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Salvadoran émigrés build a new life and a commerce network in Houston by providing products and services familiar to their fellow countrymen / A foreign concept

JENALIA MORENO Staff

SUN 02/06/2005 HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section Business, Page 1, 2 STAR Edition

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HAULING 60-inch televisions, packages of Maruchan noodles and portable generators, customers navigate past shelves of Salvadoran-style cheese, bags of red beans and jars of indigenous loroco, a type of flower used in cooking, inside the Rio Grande grocery store on Hillcroft.

They leave their goods in the back office of Benjamin Flores, the store's owner and the operator of a service that exports personal goods to El Salvador.

Flores, who delivers everything from used cars to clothing to relatives left behind in El Salvador, does not have to look far for business.

More than two decades ago, thousands of Salvadorans like Flores fled their nation's civil war for Houston and other U.S. cities. Since then, they have established themselves as one of Houston's most entrepreneurial immigrant groups.

"They began to reproduce their own ethnic community restaurants, music shops," said Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Houston sociology professor. "This is pretty typical of most immigrant enclaves."

Salvadoran immigrants quickly learned to build their businesses even though they didn't speak much English and had no access to capital.

Like Houston's Vietnamese immigrants, Salvadorans built their new lives here knowing they couldn't return home to their war-torn nation.

"We realized there weren't many opportunities in El Salvador, so we decided to put down our roots," said Oscar Flores, owner of the Los Ranchitos restaurant, which serves traditional Salvadoran dishes of fried plantains, pupusas - thick, stuffed tortillas filled with anything from beans to beef - and tamales de elote, or corn-filled tamales.

These days, those roots stretch across much of the Gulfton area with Salvadoran-owned restaurants, small grocery stores and an office for airline Grupo Taca lining Bellaire Boulevard.

"That's where El Salvador ends," joked Benjamin Flores, 43, about Bellaire Boulevard, where many Salvadoran immigrants live and shop. He and Oscar Flores are not related.

As many as 250,000 Salvadorans live in the Greater Houston area, according to Salvadoran Consul General Luis Carranza, who provided a much higher figure than the U.S. Census data.

Many of the immigrants have become U.S. citizens, establishing a stable economic toehold.

That's attracted the attention of small enterprises like Rio Grande and Los Ranchitos, as well as larger Salvadoran businesses. Last year, Salvadoran bank Banagricola and shoe store Adoc opened branches on Bellaire Boulevard.

"The buying power of Salvadorans here is very obvious," said Leonardo Cornejo, a Salvadoran who opened Adoc's first U.S. store last year.

Cornejo, an electrical engineer for NASA, moved to Houston three years ago with his wife, Sharon Donofrio, a native Houstonian.

As a former Adoc distribution manager, Cornejo was chosen by the company to expand into the United States, where Central Americans fondly remember the company's line of shoes, like the burro - a black shoe that's the standard uniform for school children. Imported from El Salvador, it sells for $14.95 a pair at the Houston store.

After the success of Central American fried chicken chain Pollo Campero, Adoc officials recognized they too could capitalize on the buying power and nostalgia of Salvadorans.

"The majority of Salvadorans come here and they make the most of it," said Cornejo, 32.

Fredy Romero, for example, made the most of living here by working three jobs after he arrived in Houston in 1989. Romero, now 39, cleaned offices, worked at a mechanic's shop and fixed cars out of his apartment.

Like many Salvadoran immigrants, he saved his money and built his small empire of three car dealerships. Now Fredy's Cars For Less sells about 1,200 cars, trucks and SUVs a year.

"They have a real reputation for being so entrepreneurial," Houston native Sharon Donofrio said of Salvadorans.

She recognized that trait when she ran a financial institution that loaned money to small business owners in El Salvador, where she met her husband, Cornejo.

"They have it in their blood - commerce," said Rufino Antonio Cruz, 49. The Salvadoran immigrant and his wife run Business Connection Services, a Houston company that provides container service to Central America.

Some Salvadorans attribute that entrepreneurial spirit to the fact that their country is small, just 8,100 square miles. They say that forced many to run their own businesses because there wasn't enough land for farming and there weren't many other opportunities.

"We're known as the Swiss of Latin America," said Luis Padilla, who runs restaurants, grocery stores and an importing business, Mama Lycha. "We're very small, but we're very successful."

The success of many of these Salvadoran immigrants has also captured the attention of their country's government. Salvadoran dishwashers, landscapers and business owners send more than $2 billion a year back to their relatives.

And now that many of these immigrants have proven themselves successful, the government wants their help.

Last November, President Elias Antonio Saca invited some of the business owners, including Romero, to a meeting at the presidential palace to figure out ways they could work together to help El Salvador.

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