Michel Zajur is president and CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which he founded in 2000 to help build and promote a strong Hispanic business community. In September 2012, he received the Ohtli Award, bestowed by Mexico's government for empowering Mexican communities abroad. He was born in Mexico City and grew up in Richmond.
How long have you lived in the Richmond region?
More than 50 years, since moving here from Mexico. My father had family in the United States and went to Detroit for a visit in 1958. While he was there, he discovered he had a cousin living in Richmond and decided to go meet him. Then a potential business opportunity developed, so he decided to stay and explore it. My mom, myself and two sisters were still in Mexico, and my father had us come to Richmond to be together as a family.
Where do you live now, and what drew you there?
We have lived in Midlothian since 1990. When we were just starting our family, my wife, Lisa, fell in love with our house the first time she saw it, and we decided this was the perfect home for raising a family. The neighborhood has a lake, great schools and was big enough for all of my family to come for dinner in the dining room.
Why did you choose your profession or avocation?
As a child, I watched my parents struggle to figure out the business system in the U.S. – and how grateful they were to receive guidance and assistance from a successful business owner in Richmond. Our family opened a Mexican restaurant called La Siesta, where all six of my brothers and sisters worked. When I was attending VCU’s School of Business, my plan was to franchise La Siesta so people everywhere could enjoy our delicious food. However, my initial business plan took a different course when I started noticing more and more Latinos coming into our restaurant who needed help with job placement or establishing a business.
I began giving my guidance and assistance to them on an informal basis, from my own business and personal network connections. I was passionate about helping other people, and after realizing there wasn’t a specific organization in Richmond to help Latinos, I decided it was important to establish the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as a resource.
What five words would describe you?
Passionate, generous, sincere, humble, persistent.
If a visitor asked you for three things to do while in town, what would you recommend?
I would take them on what I call Richmond’s 10-minute tour. We would start by driving along Richmond’s riverfront, which is beautiful and full of history. Then we’d take a drive through downtown, stopping at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (I would point out that any bill with an E letter code was issued by the Richmond Fed, so they already could have a local souvenir). Finally, I’d take them through historic Church Hill to see the small Statue of Liberty at Chimborazo Park and a stunning view of the city.
What’s something you haven't done locally that's on your to-do list?
Run the Monument Avenue 10K.
What’s an ideal weekend for you?
Spending time with my family and sharing a meal with them. And spontaneously heading out of town for a weekend getaway with my wife.
What’s at the top of your bucket list?
For now, it’s going to LA to see my son, Austin, walk the red carpet for the 2017 premiere of his movie “Fist Fight.”
What skill would you like to master?
Graphic design, because I would love to take my ideas and share them with others more effectively.
What’s the best present you ever received, and what made it meaningful?
It was not something tangible. In all honesty, it was the gift of time. Around 2007, my sister, who works at Bon Secours, signed me up to test a new heart scanning machine that had just come on the market. They needed volunteers. I was resistant at first, thinking there was no need for it, but of course my older sister got her way, and I participated. The results showed that I had significant blockages in four of my arteries and needed open heart surgery immediately. I had the surgery and everything went very well. I am so grateful to my sister for helping give me the greatest gift of all: more time with my family.
What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done, and would you do it again?
I proposed to my wife after knowing her for only six months. And yes, I would do it again in a heartbeat, because we have been married since 1984!
Pick a year or an event to go back to. What would it be?
April 1, 1976, when Apple was established as a computer company. Being an avid Mac user, I bought my first computer back then, and I wish I would have bought stock.
Tell us about something you own that has great sentimental value to you.
Silver that came from the silver mines my grandfather used to own in Zacatecas, Mexico. It represents my family’s history.
If you could spend a day with a fictional or historical figure, who would it be?
I love visiting Monticello and am a big history buff. I admire Thomas Jefferson’s ingenuity and would enjoy spending a day with him, to pick his brain about the world today.
What’s your fondest childhood memory?
Coming from Mexico, my family was really close, and we had a strong connection. We had a family restaurant, and being the oldest son, I started working at a young age. Every week I would go to school all day, then go to work all evening except on Sundays, which was the only day my family had off together with my father. After church, we would do a family activity like going for a swim or getting some ice cream. Being together with my family made all of the hard work worthwhile. Afterward, we would go home, and I would work on a tree fort that I wanted to build in our backyard with my brother and my sisters, who were my best friends. I was inspired to build it after I saw the "Swiss Family Robinson" movie.
While my days weren’t the same as those of my peers, I found pride in working hard to help my family. That is something that remains today.
Of your five senses, what's your favorite?
Sight, because I like to take in my surroundings, the expressions on people’s faces and all the wonderful places on Earth.
What habit would you like to change?
Not exercising consistently every week. I tend to put off doing anything for myself.
What’s your “desert island” book, CD, TV program and/or movie?
I would have to say the Bible, because I would love time to read it from beginning to end (and if I were on a desert island, I would definitely have time to do this).
How has your impression of the Richmond region changed in your time here?
I have always been incredibly proud of the Richmond region and have been involved in the collective efforts to make our region the best it could be. However, I would get frustrated at times, when I would notice other cities similar in size to Richmond receiving more publicity and prospering. I have always seen the potential of our city. Within the past few years, it has been an honor to see the hard work of so many community members finally paying off. Richmond is starting to get the recognition it deserves on a national and international level. I really hope our city continues on this path, because Richmond has so much potential and a lot to offer. It is time for the rest of the world to see that, too.
Tell us a story – about anything at all – that makes you think about your time in the Richmond region.
When I was growing up in Richmond in the 1960s and '70s, there were very few Latino families who lived here. Back then, many Spanish-speaking families just wanted to blend in and, sadly, may have discouraged their children from speaking Spanish or keeping in tune with their cultural heritage. My family took the opposite approach, and I was brought up to embrace my roots.
Our family had a saying – “todo para la familia” – which in English means “everything for the family.” We had six kids in our family, and we were all expected to support one another. Growing up bicultural was a challenge at times. We spoke Spanish at home and spoke English during the day at school or work. I would have to translate for my parents often in helping our family navigate the American culture and way of life.
My family had a Mexican restaurant, where we all worked together for more than 30 years. Sharing our rich traditions, delicious food and Spanish language with others was a natural fit for me. Not many people in Richmond knew what a Cinco de Mayo celebration was until we held the first one in the parking lot of La Siesta back in the early '90s. And the restaurant was a field trip experience for thousands of school-age children each year. They attended our Siesta Town children’s shows, where they learned some Spanish, tasted Mexican food (many for the first time) and learned about the culture. La Siesta also became a hub where Latinos would come looking for assistance in making Richmond their home.
Taking the same value of “todo para la familia,” the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has become the “familia” for the Hispanic business community. The small Cinco de Mayo celebration in La Siesta’s parking lot has grown into the chamber's huge annual ¿Qué Pasa? Festival. The Siesta Town children's shows grew into the Spanish Academy and Cultural Institute, which offers Spanish language and cultural training courses, and the chamber's Passport to Education program that supports Hispanic students.
Richmond is no longer only black and white. It is a now a culturally diverse city, with a rainbow of color and a tapestry of different cultures. Richmond has a strong and vibrant global community now that is positioned to grow and prosper in today’s global society.
Posted in Richmond Times Dispatch