County resident remembers fleeing violence for hope here
When the popular restaurant Silver Diner on Rockville Pike first opened for business on Feb. 14, 1989, its future operating partner was a teenager in civil-war-torn El Salvador.
Fleeing the violence in his native land, Omar Martinez, then 14 years old, crossed Guatemala and Mexico before entering the United States by swimming across the Rio Bravo into Texas in the middle of the night on Dec. 28, 1989.
“I came here with dreams to live in different sort of world where I could go to school and make positive contributions to American society,” Martinez said.
Soon after his arrival in America, Martinez was detained by the immigration authorities and was held in a minors’ detention center for roughly two months. He was eventually released into the care of his uncle, who was then a legal resident of Rockville.
After relocating to Rockville, Martinez began attending Montgomery County Public Schools and took his first job at Silver Diner, as a dishwasher. He learned English in school and eventually took advanced classes at Montgomery College.
“It took me about five years to become fluent in speaking English,” Martinez said. “It’s taken me a lot longer to learn how to write it properly.”
As Martinez started a family, he advanced at Silver Diner, working nearly every job at the restaurant before he was offered the position of general manager at Silver Diner’s Tyson’s Corner location. In 2005, he returned to the Rockville location to become its operating partner and has worked there ever since. During his tenure, the diner’s revenue has increased substantially.
“One of my dreams was to be a contributor to society, and I’ve been able to do that here in Rockville,” Martinez said, citing Silver Diner’s financial contributions to support health and wellness programs in area schools. He received an award from MCPS in 2014 as the business owner who had done the most to support the schools.
Martinez formally became an American citizen at a ceremony in Baltimore in 2001. He said that he has always felt welcome in America, but that the rhetoric and proposals of President Donald Trump, who on the campaign trail called for mass deportations of illegal immigrants and the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, have alarmed him and many in his community.
“Over the last year, the news that we’ve been hearing, particularly from the new president, has been very scary to my Latin American community,” Martinez said. “It’s something that keeps our friends and families awake at night. This is the kind of threat that a lot of us came here to get away from. There was a big celebration many years ago when Germany knocked down its wall, but now, seeing that they want to build a wall here in our own backyard, separating out families is very heartbreaking.”
Martinez said he would like to show those concerned about losing jobs and resources that immigrants make significant contributions to the American economy.
“I am a businessman and I would have to say that I am very successful, and I feel that if I don’t have the workforce from other countries, I would have to close this business,” Martinez said. “Mr. Trump says he wants to rebuild American infrastructure, but he also says he wants to deport 11 million people. If he does that, who’s going to build all these new roads and bridges? I did not come here to take jobs from Americans. I came here so that I could build something, give back and create more jobs for this wonderful country.”