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    Mexican immigrant walks, works for American dream

    Virginio Paloma worked his way from menial jobs to his own business. He's in the running for an international trade award.

    [Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
    Virginio Paloma, 33, who owns several money-wiring stores, is a finalist for the Tampa Bay Women in International Trade's 2002 International Business Person of the Year award.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 23, 2002

    CLEARWATER -- It took Virginio Paloma 13 days to walk from Mexico's border to the little town of Eldorado , Texas.

    Armed with a ninth-grade education and no knowledge of English, the 16-year-old boy became a migrant farm worker. Five years later, he moved to Clearwater and worked washing dishes and busing tables at popular beach restaurants and hotels.

    Now, after 12 years of minimum wage earnings from unskilled jobs, the 33-year-old naturalized citizen says he is living his "American dream" at the helm of a burgeoning money-wiring business with offices in Clearwater, Tampa and Texas, with plans for Las Vegas.

    He also is a finalist -- among much bigger fish -- for an international business award that will be given out tonight at Harbour Island in Tampa by an international business organization.

    Paloma is up against a senior vice president of Rooms to Go, the human resources director for Tampa Electric Co. and the secretary general for an organization linking the governments of the United States and Mexico.

    It's pretty rarified company for an immigrant from one of Mexico's poorest states, Hidalgo. Paloma also claims an ancestry from the indigenous HnaHnu people who are more ancient than the Aztecs, Olmecs or the Spanish, who came to conquer what is now known as Central America.

    Paloma has become a leader and a hope for Clearwater's blossoming Mexican population. Hidalgo natives come to Paloma's stores, Envios del Valle, to buy music, jewelry or to wire money. They ask him for money to return their dead to be buried in their ancestral home in the Valle del Mezquital. They ask him for direction and advice. They ask him for friendship.

    Paloma responds, he said, by giving people what they need.

    Because he shares his riches, he is not wealthy, said Paloma, who favors blue jeans.

    "As some people told me in Mexico," Paloma said, "it's better to have a lot of friends than a lot of money. And that's true. I have a lot of friends."

    Paloma's Clearwater store, at 1126 S Myrtle Ave., starts to get crowded around 10:30 a.m. each day. On Tuesday, a man driving a food delivery truck came in, spotted Paloma and asked if he could ask Paloma a question. The delivery driver walked away smiling, with a Spanish-language newspaper in hand.

    Then a family came in to browse. A youth rode his bike into the store, used the pay phone, chatted. He bought a CD and then left.

    "Buenos dias" is said so frequently that it seems to echo.

    "He helps a lot of people," said Raquel Pedraza, 32, Paloma's companion of 13 years. "They come looking for jobs, information about the consul. They ask, 'Can you recommend where I can buy a car?' He helps them and sometimes he spends a lot of time on that."

    Paloma moved to Clearwater in 1990 after friends told him it was a good place to be. He stayed and watched his countrymen, an estimated 17,000 Hidalguenses, stay as well.

    Paloma started his business in 1999. He credits the city, particularly the Police Department, for helping.

    "The community was growing . . . a lot and people wanted to send money to their families easily," Paloma said. "We had to get permits and learn the rules -- that was the tough part."

    The Mexican population is Paloma's niche, he said. That's why he doesn't worry too much about competition from other money-wiring services. Pedraza says the store has about 3,000 customers.

    Now Paloma plans to branch out into a business that will cater to everyone, not just Latin Americans, he said. He won't give details of this new business venture ("because of the competition"), but he says it will open by summer of 2003.

    It's that kind of business and community mindset that earned Paloma a nomination for the international trade award. Given out by the Tampa Bay Women in International Trade, the award honors those who foster lasting relationships in the international business arena. Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd won the award last year.

    The winner will be selected by the board of directors of the organization, and a small business stands an equal chance of winning against a large business, said Lori Rafter, president of the Tampa WIT.

    "Small business is extraordinarily important for the Tampa Bay region," said Rafter, who is the public relations manager for the Tampa Port Authority. "For every Rooms to Go there could be thousands of Envios del Valle. They're all important to the international business prospects of the area."

    Paloma said he's been involved in international trade from day one. Still, he is not sure that he will win.

    "I'm surprised," he said of his finalist status. "I might win. I might. But I feel the other people in this have been doing this for years and years and have a lot more experience."

    Should he win, it will be significant for Hidalguenses in Florida and abroad.

    "It's important because it's not only for me," Paloma said. "If I win, my family's going to win. My friends. Not just me. We're all working together for our community."

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