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From Dishwasher to Restauranteur - 2002-04-17

English Feature #7-33488 Broadcast April 24, 2000

Last week you met Andres Arias of El Salvador who, as a sixteen-year-old boy, came to the United States through Guatemala and Mexico, virtually on foot, fleeing the civil war in his native country. His first job in America was washing dishes and cleaning toilets in a Hispanic restaurant in the Washington area. But not for long.

"When I came here, I was lucky. I met a few Americans that were telling me to go to school. That was the first step that I did. I was working in the daytime so I was taking English classes in the nighttime, and that was the beginning. After a couple of months I was able to communicate, so I found another job, as a busboy. So that was my second step. Then from busboy I became a bar helper, so I started working my way up."

Working his way up in the restaurant business, did Andres Arias experience any discrimination because he was an immigrant, or Hispanic?

"Yes. When I was working like a waiter, I remember people always looked at me like a servant. You know, I come from a middle-class family in El Salvador. I was in school, I had everything over there. So to come to the United States and be a servant, it was very hard."

But Andres Arias, a young man with little knowledge of English, no money and no contacts in this country, knew what he wanted.

"My dream always was to own a restaurant, because my first job was in the restaurant business. So I started working daytime in construction and started working nighttime like a bartender, so I was working almost 16 hours every day, I was saving my nickels and dimes to have my dream come true. In 1996 I opened my first restaurant in Springfield, Virginia, La Hacienda Restaurant, and I started working day and night, seven days a week."

La Hacienda Restaurant was a success, and recently Andres Arias opened another restaurant, the Rio Bravo. In addition to working hard to build up his business, Mr. Arias became involved in volunteer work, helping his countrymen in El Salvador. As a matter of fact, he was nominated a "hero of Hurricane Mitch" when that devastating storm hit Central America in 1998.

"I was working for two months, day and night, trying to help the people in El Salvador and Honduras. I used the restaurant like a warehouse. I closed the restaurant for one week, and everything that people donated was taken to La Hacienda restaurant. And I was traveling to Central America once a week, bringing medicine, money and clothes to the people who needed it."

Mr. Arias continues to be very active in humanitarian work on behalf of his native country.

"Now I've started my own organization to help with fund raising, to raise money to help the people in El Salvador, like orphan kids, older people that have no one to help. So that's what I've been doing."

Andres Arias has another goal, one that involves the 400,000 immigrants from El Salvador living in the Washington area. He wants to see them organized into a strong community that would have a voice and be a force in American politics.

Living and raising a family in Washington, Andres Arias nevertheless maintains strong contacts with his native El Salvador. From this double vantage point, what it is that he likes most about America?

"First of all, this is a beautiful country, safe, and it gives you the opportunity to have your dreams come true. You can find a job anywhere, it's not like in my country. You can go to school, you can have an education, too, if you want to. Even if you are discriminated [against], the opportunity is there. So what one has to do is work hard, save your money, go to school, and start your own business."

Diana Tranh, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam, did just as Andres Arias said. And so, starting out as a seamstress, today she is the owner of a bridal shop in an elegant section of Washington. You'll meet her next week on New American Voices.