Financial Lessons from Immigrants: Work Your Way Up

José Wilfredo Flores came to the U.S. with no money and no papers. Now his business makes $6.6 million a year.

As a 14-year-old in El Salvador during its brutal civil war, José Wilfredo Flores faced a choice: Join the guerrillas or join the army. “The guerrillas would come to our house,” says Flores. “We had to hide. You couldn’t say no because then they would think you were on the army’s side and shoot you. A few hours later, the army guys would come and say, ‘We want food. We want to take you.’ If you said no, they’d think you were with the guerrillas.” In 1984, Flores’s mother made her own painful choice. She paid $1,400 to a smuggler, or coyote, to help guide her son to Washington, D.C., where his uncle and his 18-year-old brother lived.

Flores’s journey, mostly by bus and truck, took more than a month. He waded across the Rio Grande River and then traveled in the back of a U-Haul crammed with other illegal immigrants. In Philadelphia, a police officer stopped the U-Haul for running a red light. Most of the van’s occupants were detained, but Flores was released because of his age and made his way to D.C. “I came to America with no shoes, no nothing—not even a dollar.”

Flores is among the thousands of Salvadorans who entered the United States, legally and illegally, starting in the early 1980s. The first wave left El Salvador to escape the civil war; later waves came to join family members or to escape the aftermath of earthquakes and hurricanes. Salvadorans are among the ten largest immigrant groups in this country. In the Washington, D.C., area, a magnet for Central Americans, they represent 14% of the 1.2 million who are foreign-born. Most Salvadorans and other Central Americans arrive with disadvantages, including minimal education, poor proficiency in English and a distrust of banks. They generally work in low-income jobs and send a large portion of their earnings back home, making it difficult to get a foothold here. And they have little or no experience with credit. “Latinos think that debt is bad,” says Marisabel Torres, of the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group. “Without a credit history, you don’t have a doorway to other things you want to achieve.”

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Immigration status represents another issue. Although undocumented immigrants can use an individual tax identification number to set up a bank account, apply for credit and pay taxes, fear of deportation can deter them from participating in mainstream financial systems and from accessing services. “Many in the Latino population will favor situations in which they can remain anonymous,” says Mattias Kraemer, of the Latino Economic Development Corp. “If you keep in the shadows, you’re safer.”

Latinos also bring cultural assets to the American table, including a strong work ethic, an ability to save and “a tenacious resolve to learn through experience,” says Kraemer. “Here, we think you need two degrees to do anything. The Latino population will dive into projects. They understand that the real learning happens once you start.”

Many Latinos use their experience to start their own businesses, says Emily Coronado, director of small-business development at the LEDC. The Latino devotion to family means that most such businesses have plenty of helping hands, she says. “Family ties are huge.”

Upon arriving in D.C., Flores worked part-time cleaning offices while attending Lincoln Middle School. “I didn’t have enough money to buy a French fry,” he recalls. At 15, he left school to work full-time in construction, using falsified documents that said he was 18. “Fake ID, fake Social Security, everything was fake. Nobody checked,” he says. He later became eligible for a legal work permit (he is now a U.S. citizen). By age 25, he had learned the concrete business and was supervising a crew of 50, earning more than $60,000 a year.

Flores dreamed of starting his own business. Ten years ago, he used savings and a line of credit to start W Concrete, in Jessup, Md. One of the company’s first jobs was to pour the concrete for the building that replaced Lincoln Middle School. Last year, the business brought in $6.6 million.

“Most Salvadorans are humble people who will do whatever it takes to get ahead,” says Flores. “In my country, there’s no opportunity for poor people. The rich get richer and richer. The poor will always be poor and poor. Here, do it right and nobody can stop you.”

Jane Bennett Clark
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
The late Jane Bennett Clark, who passed away in March 2017, covered all facets of retirement and wrote a bimonthly column that took a fresh, sometimes provocative look at ways to approach life after a career. She also oversaw the annual Kiplinger rankings for best values in public and private colleges and universities and spearheaded the annual "Best Cities" feature. Clark graduated from Northwestern University.