What It Takes

From illegal to entrepreneur

By Avis Thomas-Lester:

At 24, Carlos Castro fled poverty and El Salvador's bloody civil war, paying about $800 for a coyote to smuggle him into the United States. He was caught at the border and deported, but snuck back into the United States almost immediately.

Now 55 and a U.S. citizen, he's the president of Todos Supermarket, which specializes in foods and services to immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa at stores in Woodbridge and Dumfries.

Why he's succeeded: "We were very poor, and I had this great desire to break the cycle of poverty . . . I love to read, and as a teenager, I purchased a book by Dr. Robert Schuller called 'You Can Become the Person You Want to Be.' I got really inspired by that in my early years. I programmed myself to succeed by understanding that success does not come that easy, that you have to go the extra mile with that goal in mind of breaking that poverty cycle."

Worst job he's ever held: Cleaning the bathrooms at an Adams Morgan restaurant, which were so filthy he "almost vomited." He started drinking beer for courage. "I probably downed three or four before I could no longer notice the smell in the bathroom. When the owner came back, she noticed how spotless the restroom was and gave me another beer! She had offered me $3 per hour, but when she saw the job I did, she gave me $5 per hour."

What he's had to overcome: "One of the the most difficult things was getting my grocery business growing because I didn't know anything about that business when it started, and I didn't have enough funding. It put everything to the test, including my marriage. I had to abandon my construction practice and come to work at the store making no money for myself and very little for my wife. At one point, we were going to sell it. We actually had a buyer and then we changed our minds."

Smartest move: "Abandoning my construction [business] knowing that I could later go back if I wanted and deciding to give 100 percent of my energy to the grocery store to make it succeed.

Biggest misstep: "I needed to move out of the place where I had the first grocery store, and I signed a contract with a bowling alley across the street. Later I realized the bowling alley would not work, but at the time I made the decision, I didn't have the know-how. It cost me a lot of money to get out of the deal in lawyers' fees."

Best learning experience: "Being in the detention center when I first came to this country. It taught me a lot. I call that period the most productive 45 days of my life because . . . I had the [time] to ponder every venue or road that I could take because I was at a crossroads in my life."

Source of inspiration: Though Castro's father's drinking problems worsened his family's poverty, "he taught us that when opportunity presents itself, you pounce on it . . . He always said that by age 50, you should have achieved all of the meaningful goals in your life."

What lies ahead: "With the economy, things are challenging now. The business used to be very profitable, but then the economy turned down and the immigration fight drove a lot of people away from Prince William County. It took a lot out of the profitability. Professionally, I want my children to be able to manage the business so I can retire. All three of them work in the food business, and they are gaining experience .  . . I may one day run for [political] office . . . I am also writing a book. I want to have something to put into my children's hands to tell them about what I have done."

Advice to the aspiring: To succeed, people "need a strong work ethic . . . Many of our children have no idea how to go about getting things on their own, how much hard work it takes to accomplish the good things in life. I explain to them that inheriting wealth can actually work against you if you don't know how to handle it. In order for them to succeed, they need to prepare themselves with a good education and work habits."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  November 4, 2009; 11:11 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Next: Ben Carson's unlikely triumph


Please report offensive comments below.

I see the natavists are out in full force for this article.

Carlos Castro is a fine person. He makes me proud to be an American.

Posted by: firenicechick | November 6, 2009 1:44 AM
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Wow, I was in Leadership Prince William all day with Carlos at the McCoart Center and my other Class of 2010 members and didn't even know he was in the paper today. What an extraordinary man!

Posted by: CindyB1 | November 5, 2009 7:39 PM
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charlietuna and bluesoccer are also incredibily ignorant about the US foreign policies that financed and viciously fed the war in El Salvador, creating the horrendous conditions that led these people here in the first place. And btw, since they obviously know nothing about their own history, hispanics and native americans were here FIRST, way before your ancestors and all the other white americans came here illegally and committed genocide in the slaughter of tens of millions of the original inhabitants of this country. YOU are the ones that need to be deported and YOUR assets seized, if you want to talk about what is morally and ethically right.

Posted by: genxer | November 5, 2009 12:50 PM
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Wow you people are so full of anger; you can’t accept the fact that he was an illegal and now an American citizen. The ignorance you people have is unbelievable, what do you guys have against this man? He is an honest hard working man that has succeeded in this county with little or no help from anyone but himself. The comments I read about how “this man taking away jobs from American Citizens” and “This man deserves no recognition, except deportation”, I want to see some of you cleaning bathrooms for $3.00 an hour. The first thing you people would do is complain. Us Latinos, we don’t complain on the contrary we strive to get out of that type of situation as this man did, as my grandparents did 30 years ago and my great great grandparents (who were German) did years ago. To say this man should be deported and have his money taken away is ignorant, stupid, uneducated and un-American. Who do you think picks the nice ripe fruits and vegetables you buy from Safeway or from Whole foods? LATINOS! Are Americans going to do it? I don’t think so, the first thing you guys would do is complain, complain, and complain. Is Charlie Tuna going to pick the fruit, or how about you youhighwaybluesoccer you going to clean bathrooms? How about you Voter4Integrity you going to get on your hands and knees for $3.00 scrubbing piss off the floor? Yea right, it’s sad to think you guys are quick to crucify this man for being illegal, but he is an American citizen he did the right way the American way. Worked his butt off became an American Citizen and now he is living the American dream. God Bless this man for setting an example to all Latinos and other immigrants to do it right, work hard, if your illegal become an American citizen, pay taxes and do your part to make this a better society for all generations. Lastly, thank you to those who gave great positive comments, your great comments inspired me and made me think that there are great people out there who understand what it means to struggle and succeed. I love this country, I am proud to be an American and a Republican.

Posted by: OneProudMexicanAmerican | November 5, 2009 11:34 AM
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Carlos you most be so proud of what you achieved and continued, many Americans had the opportunity and wasted, I believed that when you are from outside you value the little or nothing you could get in here. I'm from Florida and your story really inspired me and I'm waiting for the book I'll be first to buy it. Keep going guanaco

Posted by: lorenaalvarado1975 | November 5, 2009 11:27 AM
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This man deserves no recognition, except deportation.

Posted by: highwaybluesoccer | November 5, 2009 10:48 AM
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What an amazing story. "There but for the grace of G-d go I" should be in every persons mind as they read, and then comment, on Carlos's personal journey. He demonstrated great courage to leave his war torn country and work hard to become a successful business man. For those that denigrate his story, shame on you!

Posted by: timetothink | November 5, 2009 9:37 AM
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He sounds like a decent guy. But it also appears that a big part his success has been in marketing to the illegal community that has been so strong in Prince William County and all of Northern Virginia. This is a choice that we need less Americans to make. Let's stop rolling out the welcome mat, stop the Press 1 for English 2 for Spanish, stop selling "Dish Latino", and most of all stop with the government-subsidized home loans to illegal aliens.

Posted by: seenitallnow1 | November 5, 2009 9:19 AM
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Carlos is an amazing man. I got to hear him tell part of his story at a meeting. His convictions and determination are an inspiration to anyone who has had to struggle. Carlos, get that book written!!

Posted by: kgotthardt | November 5, 2009 8:46 AM
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It is noted that success is making money whether legal or illegal. Our motto is "Greed is good".

It should be noted if it was not him that was a success it would have been someone else. Is this story supposed to mean welcome illegals. We don't have to worry about a shortage of illegals in United States as this is where the money is. Which is why people rob banks as that is where the money is.

This country is famous for its robber borons. Isn't anything besides making money represent success? Still we reprsent the worth of a person by the amount of money that person has. And you wonder why we had an economic crash.

Where is our sense of values? Start by getting passed laws or laws that should have been created to get ahead to the pot of gold while hurting other people in the process. How to fool the system in order to succeed. Look for the latest loop hole. Greed is good until the whole country goes into bankruptcy. The moral of this story is to hell with laws, I want mine. And once I get it I am a success. Unless of cause you worked for Enron. Ooooooooooops!

Posted by: artg | November 5, 2009 8:42 AM
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Old CharlieTuna and VoterIntegrity seem to miss the point completely. (Probably because they want to.)

This man created jobs and has paid taxes for most of his life here in America. He earned the right of citizenship by going through our naturalization process.

The fact that he entered the country illegally should not negate his accomplishments. Once here he became productive to society and our economy.

Do I support illegal immigration? Of course not, but honestly, that's only a symptom of the real problem, and people with CharlieTuna's and Voter Integrity's attitude does absolutely nothing to fix the real problem.... Mexico and Latin America are our neighbors, they are not going anywhere...EVER. Their internal problems will eventually flood into America. We have to find a way to help our neighbors to the south stabilize their countries and make them livable for their citizens. Once that happens illegal immigration will decline.

And yes, neighbors do help neighbors. The United States should help. It benefits all parties involved.

Ahhh, but that's a lot more difficult than sitting at home and bitchin' about illegals.

Posted by: SamWest314 | November 5, 2009 8:41 AM
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Central American immigrants come from very disadvantaged backgrounds and are the hardest working and most humble people you will ever meet. Native-born Americans have all the advantages here, the advantages of education, language, culture, and often money as well, and we always will. Any poor Central American immigrant, especially a formerly illegal one, who achieves great success deserves our admiration and should be an example to us all.

Posted by: matthewk | November 4, 2009 11:27 PM
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My comment is to some of the other comments made…
He is obviously not illegal now or he would not have a business license and have his story in the papers.
Confiscate his money and send him back, Hmmmm… are we now in old Soviet Union….and how many people AMERICANS would lose their jobs because he would have to close his TWO stores….and how much business would be lost to his suppliers, what about the taxes that are paid to the State and the county (both property and sales)… Do AMERICANS ever think thing thru???
I would also like to know how many Americans had jobs stolen by him???
At $3.00 an hour cleaning nasty toilets, I would love to see any AMERICAN that is running to do that.

Posted by: gl123 | November 4, 2009 8:26 PM
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"To succeed, people need a strong work ethic . ."

There's nothing ethical about stealing from American taxpayers in order to profit personally. Sure, he worked hard - at the expense of U.S. citizens who needed Carlos' jobs and who paid for his share of the infrastructure, education, medical facilities ... everything he received. All he's taught his children is that cheaters prosper. Find a new hero, WaPo.

Posted by: Voter4Integrity | November 4, 2009 7:49 PM
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It always inspires me to see an immigrant (even illegal ones) work hard enough to achieve success here. It shows that with hard work in the USA, anything is possible. There are a lot of "Americans" that always point the finger and blame someone else for their lack of success or achievement, when all they have to do is look around. Look at all the latino, asian, middle eastern, far eastern, even european immigrants that have come to this country with absolutely NOTHING, and have made something of themselves. I applaud Mr. Castro.

Posted by: tbantug | November 4, 2009 6:37 PM
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if he came here illegally, his money should be confiscated and he should be sent back.

Posted by: charlietuna666 | November 4, 2009 5:39 PM
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