The journey and business success of "La Chiquita"

"Chiquita, can you bring me a soda?" "Chiquita, how much is two pupusas and a bag of mangos?" These are the things neighborhood soccer players, friends, and family members would yell from across the fields to Dora Escobar as she sold beverages, fruits, and traditional Salvadoran pupusas—a corn tortilla stuffed with beans, cheese, and/or ground pork—out of her cooler. It was on the soccer fields of the predominantly Latino neighborhood in Maryland, Langley Park, that the brand now known as "La Chiquita," translated lovingly into "little one," was conceived. Escobar became La Chiquita and grew her enterprise into four restaurants, a beauty salon, and 10 check-cashing services in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Her narrative is featured in the American Enterprise exhibition located in the Mars Hall of American Business, and she has become un orgullo Latino, the pride of the Latino community.

Couple and son in front of exhibition panel

Escobar's roots in business go back to the early 1970s in a humble village in Chalatenango, El Salvador. As a five year old, she started selling produce, balanced on the top of her head, to assist her parents in supporting themselves and her eight siblings. By the time she turned 18, Escobar yearned for independence from her family. She got married. Escobar's husband was the first to leave en route to the United States, and she followed shortly thereafter in 1990, entrusting her child to his grandmother until they could be reunited a year and a half later.

On an early morning in 1990, Escobar put on her newly customized jeans, made with a hidden pocket to hide her quetzales and pesos, grabbed her bottle of water, and left with a smuggler, frequently called a "coyote," for Los Angeles. Her entire life rested in the decisions the coyote made on her behalf.

The group that Escobar immigrated with changed throughout the journey. As Escobar explained, they would wake up in the mornings and the coyote would decide, "You five leave today." The chosen ones would continue their journey to the United States without knowing how long they would have to walk, who was going to meet them at their next location, or whether they would be able to eat. Escobar recounted the nights when they did not arrive at a host home and simply looked for a rock to fall asleep on.

Building painted blue.

One month later, she arrived in Los Angeles. The American Dream she fantasized about in El Salvador was not attained when she stepped foot across the border dividing Mexico and the United States. After enduring inhumane working conditions at a clothing factory and a private home, she was able to finally reunite with her husband who was residing in Maryland.

Escobar's entrepreneurial spirit was driven by necessity, just as it had been when she helped her parents by selling fruit. Once in Maryland, around 1992, Escobar began selling pupusas, mangos, cucumbers, and beverages at the soccer fields in Langley Park, a Washington, D.C., suburb that is home to a large Latino population, gradually developing her reputation as La Chiquita. La Chiquita also ventured around her community selling clothing from a suitcase and food items out of a van. The van served as a mobile grocery store offering tomatoes, avocados, oil, and anything else her customers might need to cook.

When Escobar's neighbors did not have money to purchase such items, she gave them time to repay her. There was a mutual trust formed between La Chiquita and the Latino community she served. The relationship she created with her community allowed her to eventually own five successful food trucks, which she proudly named "La Chiquita."

After local legislation put restrictions on food trucks in the early 2000s, Escobar was required to close her food trucks. Thereafter, she rented a corner in a retail space from which she sold clothing, but had to leave when the rent became unaffordable for the business partner she shared a space with. Fortunately, just a few years later, with the committed support of a realtor, La Chiquita was able to raise sufficient funds to open her first brick-and mortar-business—Bazar La Chiquita, now named La Chiquita Express.

Woman in commercial kitchen, leaning over grill to flip a dish

The nickname originally heard among the soccer players, family, and friends at soccer fields is now seen throughout Maryland and in the National Museum of American History's American Enterprise exhibition. Dora "La Chiquita" Escobar humbly started selling foods from her native country, El Salvador, uniting the Latino community through nostalgic tastes of her ancestral country. With the support of her community, she has found success in entrepreneurship and a new home in the United States.

Wanda Hernández is an intern with Programs in Latino History and Culture. She has also blogged about the sazón in hip-hop.