Journey from Immigrant Teen to Business Leader Aided by Mentors

by Will Espinoza | October 18, 2019

The 1980s
were a turbulent time in El Salvador. Consumed by a civil war, thousands of
innocent civilians we terrorized by the unrest. It was no different for Omar
Martinez. As a boy, Martinez and his family fled from their home in hopes of
finding sanctuary in other parts of the country. But by the time Martinez was
14, he had become a military recruitment target like many other children. His parents
had no choice but to get Martinez and his siblings out of El Salvador. With the
loss of many friends and family members to the senseless acts of war, the
perils of the journey north outweighed the almost certainty of death in El

By November
1989, Martinez had crossed the Mexican-American border. He was detained by
government officials and spent three months in a detention center for minors in
Brownsville, Texas. After an uncle who had resettled in the Washington, D.C.,
area as lawful permanent residence came to Martinez’s aid and sponsored his
immigration to the U.S., Martinez was granted temporary protected status.

Once he settled into his new life in the area, Martinez dedicated his time to learning. He attended a Montgomery County public high school  and Montgomery College. He also worked hard to help his uncle provide for their family. He found part-time employment as a dishwasher at Silver Diner, where he worked under the tutelage of executive chef Ype Von Hengst. Both his uncle and chef Von Hengst became Martinez’s mentors. They made him feel valued, loved, and wanted. Each took a special interest in his future. Von Hengst went as far as to become a sponsor in Martinez’s pursuit of becoming a legal U.S. resident.

Ready to
begin his journey to become a legal resident, Martinez sought out the help of
the Immigration Legal Services team at our Spanish Catholic Center in
Gaithersburg, Md.. There, he began to work with attorney Celia Rivas, who was
well-known and beloved in the community for her compassion and understanding. She
provided guidance and solace throughout the process. In 2001, Martinez became a

married with three children, he is operating partner of Silver Diner

Because of
the compassion and motivation his mentors and Rivas provided, he was able to
overcome the ordeals he faced as a child fleeing from a war-torn country. Today,
Martinez is empathetic to those seeking the freedoms and opportunities he has
been blessed with.

He has
committed his life to help those around him. The restaurants employ nearly
2,000 people, 70 percent of whom are Hispanic. He routinely donates to local
charities, including public schools and churches. In 2014, he was recognized by
Montgomery County Public Schools  as the
Best Business Owner for his commitment to and support of area schools.

Martinez’s story is one of hope and compassion. He is one of millions of immigrants from around the world who leave their home countries in the pursuit of happiness and safety. For Martinez, he was fortunate to have mentors who helped him succeed and to find the help he needed at the Spanish Catholic Center.

Spanish Catholic Center and its supporters will be celebrated at a Saturday,
Oct. 19, gala at the Marriott Marquis in Washington. 
Click here to learn more.