Admin: Test My Skills

Moving to US and amassing a fortune, no English needed.

Nov 8, 2011 12:00 AM at New Yark

For Sanchez, who became an American citizen in 1985, one anxious moment came when he had to pass his naturalization test. The law requires that applicants be able to read, write and speak basic English.

But Sanchez and other entrepreneurs said that the test, at least at the time they took it, had been rudimentary and that they had muddled through it.

Sanchez immigrated to the United States in 1970 from the Mexican state of Puebla with only a fifth-grade education. He held a series of low-paying jobs in New York, including washing dishes in a Midtown restaurant. The Mexican population in the New York region was small back then, but it soon began growing, as did the demand for authentic Mexican products.

Felix Sanchez de la Vega Guzman, 66, turned selling tortillas on the street into a $19 million food business.

In 1978, Sanchez and his wife, Carmen, took $12,000 in savings, bought a tortilla press and an industrial dough mixer in Los Angeles, hauled the machinery back to the East Coast and installed it in a warehouse in Passaic, N.J. Sanchez spent his days driving a forklift at an electrical-equipment factory and spent his evenings and nights making tortillas and selling them door-to-door in Latino neighborhoods around New York City.

His company, Puebla Foods, grew with the Mexican population, and he was soon distributing his tortillas and other Mexican products, like dried chilies, to bodegas and restaurants throughout the Northeast. At its peak, his enterprise had factories in cities all across North America, including Los Angeles, Miami, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Washington. It has since been buffeted by competition and by the economy, and he has scaled back.

He has relied heavily on a bilingual staff, which at times has included his three children, born and raised in New Jersey.

Zhang, the cell phone accessories entrepreneur, said his lack of English had not been a handicap. "The only obstacle I have is if I get too tired," said Mr. Zhang, who also owns a property development company and an online retail firm.

In 2001, Zhang set up a wholesale business in cell phone accessories in Manhattan. He then raised money from relatives and investors in China to open a manufacturing plant there to make leather cell phone cases for export to the United States, Canada and Latin America.

His business boomed, and he opened warehouses in Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, controlling his international manufacturing, supply and retail chain from his base in New York.

Zhang now lives in a big house in Little Neck, Queens, with his wife, three daughters and parents, and drives a Lexus S.U.V. He has not applied for citizenship, preferring to remain a legal permanent resident and maintain his Chinese citizenship, which spares him the bother of securing a Chinese visa when he goes to China for business.

While he can speak rudimentary English - he rates his comprehension at 30 percent - he conducts nearly his entire life in Chinese. His employees speak the languages of trading partners: English, Spanish, Creole, Korean and French, not to mention multiple Chinese dialects.

Over the course of a lengthy interview, he gamely tried on several occasions to converse in English, but each time he ran into roadblocks and, with a shrug of resignation, resumed speaking through a translator in Mandarin.

Kim, the Korean retailer, recalled that when he opened his first store in Brooklyn, nearly his entire clientele was Afro-Caribbean and African-American, and his customers spoke no Korean.

"You don't have to have a big conversation," he recalled. "You can make gestures."

While his holdings have grown, he has also formed or led associations and organizations that focus on empowering the Korean population in the United States. As in business, modern communication has made it much easier for him to raise his profile throughout the Korean Diaspora well beyond New York.

"The success of my life is not only that I make a lot of money," he said, "but that I make a lot of Korean people's lives better."

Yet he admitted that he was embarrassed by his inability to speak English. He has gone so far as to buy some English-tutorial computer programs, but for years, they have gone mostly unused.