Prince George's Hispanics turn to 'Don Jorge'
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
At a concert in Langley Park featuring Guatemalan country music, the crowd is divisible by headwear, cowboy hats vs. baseball caps. Older immigrants wear the ranch garb of rural Central America; younger ones, the Terps and Nike caps common in suburban Washington.
At the edge of the two-stepping audience, one man stands hatless. Immigrants of all ages approach Jorge Sactic-España to shake hands and pass a few words of Spanish with the man they call Don Jorge or, sometimes, Mayor.
An older man in a white, wide-brimmed hat checks in with the don (a Spanish honorific showing great respect) about an ongoing dispute between Latino store owners and managers of La Union Mall, where the concert is taking place. A younger man (blue N.Y.C. cap) asks if he knows of any construction or painting jobs. A woman in jeans with a bare midriff seeks help with a fundraiser for hungry children in Guatemala.
Dispensing aid and advice is routine for Sactic, although he is no elected official. He owns a bakery.
His Chapina Bakery is a popular gathering spot in the two-story shopping center, the epicenter of the large Hispanic enclave in this part of Prince George's County. Sactic's cachitos and gallinitas are known as the most authentic Latin American sweet buns around.
But it's his standing as a onetime illegal immigrant who has mastered life in the United States that makes him a bridge between newcomers and old-timers, Latinos and gringos -- the unofficial mayor of La Union Mall.
"Some people call me that," Sactic, 48, says with a dismissive wave. His nearly fluent English rises over the accordion music of Paco Pinado, a singer flown in from Guatemala to croon country ballads for homesick compatriots. "To me, it's just a matter of helping whoever I can. I see the value in all of us working together. This is in my nature."
What makes Sactic stand out from other immigrants-made-good is his continuing devotion to the neediest members of the diaspora, say those who have worked with him.
"Once they get their paperwork and a profession, their focus usually becomes more inward, toward their career, their children," says Amanda Martin, director of the Washington-based Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. Her group regularly calls on Sactic to host meetings at the bakery. "That's why it's incredible that Jorge is still so engaged. He is the cement between the bricks in that world."
Sactic, who became a U.S. citizen in 2002, represents a crucial character in the story of immigrant enclaves such as Langley Park, says Jacob L. Vigdor, a professor of public policy at Duke University and an expert on assimilation. As the rare immigrant comfortable in both worlds, Sactic acts as a "cultural concierge," he says.
"We have examples throughout the history of the country of people like this who have taken it upon themselves to serve as conduits of information," Vigdor said. "They find answers for the newcomers."
'Known to everyone'
With the campesino tunes still filling the mall, Sactic retreats to the tiny bakery office to do paperwork through the night.
Visiting La Union can feel like a quick trip to the tropics. All but a handful of the 46 shops are Latino-owned and -oriented, including the soccer supply store and the party shop packed with elaborate dresses for girls' 15th birthday celebrations.
Other shop owners want Sactic to persuade the mall's new management team to give them more time to make rent payments during the downturn and to be more open to face-to-face negotiations. Sactic works up a summary of the issues for a lawyer to review.
"It's a cultural thing," he says. "They should come and meet us and shake our hands."
He orders flour and updates the payroll for his nine employees. He plans a meeting for the immigrant group he founded, AGUA (a Spanish acronym for the Association of Guatemalans United). He works on a paper for the master's degree in international business he is pursuing through the University of Maryland's continuing education program.
The bakers have arrived to fire up the ovens for the day ahead before Sactic begins translating materials for a meeting on the proposed Purple Line's impact on Langley Park. The e-mail he sends when he finishes for the night is time-stamped 3:18 a.m.
"Late at night is when I can get things done," says Sactic, who rents a basement apartment in Hyattsville for times when the drive home to Germantown is too long and too late. "There are so many meetings, people always coming in to talk."
With a little paunch and an ever-present blue sweater vest, the soft-spoken Sactic looks more like a folk singer than a man whom immigrants, activists and embassies turn to as a leader.
Laborers come to his shop with immigration problems, parking tickets and questions about income taxes and health care. Desperate mothers ask for bread to help them get through another jobless week. Government officials from Prince George's and Guatemala City call when they need an emissary for the thousands of Latinos who fill the surrounding apartment buildings.
"When we need to reach the people, we go to Jorge," says Rita Claverie de Sciolli, deputy chief of mission at the Guatemalan Embassy. The diplomats have asked Sactic to host mobile consulate sessions, during which they process passport requests and record births, deaths and marriages.
Claverie says Sactic helped fill the gap recently after a popular embassy program was dropped because of budget cuts: one that sent home the bodies of Guatemalans who died in the Washington area.
That sad gesture of loyalty to homeland can cost a family $2,000 or more, and Sactic is nearly constantly raising money to support the shipments. Most recently, a donation box on his bakery counter featured a photo of a young man who died of a neurological disease. Earlier this month, Sactic contributed 200 sweet buns to be sold to raise money to send a cancer victim back to a mountain cemetery.
"Don Jorge is known to everyone. He helps everyone," says a 22-year-old Guatemalan standing in front of the bakery. The man, who didn't want to be identified because he is in the country illegally, has just been speaking by cellphone to his wife in Guatemala, telling her that he has landed a job as a painter's helper and will be able to send her school fees for their son. Earlier this year, Sactic had given the young worker bread when he couldn't find work.
Not that Sactic can always help. When a tiny elderly woman came to him with a stack of traffic citations, he was surprised to find that one was a ticket for driving under the influence.
"I said, 'Abuela, you need a lawyer,' " Sactic recalls with a laugh. "We see everything here."
Struggles and successes
Sactic's American experience began in 1985 with a swim across the Rio Grande at Brownsville, Tex. He was 25. The Guatemalan civil war was raging, and college students were targets of right-wing hit squads. He abandoned his studies in economics and fled north. It would be 15 years before he saw the inside of a classroom again.
"I came to Washington because my aunt was here," he says. "I started with nothing."
At first, he worked the usual entry-level jobs: sweeping floors, folding dropcloths for a painter, washing brushes. Within three years, he started his own painting company. He added construction projects, learned English, hired skilled workers.
"My dad just knows how to get things done," says Sactic's daughter, Jacqueline Manchané, 25, a receptionist at an Elizabeth Arden spa in Germantown. "That's his main talent."
Sactic, his wife, Dora, and their three children reached an immigrant milestone in 2000 when they bought a roomy house in Germantown. There have been other successes. A son, Georgie, 23, owns a cellphone store in the District.
But life wasn't easy; the couple's youngest, Edward, was born with cerebral palsy. For years, their routines revolved around doctor's appointments and 24-hour care. Edward died three years ago at 13.
Sactic's community activities ballooned after Edward's death, Manchané says. "I think before, he had to always make sure he was around," she says. "Now he has more flexibility."
Sactic received an associate's degree from Montgomery College and a bachelor's in business administration from Maryland. In 2004, sensing a literal hunger for the authentic pan dulce of Guatemala, he opened the bakery. The lines went out the door.
"We're selling sentiment," he says as customers fill plastic bins with warm, brown buns. "It's what they grew up with."
At the mall, the scents of Sactic's baked goods mix with the aromas of the traditional cooking of two Guatemalan cafes. "It's like being in Central America here," says Sactic, who is president of the mall's merchants association. "This could be in Guatemala City or Tegucigalpa."
At the concert, Sactic takes a break from his paperwork to enjoy the sight of his dancing compatriots. "Tonight, everyone is happy," he shouts above the ruckus. "It's one night without problems."
Then he turns to talk to another shop owner, someone else waiting for a word with the mayor.