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Carlos Castro’s journey to success is a true American dream — a story that began in the suburbs of El Salvador’s capital and found its happy ending in the suburbs of the U.S. capital.
Castro gave up the leisure of his childhood at age 13 to help support his family; at that young age, he started working with his father in the construction business.
“I learn[ed] a lot about reinforced steel and masonry and plumbing,” Castro said, noting that his father made sure he learned “all the stages of construction — all the way to understanding blueprint reading.”
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Castro credits his father with teaching him to work hard and not make excuses.
Working alongside the man he respected most in this world would prove key to Castro’s success.
Although Castro loved the beauty of his home country, with the nearby rivers, wildlife and stunning volcanos, a civil war began in 1979 that made it nearly impossible for men and women to work, he said.
Leftist guerillas blocked people from making their way to their jobs — even threatening them with guns.
A year in, Castro — by now a 25-year-old man — made the decision of a lifetime: to escape to America. “In a split second, I had to decide what was best for me and my family,” he said.
He was one of nearly half a million Salvadorans who fled what would be a bloody 12-year conflict. “I had dreams of coming to the U.S. because I fell in love with the language and the people,” he said.
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Castro ended up in the Washington, D.C., area, home to the second-largest El Salvadoran population in the country after Los Angeles.
He found work and began sending money home to his wife, Gladis, and their infant son. It was by no means easy — but he just kept working.
And then one day, things changed.
“I got an opportunity in construction after being a janitor and a dishwasher, a busboy and a cook,” he said.
“And I got my opportunity to show what I knew — and my boss took [an] interest in me.”
That job led to an employer-sponsored visa. Castro was on the way to his American dream.
“I had dreams of coming to the U.S. because I fell in love with the language and the people.”
Castro’s hard work wasn’t done only with his hands; back home, he was a high school valedictorian and attended business college. And he had his sights set on more for his young family.
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Once he felt established in the U.S., his wife and son joined him.
Gladis cleaned homes and the two of them saved their money until one day, Castro decided it was time for his wife to stop cleaning.
They decided to open a grocery store. “The whole purpose was to provide for my wife a better way of earning her [living] — you know, not do housecleaning.”
They called it “Todos Supermarket.”
In Castro’s native language, “todo” means “all” or “everybody.”
Todos became a place for the Hispanic community to find support.
Walking through Todos today, it is obvious that the bustling business is far more than just a place to buy Hispanic goods. Here, locals can take care of other needs, too.
“It’s a group of small businesses like, you know, money-wiring. And we have an insurance agency, we have a tax and accounting company with some partners and a small café within the restaurant,” said Castro.
Castro and his wife employ 180 people, 90% of whom are Hispanic. Most of the managers in their stores are women.
The more Todos Supermarket provided to the community, the faster it grew.
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Today, Carlos owns two large plazas in Northern Virginia that cater to the Hispanic community. He has even partnered with local high school teachers to employ and mentor teens in the area.
“One of our focus[es] as a company [is] to help our youth — actually help their families, providing help with their raising of their youth,” he said.
Together, he and his wife employ 180 people, 90% of whom are Hispanic. Most of the managers in their stores are women.
“He’s like a friend to us; he’s helping us. He [is] always asking us how we are; if we are comfortable here,” said Andrea, a manager at one of the locations.
Carlos and Gladis are grateful for the opportunity they found in the United States, and feel it is imperative to give back in all the ways they can.
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“Todos Supermarket has grown out of fulfilling the needs of the community, trying to be a partner in whatever the community needs,” said Castro.
They’re not done yet: Their next venture is a coffee and cacao farm in his wife’s home village — bringing jobs to both El Salvador and the U.S.