Hispanics making gains in business

May 21, 2006|by CANDICE BOSLEY

HAGERSTOWN - It was a woman who brought Joseph Arias to the United States 32 years ago from El Salvador, and a desire to own a restaurant that brought him to Hagerstown.

Mexican-born Efrain Esparza headed east from California to pursue a job at a large car dealership in Frederick, Md., but wound up opening his own business in Hagerstown, thanks to a stroke of serendipity emanating from a trip to a video rental store.

Sila Alegret-Bartel came to the United States from Cuba as a young woman to escape Fidel Castro's regime, and co-founded one business in Washington County while working as the president of another.

They are three Hispanics working in a county that has seen its foreign-born population grow steadily, if not rapidly.

"All you have to do is go to the grocery stores, to the mall, and you can hear people talking in Spanish," Alegret-Bartel said.


To help other Hispanics who want to open businesses, Alegret-Bartel three years ago helped found the Western Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which covers Montgomery, Frederick and Washington counties.

About 250 members now make up the Chamber, including 12 to 15 in Washington County - a number that Alegret-Bartel hopes will increase.

The growth of Hispanic businesses and the Hispanic community prompted the creation of the Chamber, which is starting a series of training courses for businesses, teaching participants how to open and operate a business.

"The Anglo market targets the Hispanic market. Our goal is to help both, the Anglos and the Hispanics," Alegret-Bartel said, adding that the Chamber is an active one, and especially aims to assist Hispanic businesses.

While the Hispanic population in the county is growing, Alegret-Bartel said she did not feel comfortable estimating its size. The most recent Census data is from 2000, when the Hispanic population for Washington County was listed as 1,373, or about 1 percent of the total population.

That number likely has grown since the Census was taken because nationwide, the Hispanic population increased from 22.4 million in 1990 to 35.3 million in 2000, Census figures show.

Alegret-Bartel said she believes Hispanic people are moving here because the cost of living still is reasonable when compared to the suburbs of Washington.

Determination a key

Alegret-Bartel, 62, moved to Hagerstown from Frederick, Md., two years ago. She hails from Cuba, and came to the United States in 1966, after she lived with relatives in Spain for a year.

She is the president of International Corporate Training & Marketing (ICTM), which does corporate Spanish training, Hispanic marketing, translation services, creates Web sites and holds workshops and seminars.

She is a co-partner of The Hispanic Link, an online bilingual directory of Hispanic-owned and Hispanic-friendly businesses in portions of Maryland.

Both businesses are based in Hagerstown.

Speaking as a founder of the Western Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Alegret-Bartel said the biggest barrier Hispanics face is language. Understanding some business-oriented language is difficult for English-speakers, and can be even harder to understand for those whose first language is Spanish, Alegret-Bartel said.

Determination, though, trumps obstacles.

"Slowly, but surely, Hispanics are opening more and more businesses," Alegret-Bartel said.

Alegret-Bartel said she thinks more restaurants should open featuring food other than Mexican. Food from other countries, including her native Cuba, is far different from the fare served in Mexican restaurants.

Professionals who serve Hispanics also could find success, she said.

"I'm sure it's going to be challenging, but I think the area is willing to accept the diversity," she said.

Despite the ongoing discourse regarding the existence, or lack thereof, of racism in Washington County, Alegret-Bartel said she has not witnessed any hatred toward Hispanics.

"Maybe Hagerstown hasn't changed for a long time, but I haven't seen personally any animosity," she said.

A taste of Mexico

At Efrain's Taqueria in the shopping center at the intersection of Eastern Boulevard and Dual Highway, the colors of Mexico's flag dominate the dcor.

The restaurant has red, white and green balloons and streamers, and its menus are printed on paper in those colors.

At the restaurant, customers line up at a counter and order in a three-step process. First, they indicate whether they would like a taco, burrito, quesadilla or other selection. Then, they indicate what form of meat or vegetarian fillings they want. And finally, they choose from a variety of toppings.

Each "authentic creation" is prepared individually with the customer watching.

Efrain Esparza, 32, who lives in Hagerstown, opened the restaurant last September.

He was born in Mexico and moved to California when he was 8 years old. He later moved to Frederick to pursue a job at a large car dealership.

Chance and timing played a role in his entrepreneurship.

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