Northern Virginians of the Year 2017: Carlos Castro

The first thing you notice when Carlos Castro walks into the room is his smile. The second thing is his energy.

Carlos Castro
Photo by Jonathan Timmes

“I’m active. You can’t chain me to a desk because I’ll die there.

The first thing you notice when Carlos Castro walks into the room is his smile. The second thing is his energy.

A native of El Salvador, Castro owns the grocery store chainlet Todos Supermarkets with locations in Woodbridge and Dumfries. He has been featured in The Washington Post and USA Today and received the 2016 Latino Impact Award from the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the 2017 Leadership Vision Award from Leadership Prince William.

As a youth, Castro shared a two-room home with his nine siblings. Though his living conditions were meager, Castro didn’t mind. “I can tell you that we were really happy, so I didn’t know what I was missing,” he says, recalling the grandeur of the San Salvador Volcano near his hometown, Mejicanos.

Castro found it easy to bury his nose in work and study as a shy child. After graduating with honors from high school, he studied business and industrial engineering and soon began looking for ways to move to the United States.

In early 1980, just as El Salvador was ensnared in the start of a 12-year civil war, Castro attempted to enter the U.S. illegally by paying a smuggler, or coyote. Within a week, he was caught and detained for 45 days in the United States. The detention center offered work, and Castro jumped at the opportunity, doing odd jobs nearly every day for a dollar a day.

Just after his return to El Salvador, he set out for America again, this time with no coyote but with two cousins and “on the mercy of God,” he says. With the help of a woman they met in Mexico, they made it into California. And by May of 1980, Castro had relocated to D.C., joined soon by his wife.

Over the next decade, Castro worked in a series of roles that required little formal training, from bathroom janitor to busboy. In 1985, he and his wife were able to step out of the shadows of illegal immigration when an employer sponsored their citizenship. They became citizens in 1990, and Castro opened Todos.

Regarding the current local climate for immigrants, Castro says, “It’s terrifying because you live in fear every day.” His philosophy: “We have to work hard and believe in ourselves.”

That’s been his approach to his store, which employs roughly 170 people. He lets community members use a training room there for free on a case-by-case basis, and he hopes to expand the store’s bakery into a cafe that offers healthy food options and work/relaxation space to the community. Castro recently started an in-house leadership program, the Todos Excellency Institute, that provides leadership training to his employees now but may soon extend to the larger community. He also enjoys speaking to local youth. After one school visit, a mother stopped by Todos to tell Castro that her son had never been excited about his future—until he heard Castro’s words.

Castro radiates with appreciation as he recounts the story. “That kind of thing you can’t buy with money.”

(June 2017 Northern Virginians of the Year)