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Immigrants Invest in American Dream

By Debra Dominguez
Journal Staff Writer
    Three years in the United States has not been enough time for 50-year-old Song Choi to master English.
    But it has been long enough for him to pursue his American dream.
    Choi, who owns Hiland Coin-Op Laundry and Cleaners at 506 Monroe SE, is one of hundreds of immigrant business owners in Albuquerque.
    "It took a lot of hard work to get this business started, especially because we didn't know much English," Choi said through his 16-year-old son, Woosuk Choi, a Highland High School freshman.
    Of the estimated 149,600 people who identify themselves as foreign born in New Mexico, about 7,800 identify themselves as self-employed, said Kevin Kargacin, head of information services at the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
    "That's 8.7 percent of the state's total self-employed and currently working population," Kargacin said. "We were able to get this information from data developed from a smaller sample of the U.S. Census 2000."
    Juan Delgadillo, president of the Asociación de Comerciantes Latinos de Nuevo Mexico, estimated that about 1,500 to 2,000 businesses are owned by Mexican immigrants alone in New Mexico.
    "And many of them are very successful," Delgadillo said.
    Nationally, there is little difference between native and immigrant entrepreneurship, said Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.
    "But there are substantial differences between the entrepreneurship of immigrants from different parts of the world," he said.
    Immigrants from the Middle East, Europe and East Asia, Camarota said, have the highest self-employment rates and incomes, while immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean have the lowest. Among many factors, he attributes different levels of immigrant entrepreneurship to varying education levels and cultural differences.
    His research also shows higher concentrations of self-employed natives in professional services and construction industries, and more self-employed immigrants in sales and retail.
   
Struggle before success
    Learning English, business law and generating enough start-up money are just a few obstacles immigrants say they must overcome in setting up shop.
    Whether using personal savings, borrowing money from family or taking out a small loan, many area immigrants say it's all worth making their American dream come true.
    Vicky Truong, a Vietnamese immigrant and owner of Saigon Restaurant located in the Fiesta del Norte shopping center at 6001 San Mateo NE, said she sold her house in California to get enough cash to open her Albuquerque business.
    "And I'm glad I did," she said. "It's what I needed to do to open my restaurant."
    Anthony McMahon, director of the U.S. Small Business Administration New Mexico Office, said the office has several microlender programs that serve entry-level groups, including immigrants and minorities.
    "There are also several alternative lenders, which we work closely with, that help these entry-level groups out with not only capital but technical assistance and training," he said.
    McMahon said alternative lenders include nonprofit organizations, such as the New Mexico Community Development Loan Fund, ACCION New Mexico and the Women's Economic Self-Sufficiency Team Corp.
    Choi said he did not have any business experience when he arrived in Albuquerque in 2001 from Seoul, South Korea.
    "The legal stuff and paperwork were especially difficult," said Choi, a former lighting technician. "But other Koreans who own dry-cleaning businesses around here helped me get started."
    Choi also does alterations and sells shoes at his laundry.
    "We're doing OK, at least better than in Korea," he said. "And my children are getting a good education here."
   
Seeking opportunity
    Gladys Manfredi was only 15 years old when she arrived in New York from Colombia on Thanksgiving Day some 27 years ago.
    Leaving her parents and siblings behind wasn't easy.
    Obtaining freedom and opportunity in exchange, however, was well worth it, she said.
    "Women were very much enclosed by their parents back then, especially in Colombia," said Manfredi, who now owns All the Americas grocery store, also located in the shopping center at 6001 San Mateo NE. "I wanted freedom of expression. That's why I left."
    Manfredi, who opened her store more than six years ago, sells an assortment of Caribbean and Latin specialty foods. Her shelves are well-stocked with products like Goya frijoles negros, or black beans; Argentinian chorizo, or sausage; and horchata rice drink concentrate.
    She also sells an eclectic variety of trinkets, ethnic dolls, flags, clothes and caps.
    "In opening a business, many immigrants will try selling what they can," Delgadillo said. "You try what works. I've even seen shoes sold in a taquería."
    Mexican immigrant Jaime Flores used to work in construction.
    He said he moved to Albuquerque from Chihuahua, Mexico, 15 years ago and worked in the construction industry. Then, one day, he realized there just had to be a better way to make money.
    It was then that the idea of running his own carniceria, or meat market, came to mind.
    "So, I opened Carniceria Flores three years ago," he said of his store, which is at 8319 E. Central. "And business is good. The majority of my customers are Hispanic, but every now and then, others come in."
    Flores, whose wife and two daughters help out with the store, said there are two reasons he prefers working in the United States as opposed to Mexico.
    "More business and more money," he said.
   
Keeping it in family
    Mahmoud and Manal Manasra are Palestinians. Their family has run Petra Café & Restaurant at 115 Harvard SE for a little more than a decade.
    The couple and their two children serve Greek and Middle Eastern specialities.
    Business is good, but Mahmoud Manasra said he won't expand because he hasn't the time or family to make it work.
    "This business alone is a lot of work," he said. "I'm not here to compete. My goal is not that. It's simply to make a living and raise my kids. I'm focused on what I have, not on making millions."
    Truong said she also prefers to limit operation of her Vietnamese restaurant to a close circle of people— and she doesn't let anyone else cook.
    The only one who works with her is her sister Mai Tran, who serves up Truong's specialties like pho tai, a beef ball with rice noodles; chim cut, fried mussels with sesame seeds; and cha gio, small fried egg rolls in leaves of fresh lettuce with herbs.
    "It's hard to train just anyone," said Truong, who opened Saigon in 2000. "I want the food cooked by me so that I know it's made fresh, good— perfect. I want our customers to leave not just well-fed but happy."
   
Moving on up
    When Bounphom Limary first opened his international grocery store in 1977, he had no idea he'd go 15 years without taking a vacation.
    "At the time, I didn't have any friends here and ran my own business," said Limary, owner of Ta Lin Wholesale International Foods & Restaurant Supply at 230 Louisiana SE. "When you don't have employees, it's hard to take a vacation."
    Limary's hard work has paid off. In early May, he will transform his current store into a warehouse and will open next to it a new, larger store, an estimated $5 million project.
    The new store, which will also sell various Indian, Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Latin America food products, will allow Limary to increase his 20-employee base to about 70.
    Limary, who relocated to Albuquerque with his wife and two children through the Southeast Asia Refugee Resettlement Program in 1976, said he started his business at the request of Albuquerque's small Asian population.
    "After that, other ethnicities asked if I could sell products they couldn't easily find," said Limary, whose family is from Laos in Southeast Asia. "That's how we've expanded, and I hope business will continue to grow."