Today I had the opportunity to sit down with Jose Reyes, a 1B morning student at Language ETC.

I first met Jose when he was my student, back in the fall of 2009. I was intrigued by his story because Jose had never been to a school before coming to LETC.

Jose grew up in rural El Salvador, where his father and mother had a small farm. They grew corn, rice, beans – all of the staples of a Salvadoran kitchen. The local school was very far away, and although it was a government run and therefore free, it would have been an impossibly long journey every day. So Jose never attended, despite the fact that he had always wanted to.

At twenty years old, Jose met a man who had returned from a long stint in the United States. The man had done well for himself and was able to buy a small plot of land which meant economic stability. Jose found himself motivated by this man’s story and soon left El Salvador for Washington, D.C.

When Jose arrived here back in 1973, Washington was a very different place. There were fewer Latinos, he said, and fewer opportunities for adults who wanted to learn English and basic skills.

Jose and his friends shared a small apartment and Jose found work as a dishwasher. Compared to farm work, hard labor in the United States never seemed difficult to him. “It was never a problem,” he said.

After six years of restaurant work, Jose had saved enough money to buy a business. The area where El Tamarindo stands now was, at the time, very dangerous. Jose’s first business was not his now well-known restaurant, but rather a pool hall. The store next to his ran into legal problems, and Jose was offered the business by the government. He quickly bought it and transformed it into the restaurant he owns today. The pool hall became the restaurant’s bar.

In the beginning, Jose had a difficult time. Although he had worked in kitchens and new certain tricks of the trade, management was another matter. With time and the help of his family, especially his wife Betty, the restaurant prospered.

Jose loves Washington, and he saw getting an education as another way to contribute to the Latino and metropolitan communities here. In 2009, Jose began to take classes at LETC. “It’s been really interesting because I’d never been in a school, and when they gave me a test for the first time I didn’t know what to do with it,” Jose said.

In many ways, school has been a real challenge. Not only is Jose learning a second language; the rhythm of the classroom  took some getting used to as well. At the end of the day, though, Jose said, “I feel that I’m doing well. I’m improving, I’m studying all the time, trying to catch hold of everything that I can.”

He even has plans to get his GED and expand the burgeoning El Tamarindo franchise. Ultimately, all of this is for the sake of “educating and serving” the Latino community, Jose said.