Todo para la familia – everything for the family.
As a student at J.R. Tucker High School in the 1970s, Michel Zajur was often a no-show for after-school activities. Though it put a crimp in his social life, work – and family – came first.
He was usually at the Zajur family business, La Siesta Mexican Restaurant.
"I always had to work, then meet friends after work," Zajur said. "They would make plans to do something, and then look at me, and say, 'Yeah, I know. You’ll meet us there.' "
Meeting people – and connecting them to one another – became a theme throughout Zajur's life, which started in Mexico but soon shifted to Richmond. For nearly two decades, it has been his livelihood as founding leader of the Midlothian-based Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
"I never planned on running a chamber of commerce," Zajur said. "I wanted to open a bunch of restaurants."
Of course, those two notions are closely aligned. La Siesta itself represented the roots of the chamber, and in both, the same value – todo para la familia – came to represent a sense of belonging, unity and strength.
For years, La Siesta was more than a restaurant mainstay on Midlothian Turnpike near Robious Road – it became a landmark institution in Richmond's emerging Latino community. There, Zajur and his family served up more than fajitas and chalupas: Hispanic culture was a prominent offering, and programs such as Siesta Town taught schoolchildren about Mexico, its customs and its people.
Zajur, who later owned and managed the restaurant, estimates that more than 100,000 children visited to soak up Spanish phrases and learn about Latino culture. They came in carloads and busloads, mostly on field trips from local schools.
At the same time, Hispanic entrepreneurs would drop by seeking advice on conducting business in the local environment. And other Richmonders would be looking for tips on marketing to the region’s growing Latino population.
The restaurant was becoming a regular chamber of commerce. Maybe it was time to start one.
"People encouraged me," said Zajur, who attended Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Business from 1977 to 1981. "I really didn’t intend to run it, but I soon realized I needed to come in and make it happen. I also realized my reputation was at stake.
"Latinos here didn’t know other Latinos," he recalled. "Businesspeople didn’t know other businesspeople. Corporate professionals didn’t know other Latino professionals."
Jim Dunn, who was president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Chamber at the time, observed Zajur working to remedy that.
"He really tried to serve as a conduit to bring them together, to help them get to know one another," Dunn said. "Then, once they reached that point, they were ready to engage and move forward.
"It was a great vision on his part to see the opportunity, No. 1," Dunn said. "But it was a tremendous achievement, once he saw the vision, to really lead the effort to pull the whole thing together."
From its modest beginnings in 2000, the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has grown to serve more than 500 members statewide, with a Northern Virginia office near Tysons Corner and its headquarters on Midlothian Turnpike – about a mile west of where La Siesta once stood. Members range from startups to multimillion-dollar government contractors.
The nonprofit chamber builds bridges in multiple directions, whether helping members promote their businesses or helping outsiders connect with the Latino community. It hosts more than 100 events each year, including business conferences, workshops, networking events and trade missions, and it works with other chambers around the state and nation, as well as with Latin American embassies based in Washington.
The Hispanic market in the United States is enormous, Zajur said, encompassing an estimated 57.5 million people. For businesses seeking inroads, "we try to make it where language and culture are not a barrier," he said. "A lot of it is helping (non-Latinos) learn the language and the culture."
The chamber's cultural commitment extends beyond business. Zajur has originated such events as the popular annual ¿Qué Pasa? Festival in early May, which grew out of smaller Cinco de Mayo celebrations in La Siesta's parking lot. The chamber-associated Virginia Hispanic Foundation offers services to help Hispanics integrate into the larger community, including a Pasaporte a la Educación program that focuses on academic success for youths.
His efforts have attracted notice. In 2012, Zajur received the Ohtli Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Mexican government upon a non-Mexican citizen. Virginia Business magazine named him "One of the 25 People You Need to Know in the State." And the Virginia International Business Council in 2011 gave the chamber its Global Excellence Award.
"He’s been a tremendous ambassador for the Hispanic community," Dunn said, "and turned something from scratch into something that's become statewide."
Zajur's role as a cultural go-between started early. He was born in Mexico City and came to Richmond with his family in the early 1960s, when he was a toddler.
"My parents didn’t speak English. Growing up ... we learned English a lot quicker," he said of himself and his five siblings. "Of course, we talked Spanish at home all the time, but we grew up translating and always helping our parents."
Michel Sr. and Samira Zajur opened a luncheon at Third and Broad streets downtown, then started a restaurant called the Seafood Grotto and then Sam's Diner on Jefferson Davis Highway (near what is now Defense Supply Center Richmond). They initially catered strictly to local tastes, but eventually they added some Mexican dishes to the menu.
"Back then," the younger Zajur said, "just getting people to try Mexican food was a challenge."
Before long, the name morphed into Sam’s La Siesta. The restaurant moved in 1979 to Patterson Avenue as La Siesta Mexican Restaurant, and in 1982, it moved to Midlothian Turnpike.
Zajur and his siblings all worked at La Siesta, and along the way, they experienced the growth of the Hispanic community in the Richmond region.
Zajur managed the restaurant for two decades until 2001, when he left to devote his full energies to the fledgling chamber. A brother took over until closing the restaurant in 2009 to spend more time with family, putting an end to three-plus decades of La Siesta's presence in Richmond.
But its spirit lives on in Zajur's commitment to bringing cultures together.
"As we compete around the world, China and other countries are making great headway," he said. "Sometimes as Americans, we need to learn other languages and other cultures – never giving up our language and our culture, but sometimes it’s a business benefit when you can relate to someone in their own language. And I think a lot of businesses see that."
The chamber’s Spanish language program – provided by the Spanish Academy and Cultural Institute (which grew out of Siesta Town) – is headed by Zajur’s wife, Lisa. A non-Latino with a background in education, Lisa had to teach herself Spanish when she married into the Zajur family "so she wouldn’t be talked about" at family gatherings, Zajur joked.
He is especially proud of the work done by the Virginia Hispanic Foundation, which provides scholarships and other services for those in need.
"We have a mission to provide education, information and resources to help (newcomers) assimilate into the American community," he said. "Our philosophy is that as a chamber member, you have to give back. You help others come up the ladder."
Todo para la familia – everything for the family.