The Salteña Circuit: Bolivian Entrepreneurship in Virginia’s greater Metropolitan Area

Virginia is an extremely diverse place with the percentage of foreign-born citizens rising more than ten times over the last forty years. As a result of this diversity, there has been an increasing exchange of cultural ideas and practices in the public sphere.[i] One example of this cultural exchange is the so-called “Salteña Circuit” that circles the greater metropolitan area from Alexandria, Arlington, Springfield, and City of Fairfax in Virginia. Restaurants such as Pan American Bakery, The Bolivian Sober, and Marcela’s Bakery cater to Bolivians and those with an appreciation for their cuisine. These restaurants provide an opportunity for Bolivians to gather and share a common heritage, while also serve as a point pride for Bolivians to share with non-Bolivians who want a taste of their culture. To understand how this circuit of restaurants has cropped up so quickly, it is important to explore the rationale behind Bolivian immigration to the United States.


(Image courtesy of Yelp, Pike Pizza)

Unlike other immigrant groups that came to the United States due to war, famine, and political strife, Bolivians came to the United States for economic and educational opportunities for themselves and their children. Bolivians who came to the United States in the 1980s sought a higher standard of living than was possible back home and pursued economic ventures to achieve this goal. Emily Wax, staff writer for the Washington Post, explains “with jobs scarce in the landlocked country, many middle-class, college-educated Bolivians started coming to Washington,” and that with this capital and education allowed Bolivian immigrants to excel in business.[ii]

(Map of the Circuit that laps around the greater Virginia Metro area)

In a piece about the emergence of Bolivian culture in the United States, geography professor at George Washington University, Marie Price asserts that in the Metro area, Bolivians have “been able to straddle that fine line, to be able to assimilate in American society — buying homes, running businesses, having some success — yet still maintain their own identity.”[iii] One way in which they have achieved this balance of adopting American social norms and maintaining Bolivian identity is through the economic sphere. Since their arrival, Bolivian immigrants in the last few decades have created an independent chain of restaurants in the Metro area that serve Bolivian dishes for both their own and others who wish to sample a piece of their food traditions.


(Image courtesy of Yelp, Luzmila’s Cuisine)

[A family enjoying Salteñas with traditional llajwa salsa, a spicy green sauce]

Restaurants play a vital role in maintaining and propagating this sense of identity for Bolivians. An example of this benefit can be seen in a Washington Post article about the integration into the metro area Emma de Hainer, a Bolivian immigrant, who told the paper that places such as Bolivian restaurants, including those that make up the salteña circuit “give us a sense of belonging…these are places where I can continue to practice the type of activities I would have in Bolivia.”[iv] This has become one of the true value of these restaurants. They cultivate a sense of belonging and shared cultural experience among Bolivian immigrants, which they can share with non-Bolivians who frequent these restaurants.  


(Image courtesy of Business Insider, Evo Morales)

[President Evo Morales, leftist leader]

Restaurant owners hope that mutual love of cuisine can help transcend current political and cultural strife in Bolivia and bring people together. A Bolivian regular at the Sports House Grill Restaurant in Arlington, one of the restaurants that serves up salteñas, said that “[w]e’re not very proud of many things in Bolivia… but one of them is the food.”[v] Given the popularity and number of Bolivian restaurants that have cropped up in the last few decades, it would seem that public opinion and demand for these emerging cultural is quite positive.

Bolivian restaurants that form the Salteña Circuit in Virginia exist because of the fact that Bolivian immigrants have the capital and the will to open businesses. The result of these establishments is that Bolivian have a place to congregate and share a common culture, but also to express a more positive side of their heritage that is generally not portrayed in the news and media to the non-Bolivian public.  

[i] David Bearinger, “The Changing Face of Virginia: Immigration and the Humanities,” Virginia Humanities, accessed November 20, 2016,

[ii] Emily Wax,  “For Area Bolivians, Cherishing the Past, Looking to the Future; Arlington at Center of Fast-Growing Community.” The Washington Post, June 7, 2001. Accessed November 11, 2016.

[iii]  Douglas Hanks, “The Saltena Circuit; If You Want This Bolivian Meat Turnover, You Have to Know Where to Look.” The Washington Post, April 25, 2001. Accessed 2016.

[iv]  Stephanie Griffith, “Bolivians Reach for the American Dream; Well-Educated Immigrants With High Aspirations Work Hard, Prosper in D.C. Area.” The Washington Post, May 8, 1990. Accessed 2016.

[v] Hanks.

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