Gerardo Cordova used to be an electrical engineer; his wife, Teresa, a dentist. But that was in a previous life, in a previous country.
Although a 12-year civil war ended in 1992, staying in their homeland of El Salvador was too risky. "The situation in our country was violent," Cordova said.
That's one of the reasons Cordova brought his wife and children to the United States in 2006, settling in Uniondale. The other: "We came for the American dream," Cordova said, although he admits that making that a reality has been challenging.
Cordova began working with a photographer after moving to the United States, and two years ago, he opened his own photo studio with his wife. Since March, he's been receiving help in growing the business from an unlikely source -- the El Salvador Consulate, which has an office in Brentwood in addition to a location in Manhattan. It's the only foreign consulate in the area, and it also serves Connecticut.
According to the 2012 census, Long Island is home to about 100,000 Salvadorans, who now represent the area's largest Hispanic immigrant population. This rapidly growing demographic needed a local consulate to facilitate passports and other documents, so in 1998, an office opened in Garden City. Just two years later, the consulate relocated to Brentwood, with a final move last November to its current 5,000-square-foot facility on Alkier Street.
It's clearly a hub of activity. On any given day, the main level is packed with children and adults, waiting in lines and seats to obtain or renew passports, visas and other documentation. The office, which typically assists up to 300 people a day, also provides legal and other services immigrants might require.
But there's a whole part of the consulate that has nothing at all to do with official administrative duties.
The increased space allows for a second floor, one which Consul General Dagoberto Torres envisions as a center for cultural programs that will serve to unite Salvadorans living in the area. Torres, a career diplomat who has been in the United States only two years, has a personal affinity for the arts, having studied theater, classical guitar and the flute, which he plays with a Latin jazz group.
"Before, the old building didn't have space, but now we have room for many programs," he said through a translator, citing among the options poetry readings, folkloric musical performances and art exhibits, such as one on Aug. 17 that featured works of local Latin American artists.
Last December, the consulate also embarked on an altogether different initiative, one aimed at assisting Salvadoran entrepreneurs and businesspeople, by partnering with the New York State Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook University.
The program offers one-on-one counseling and workshops, according to Jesus Riano, the Spanish Business adviser and Hispanic initiative coordinator at the center.
"We help with everything from bookkeeping, to Web presence, to financial projections, cash flow analysis, marketing plans and market studies," Riano said. Essentially, everything any business person needs to know for their enterprises to flourish.
Cordova, who two years ago launched Michelle GT Photo Studio in Hempstead, is one of 23 entrepreneurs benefiting from the consulate program.
"It's hard to understand the way to do business in this country," he said. "As entrepreneurs, we have to perform so many tasks -- photography, business administration, quality control," added Cordova, who saved money to buy the equipment necessary to run a commercial photography studio.
Getting used to U.S. system
According to Riano, things are a bit different elsewhere.
"The way businesses are run in Latin America is a little more informal," he said. So appropriate bookkeeping is encouraged, in addition to declaring income taxes and maintaining bank accounts. "The ultimate goal is to have everybody assimilated into the U.S. business system."
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and is roughly the size of Massachusetts. Many Salvadorans are recent U.S. immigrants, relocating during El Salvador's brutal civil war, which began in 1980 and was rife with human rights violations.
The U.S. Department of State website warns tourists that the criminal threat there is critical, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world. "Random and organized violent crime is endemic throughout El Salvador," the site says.
Two significant earthquakes and subsequent landslides in 2001 devastated parts of the country, leading to further immigration.
The Stony Brook/consulate program was initiated to foster strength within the Long Island Salvadoran immigrant community while also stimulating economic growth. The program expects to serve about 160 entrepreneurs and business people, according to the Small Business Development Center. And Torres is putting together other efforts now that his office has ample space.
This summer, Torres initiated an English-language pilot program for adults, taught by local high school students. It will be expanded in September, with frequent ESL classes led by volunteer retired teachers and high school students.
151 Alkier St., Brentwood
Hours: Monday to Friday, 8 a.m-4 p.m.
Consul: Dagoberto Torres
Vice Consuls: Miguel Antonio Alas and Mauricio Vasquez