mostly grammar coming directly from the books, I never spoke English. I tried to enroll in some classes, but most of them were offered to permanent residents or visa holders. However, there was this restaurant called The Tombs right across from Georgetown University. I met a professor there who was very friendly. He saw me kind of sad and asked me what was the problem. I explained to him the situation and he helped me; he helped to get me into one of these English classes.”

With regard to employment during the first years, Carlos remembers: “My first jobs were at restaurants but it was quite boring; cleaning floors and removing grease all day long. At the same time, I had to move out of my friend’s house. We were living in Adams Morgan in DC which, back then, was a really bad neighborhood for undocumented Latinos. Many undocumented immigrants could not open a bank account so they would carry their weeks’ pay in cash on them. Many people knew this vulnerable situation and they were waiting for me or my friends to finish our shift to rob us and take our money.”

Carlos CastroFirst Business

After a while, Carlos’ wife joined him in DC. Carlos comments that this reunification was very significant for the future decisions that they would make: “My wife coming to the United States was really good. Her presence gave me a sense of direction and stability. Once she came here, we started looking at how to become financially stable. She started to work as a nanny and a housekeeper for the owner of the construction company where I was working.”

Thinking about how the couple obtained documents and became permanent residents, Carlos remembers: Interestingly, this contact was slightly random: “I started working for a contractor who needed temporary help; it was at house right across the street from the Russian embassy in Georgetown. The owner told me that he did not have more work for me, but he would call a friend of his to ask him if he needed additional workers. I met him at the construction site and he hired me the same day. The owner did not really pay attention to me for a while, so I felt quite discouraged. However, one day I had to solve a construction related problem; I had to tell the carpenter how to fix something. Then he told the boss about my assistance, and the boss came to me very excited about having this problem solved. That was the shift; the boss thought maybe this guy is not that dumb.” (laughing) He says: “The owner of the company was a very friendly and kind person; he would sit and have lunch with the workers at the construction site. After a period of time, I got enough courage to ask him if he could file our visa petition, and he agreed.”

He continues: “So I became part of the company. I worked as a helper, carpenter, and then as a foreman for several years. Then I started doing small construction jobs for friends and later, my boss gave me the first small project. He referred me to a customer of his who needed job that was too small for this company. That was my first formal project of my own. This is how I started my construction company. I got my business license and I had a few customers. Because I was just starting in the business, I did not charge a lot. So, people would see that I do a good job without asking for a lot of money. One person recommended me to the other so this is how I expanded my customer list. I had this construction company for four years. For a short period of time, I was simultaneously running the construction company and starting the grocery business. During that time, most of my energy, effort, and attention was going to the grocery business. Thus, I decided to close the construction company thinking that it would be worse to obtain a bad reputation in the construction sector, which would have made it more difficult to go back to it in case the grocery business would not go well.”   

todos

Todos Supermarket: A Supermarket for all People

The idea of the grocery store started in 1988. Carlos remembers: “I was invited to a party in Woodbridge. I had this Salvadoran friend who I worked with in my last job in El Salvador. She had also migrated to the United States and we met in DC coincidentally. She told me that there was need for a grocery store with Salvadoran products in this area. The idea was planted, but I did not start immediately because I did not have the money – so I laughed about it. Two years later, in 1990, I was talking with another friend of mine and we were thinking about starting a business. I thought about Woodbridge and the grocery story. I liked the idea of a grocery store because that would also be a way for my wife to find a job and stop cleaning houses.”

The idea of relocating the grocery store to Marumsco plaza started as follows: “I was a member of the advisory board of a small community bank. It became known to me that one of the executives had bought this plaza. I asked him for a meeting and told him that I had the right store for this plaza. Before opening Todos Supermarket, this plaza was dilapidated, there was a lot of crime here. It is about having the courage to make this decision. At the beginning, people started planting doubts in me; they would say that this is a very big place and what I am going to do, how much rent I am going to pay etc. So, I started panicking a little bit. I called a company to do some analysis for us and they validated the analysis that I did with my assistant which was that it would be a good but also difficult step for us.” 

The beginning was not easy, Carlos says: “I did not know what I was getting into. I never knew anything about the grocery business, my background was in industrial engineering. I took a two-hour crash course at DC’s Small Business Administration where we basically learned the dos and don’ts and that was it (laughing). During the first years, neither my wife or me were not getting a good salary from the grocery store. Whatever profit we had, we were putting it back to the business.”

Thinking about the factors that contributed to the success of his business, Carlos mentions: “First, I had to take the risk as many entrepreneurs do. I took the risk because I was thinking that since I had nothing when I was growing up, going back to nothing did not really scare me. I know that I could start all over again. So, courage plays a very important role for success. When you are an entrepreneur, you are willing to risk a lot. Another factor that facilitated the success of the grocery business was the fact that I was always involved with the community here. For instance, in some Latin American countries if you are a business owner, people look at you as someone who knows a lot or is wise, so we had that going on here too. I was trying to help people from day one. They would ask me all different kind of questions: if I know a lawyer for a divorce, immigration law-related questions, but also little things such as translating letters from English to Spanish for the newcomers etc.”

Building this rapport with the community allowed Carlos to witness what people needed. He states: “After a period of providing help and advice to the community on a one-on-one basis, I realized that many people were looking to do their income taxes. So, I decided that I was going to be a tax preparer and I took classes with H&R block. By doing so, I realized that people were not taking advantage of their buying power to buy a home. Many years ago, the norm was that you come here and you rent. Most people were buying a house only when they were older and almost retired. That would be when somebody could afford to buy a home with the savings that they had saved throughout their lives. Even the real estate industry, back then, you would not have tons of realtors, as you see now. It was not as dynamic, as it is now. So, I became a realtor too. This is when I started earning some money. Many of the people that I already knew from the community became my customers. Prince William County had a lot of opportunities, and my background in construction helped me advise which property was a good buy for my customers based on their individual needs and the conditions of the property. I became good about buying foreclosures. When you buy foreclosed homes, you can find anything there. I would ask how long it would take, how much it would take, and I would advise my customers what they need to do. This is how I was able to make some money to nurture the grocery business. When I reached the point that doing both was too much, I decided to keep only the grocery business and give up my real estate practice.”

Current State of Business

Currently, Todos Supermarket operates in two locations in the DC metro area and provides jobs to 185 individuals. Carlos comments: “People blame us that we come here to steal jobs from Americans but at least I cannot be blamed for that (laughing).” He continues: “We focus on providing high quality services and groceries in an effort to fulfil the needs of the community. Right now, we lease small spaces for other small businesses to jump in. For instance, the barber shop in the plaza belongs to a Dreamer.[1] I still remember when I came across him and he was all teary eyed because of the possibility of having to leave the country. I reassured him that he has a place here and that we are going to help him. We also have a post office, travel agency and an insurance agency, an office for tax preparation, and other services such as accounting and business coaching. Our customers are from all over the world; we have people from Pakistan, from India. We do not have a lot of products from their countries, but they use the other services that we offer. We also have services for cashing checks and for people to send remittances back to their countries. So, on the surface, it is very international. On the grocery part, 90 percent of the customers are Latinos and the rest are everybody else who lives in the community. We have products from El Salvador and other countries in Central America, South America, some products from the Middle East, and also from the Caribbean because we focus a lot on the customer, what are their needs.”

Connection to El Salvador and Salvadoran Culture

Thinking about his own identity, Carlos emphasizes: “I feel like a proud American and I truly believe that we can make this country a good place for everybody to live and thrive. I want to do good for the United States, but at the same time, the place that made me who I am is El Salvador. So, it is pretty much a dual citizenship. I love both places, I would not change one for another. I still remember the first time that I went back to El Salvador in 1985, I was so happy and excited to be there. But then, when I was coming back to DC, I remember being in the plane and seeing the Washington Monument from above, feeling so happy that I was back home!”

Carlos maintains strong ties with El Salvador too, he says: “With my wife, we have some projects in El Salvador to help people and make sure that we give back to the country. Specifically, we are helping the people of my wife’s hometown which is called Berlin; like in Germany (laughing). I decided to create a program and see if I could take a group of people and change their minds to become self-sufficient. Due to the political problems and the war, people do not really trust anybody, and they always look to someone else to look after them. So, we successfully put a group of people together and, because my thing is entrepreneurship, we established a project that would provide advice, classes, and training for people who aspire to become entrepreneurs. We had two universities that partnered with us, some professors also joined. With the training that we provided, we were able to make people believe that they could start their own business, be self-sufficient and succeed.”

Immigrants in the United States

Immigrants contribute in the society by being workers and consumers. When it comes to people from Latin America, we create jobs, we start small companies. We are a society that spends a lot of money on food. For instance, I think that immigrant households tend to spend more on groceries because they prefer cooking their meals. At the same time, our economy relies on immigrant workers. If Dreamers or people with Temporary Protected Status[2] have to leave the United States, I would lose 20 percent of my workforce; great, good quality people who want to work.”

On the local level, Carlos mentions: “Before I took over this place, the state of Virginia was only getting the real estate tax from the property. Once we opened the grocery store, our contribution to the local coffers kept going up. Furthermore, because of the way that I was brought up, that you help others along the way, I think that my company has become a pillar of the community. If you talk to any of my managers, probably only a few have a college degree. I do not have a college degree; I never graduated, but I like to work. So, when I find people with the right attitude and working habits, they become our general managers. Thus, I think that our company provides opportunities for people to grow. As a company, we do not believe in the minimum wage but we pay our employees above the minimum wage, based on their experience and dedication. We also hire students – not because they can be cheap labor (we pay them whatever money they deserve to be paid). If they are doing a grown-up job, they will be paid accordingly. It will make no difference because it is a matter of what they have delivered. So we offer a lot of opportunities to high school students. We reached a point that when graduations were coming, I was panicking because everybody was leaving. So now we have created opportunities for students after graduation, where we teach them extra skills, obtain more work experience, and they grow within the company.”

Future Aspirations

Currently, Carlos Castro holds a membership in several organizations such as Youth for Tomorrow, Leadership Prince William, Hispanic Organization for Leadership and Action (HOLA), Salvadoran American Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Hispanic Member Chamber of Commerce, and Prince William Committee of 100 which is a diverse group of leaders from the business, civic, and government sectors. He comments: “It is so powerful to be in all these organizations and discuss the interests, problems, and goals of our community.”

Thinking about his future goals and aspirations, Carlos says: “Before I retire, I want to teach people how to survive difficult times. Even the rhetoric that follows immigrants today makes many people live in fear. I want to share my experiences with other immigrants so that they can actually see that there is hope and that they can learn to find the power from within and to find their own success. I envision doing that rather than creating more grocery stores. In essence, I want to dedicate the last years of my life helping others to be successful.”

 

[1] Unauthorized individuals who were brought to the United States at a young age by their parents are often referred to as Dreamers, a reference to the DREAM Act, a bill in Congress that would legalize their status. 

[2] Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is a temporary humanitarian protection available to certain people from designated countries (e.g. El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) facing extreme conflict, disaster, or other critical situations. The person receives a temporary stay of deportation and temporary authorization to work in the United States.