Manuel Manolo Betancur came to America from Colombia with $100 in his pocket, two shirts and two pairs of pants.
After working as a dishwasher near Tampa, Florida, and later unloading and packing fish behind an airport in Miami, he was selected for a scholarship to go to King University in Bristol, Tennessee in 2001. He joined the Americorps in his last year of college, visiting farms in the Midwest and the South. This experience opened his eyes to the conditions that immigrants faced in this country.
“When I saw the agriculture department and low industry points, the labor of immigrants, and I saw how much they suffer and how hard they are working, it changed my vision about that reality,” Betancur recalled. “And that’s when I started noticing the hypocrisy of the system and how broken the [immigration] system is.”
He explained that all immigrants working in America — documented or not — receive W-2 tax forms and pay taxes, paying into the welfare programs of the country, but rarely seeing the benefits.
“So all these millions and millions paid in that you, and I, now an American citizen, [receive in] our Social Security our Medicaid our unemployment,” Betancur continued. “And they’re not going to receive that money back.”
Those that seek refuge from violence and crumbling economies come to the U.S. in search of their version of the American dream, but are often met with anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“It pisses me off when they say immigrants come here to steal their work, to take their jobs, to take a bunch of assistance and not pay taxes. I’ve paid thousands and thousands of dollars. It doesn’t hurt me to pay taxes,” Betancur explained.
Even before he became a citizen, Betancur was paying taxes, and he knows that there are hundreds of thousands of immigrants that are feeding money into welfare programs and not receiving benefits. Before Betancur became an American citizen, he received a deportation order in 2006.
It took $20,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C. to appear in front of a federal judge. After recounting his story of immigration, college, Americorps and owning a business, his charges were dropped and he completed the citizenship process.
After acquiring the rest of the shares from his partner for the well-known east Charlotte Latinx bakery, Las Delicias, Betancur rebranded and changed the name to Manolo’s Bakery. He also sends a message with his staff’s new uniforms: Made in America by Immigrant Hands.
The new logo color and shift away from a Spanish name coincides with Betancur’s vision to include everyone in Charlotte, regardless of creed, race or color.
“I don’t identify myself with flag or color or race. So you see our sign is yellow. It’s not relating to the American flag or Mexican flag,” Betancur explained. “We get customers from Africa, from Europe, we got Christians, Muslims, Asians, all kind of cultures here.”
Most importantly, he wants to provide the opportunities that he was provided when he came to America. But that vision was threatened in early February.
When Immigrations and Customs Enforcement conducted raids on the east side of Charlotte in early February, the fear that the community felt was a fear he is familiar with.
“I had the deportation order, so I take very seriously things with immigration,” Betancur stated.
Betancur took to social media and posted a call-to-action for Charlotte.
“Dear member of this community,” his Feb. 7 Facebook post read, “if you say you care about East Charlotte and you are proud to be part of this welcoming city; come and support our immigrant owned business. Yesterday’s ICE actions towards this side of Charlotte and targeting the immigrant community drastically affected our local economy.”
He wrote that in 36 hours, his sales dropped 70 percent and uploaded pictures of his empty business.
But it goes beyond the economy when ICE terrorizes a neighborhood, he explained.
“Forget about the business, forget about the money,” Betancur said. “Money comes and goes, you win and lose money every day. But the way that the system is going, ICE is screwing over our kids. And our kids are our future. The kids are afraid the system are going to take their father or mother because that’s what ICE is doing in Charlotte. So that is my biggest pain is knowing that our kids are shown that.”
The actions of ICE and the economic damage done to his bakery in that stretch of time caused Betancur to consider closing shop and moving to a different city — one that is more immigrant-friendly.
But the response of the community and the outpouring of support from those visiting and promoting Manolo’s Bakery persuaded him to drop those plans.
“Thanks to the community, I changed my plans,” he explained. “Because there have been too many demonstrations of love and affection and sense of community that have made me realize that good people are more than the bad people, and the bad people is just a minority.”
To further cement a sense of community in east Charlotte, Betancur recently partnered with Joseph Castro at Inspira. Inspira is a church-turned-social-venue outfitted with meeting rooms, a small auditorium, coffee lounge and part-time daycare for businesses and entrepreneurs in the city to hold meetings and training sessions when needed.
Manolo’s Bakery provides pastries and other baked goods to patrons who utilize the space. Because the bakery doesn’t have the space, privacy or accommodations for meetings to take place and Inspira has the functions for all, but no treats to munch on, the two entities complement each other.
It’s another expansion into the community for Betancur and Castro while serving the public.
“Inspira is like Manolo’s Bakery — Manolo’s Bakery is not just for the Latinos, it’s not just for a minority. Manolo’s Bakery is for Charlotte as Charlotte is for Manolo’s,” Betancur said. “Inspira grows the same. It’s in the same way, Inspira is for everybody, it’s not just for the Latinos.”
From washing dishes in Tampa and taking out garbage in the dining halls at college, to the successful staple bakery nestled on Central Avenue, Manolo worked hard to achieve his dreams.
That’s the American Dream that he grew up hearing about. Living in Colombia, a country heavily influenced by American involvement, Betancur knew about the ubiquitous aspirations.
“I was raised in a country under the influence of the American culture, as I was influenced by Jon Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses, I was also influenced by the American dream,” Betancur recalled. “I was influenced by the American history.”
To Betancur, the American dream isn’t just gathering wealth. In fact, instead of advertising, he allocates money and resources to dozens of organizations around the city. These connections help him build a better business and a better community.
“It’s something bigger than the money,” he said. “It’s happiness, it’s freedom. The American dream has a huge connotation. It’s bigger than just money.”
Many people are quick to forget that this country was founded by immigrants, either escaping religious persecution in the mid-20th century or flooding Ellis Island in the 1900s. Those that came to America with no money, job or family and worked hard to establish a family and life in this country.
And that’s why Betancur’s story from immigrant to business owner is as American as apple pie and chocotorta.