A Saltena Circuit in the Heart of Washington’s Bolivian Community

Immigrants within the United States are often viewed in the context of a one-size fits all narrative, which is unfortunate and inaccurate. Latino groups are the largest ethnic minorities in the U.S. today, but they are in no way homogenous and have a long, complex history.[1] We see this population sensationalized across the news as a recent phenomenon with mainly negative and false anecdotes. Many Bolivians immigrated to the U.S., thinking it to be a place of opportunity if they worked hard. To them, the U.S. would be a “reward in return for effort and enterprise.”[2] There are many accounts of Bolivians overcoming adversity and hardship, seeking the promise of a better life in the U.S., as narrated by Tom Gjelten in,  A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story (2015). Bolivians are certainly persons of optimism and enterprise, reclaiming their identities and creating their own unique spaces in Washington, D.C.

Image via Tomgjelten.com

Image via Tomgjelten.com


One of the ways that Bolivians create a space for themselves is through the establishment of restaurants that offer Bolivian dishes within their local communities. These restaurants also sponsor the Bolivian soccer leagues, another huge community unifier, where they sell homemade saltenas and other items.[3] Saltenas, a staple food, is a labor-intensive, savory pastry filled with chicken or beef stew, consisting of potatoes, peas, hard-boiled eggs, olives, and raisins. They are potato-sized and defined mainly by their savory soup inside with their sweet pastry crust. Eating them takes skill, and while they are served with a spoon, most prefer to eat them with one hand like an egg roll. Bolivians like their saltenas with llajua, which is a bright green jalapeno sauce.[4]

Photo courtesy of Luzmila's Cuisine

Photo courtesy of Luzmila’s Cuisine

Photo courtesy of Bakery, Bread & Grill

Photo courtesy of Bakery, Bread & Grill


Llajua jalepeno sauce, photo courtesy of tumblr


Food is certainly a way in which Bolivians feel at home in Washington, D.C. by carving out places for themselves. On weekends, they pack into the many local saltena restaurants for the weekly feast. By the 2000s, Douglas Hanks for the Washington Post and a local foodie website described a saltena circuit, which according to census data runs through the heart of northern Virginia’s Bolivian American community.[5] My Bakery & Cafe, Inc. is located in Alexandria, Virginia, and likewise there are several other restaurants that serve Bolivian food items.[6] It is with little doubt that Bolivians have worked hard and showed great resolve in forging a path for themselves, while reclaiming their own positive narrative, aiding one another and adding beautifully to the tapestry of the area.

[1] Daniel D. Arreola, Hispanic Spaces, Latino Places: Community and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 174.

[2] Tom Gjelten, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 5.

[3] Arreola, 181.

[4] “Bolivian Salteñas,” ‘DCFoodies.com’ January 22, 2008, http://www.dcfoodies.com/2008/01/bolivian-salten.html; Douglas Hanks, III, “The Saltena Circuit,” Washington Post, April 25, 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/food/2001/04/25/the-saltena-circuit.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “My Bakery & Cafe, Inc.,” http://www.mybakerycafe.com/.

A Different Immigration Experience for Bolivians: Immigration Reform of 1965

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, impacted the immigration experience for Bolivians in many ways, most significantly prioritizing professionals and families. By the 1980s, large numbers of Bolivian immigrants were coming to the U.S., primarily settling in the Washington metropolitan area.


Figure 1

Source: http://www.countryreports.org/

President John F. Kennedy always felt inclined to introduce immigration reform in the United States because his mother was an Irish immigrant who had a difficult time adjusting to American life.[1] Kennedy never addressed global issues during his first two years in office, but in 1963 he finally formulated his own immigration reform plan that eliminated visas based on national origin quotas.[2] However, Kennedy was killed before he was able to carry out this plan. Fortunately, Lyndon Johnson intended to carry out Kennedy’s plan and introduced his version of Kennedy’s plan.[3] Countries in the Western Hemisphere, however, were exempted from any quota restrictions, but were negatively affected by the LPC and literacy components of American immigration law.[4]


Figure 2: President Johnson signs the Immigration Act of 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965.

Source: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/

Bolivian immigrants, who were seeking economic opportunities in the United States, were highly educated, often with college and graduate degrees. The marriage certificate presented in figure 2, between Omar Zoilo Melgares and Juana Ruth Rojas, notes that Melgares had completed collection while Rojas graduated from high school.[5] Julio Duran, who lived in Alexandria in the 1980s, established a Spanish language newspaper to benefit the Latino community. He was a professional journalist who worked in the Washington office for a Bolivian newspaper. A journalist for The Washington Post noted, “Duran said his local paper provides Latin Americans with regional news about such issues as minority business opportunities, immigration law, substance abuse, the arms race and culture.”[6]


Figure 3

Source: Virginia Marriage Certificates, “Omar Zoilo Melgares and Juana Ruth Rojas,” accessed November 7, 2016, http://www.ancestry.com/.


Figure 4

Source: Dianne Saenz, “Va. Man Plans to Bring Life to Latin Beat: Monthly Spanish Paper Started,” The Washington Post, December 18, 1986.  

Bolivian immigrants were different than most other groups coming to the United States in the 1970s to the present, because they were not filing for asylum. They were often well educated, and had skills, which many recognized would benefit the American economy. Once in the United States, Bolivian immigrants created transnational connections and sent important information and money back to Bolivia; many families participated in chain migration, and followed other relatives to the U.S.

[1] Tom Gjelten, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 97.

[2] Gjelten, 106.

[3] Gjelten, 114.

[4] Gjelten, 115.


[5] Virginia Marriage Certificates, “Omar Zoilo Melgares and Juana Ruth Rojas,” accessed November 7, 2016, http://www.ancestry.com/.

[6] Dianne Saenz, “Va. Man Plans to Bring Life to Latin Beat: Monthly Spanish Paper Started,” The Washington Post, December 18, 1986.

The Importance of Soccer to Bolivian Americans

Bolivian Americans have had to overcome many obstacles, such as low income, unemployment, language barriers, and lack of medical insurance.[i] Playing soccer is one way many Bolivian Americans de-stress and forget the difficulties that they faced for a few hours. Since 1999, there are more than 450 Latino soccer teams in the Washington Metropolitan area, many of whom cater to the Bolivian immigrant community.  Many teams play on Sunday because Bolivian immigrants are usually working Monday to Saturday, using whatever fields are available.[ii] Soccer has brought Bolivian Americans together and created a sense of community in the area.

bl-lgflag Photo Courtesy of the World Fact book-Central Intelligence Agency

During the 1990s and into the early 2000, these soccer games had become an event; whole families would go and spend the day watching soccer games, traveling all over the region. As the games are played, you will find children playing soccer on the sidelines, shouting and laughing the whole time. Bolivian food, such as peanut soup (shredded dried beef and dried corn topped with a based salsa), are served at games.[iii]

peanut-soup Photo Courtesy of vegrecipes- Live Journal

Professional soccer players from Bolivia, who give local immigrants much pride, also impact the Bolivian immigrant community in D.C. For example, immigrants follow Bolivian players on the D.C. United soccer team, most notably Marco Etcheverry who played in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[iv] Any appearances that Etcheverry made, hundreds of Bolivians who lived in the D.C. area were there to see him. Etcheverry’s low key nature did not stop him from signing autographs and taking photographs with fans. The longer that Etcheverry played for D.C. United, the more he became involved in the community. He donated jerseys to local soccer teams, and money to local schools to teach Spanish speakers English. Etcheverry and other Bolivian players who have played for D.C. United were easy for other Bolivian immigrants to relate to because they experienced some of the same difficulties.[v]

etcheverry-picture Photo Courtesy of youtube.com

[i] Tom Gjelten, A Nations of Nations: A Great American Immigrant Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 50-52.

[ii]Gabriel Escobar, “The Other Pro Soccer; In Area’s Latino Leagues, Part of the Game Is Profit, and the Best Players Are Paid,” The Washington Post, November 29, 1998, accessed on November 10, 2016.

[iii]Matthew Levine, “A Place to Bring Bolivia Home,” The Washington Post, October 24, 2002, accessed on November 10, 2016; Gjelten, 50-52.

[iv] Levine, “A Place to Bring Bolivia Home;” Emily Wax, “National Pride Leaves D.C. United Fans Divided” The Washington Post, October 31, 1999, accessed on November 10, 2016.

[v]Pamela Constable, “The Pride Of All Hispanics: United Etcheverry is Bolivia’s Shining Star,” The Washington Post, October 21, 1998.

Educational Hardships

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 1,227 Bolivian immigrants living in Alexandria, Virginia with 31,333 Bolivian immigrants in the entire state. Virginia has the largest number of Bolivian immigrants in the nation, the majority living within the Washington-metro region.[i]

Photo courtesy of Beautiful World.com

Photo courtesy of Beautiful World.com


These Bolivian immigrants have encountered various hardships, including navigating the American education system as non-English speakers or English language learners (ELL).  According to a 1995 article titled “A New Accent on Education,” there are more than 20,000 public school students in the region who either were born abroad or are studying English as a second language, about seventy-five percent being Latinos.[ii] Among these students was Heidi Flores, who attended T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Virginia. Flores states, “We have a good ESL program, but the students can feel very isolated over in the ESL hall.” At T.C. Williams, 470 of the 1,800 students were not native English speakers. The school is nearly forty percent Hispanic, creating a level of many students who may not speak English well. The school allocates many resources toward its ELL homeless education programs.[iii] Flores, who came here from Bolivia seven years ago and is now totally fluent in English, says that various issues including her accent, and the poverty levels of the kids around her influence the type of education she has encountered and experienced.[vi]

Photo Via Alexandria Public Schools.

Photo Via Alexandria Public Schools.

Photo Via the Washington Post.

Photo Via the Washington Post.


Additionally, the impoverished nature of many students’ and families that attend T.C. Williams creates additional obstacles for a successful education. The struggle of students to keep up with the learning gap between themselves and native English speakers becomes too great, with some finding the draw of gang and crime as a possible escape. The difficulty of learning for the ELL students can cause interest in learning to be inherently lost, while leading to even greater problems because of the gangs.[vii]

According to the Washington Post article, “Lure of the Latino Gang”, a gang composed mostly of Central American immigrants although it possibly included Bolivians, had engaged in violent crimes across the region. As the number of Latino students in Virginia suburban schools, so does the gang activity and membership. According to the article, the relationship with parents is one common key between immigrants partaking in gang life or not. The long hours Latino immigrant parents have to work is a problem.[viii]

Alexandria Bar Foundation, Beat The Odds, awards scholarships to students who have overcome obstacles in the school environment. In 2014 The Foundation of the Alexandria Bar Association awarded twelve Alexandria students with scholarships, totaling more than $23,000. The program recognizes the achievement and determination of local youth who are succeeding despite barriers and hardships. For example, Nancy Martinez won this year’s grand prize award. A senior at T.C. Williams High School, Martinez has survived periods of homelessness and extraordinarily difficult family circumstances but has confronted expectations through her determination. Much like Heidi Flores, Nancy Martinez encountered and overcame many of the same situations.[ix]

Photo via Alexandria Bar Foundation.

Photo via Alexandria Bar Foundation. 2014 award winners.

Photo via Alexandria Bar Foundation. Nancy Martinez 2014 award winner.

Photo via Alexandria Bar Foundation. Nancy Martinez 2014 award winner.


i.  United States Census Bureau / American FactFinder. “Hispanic or Latino by Type.” 2010 Census.U.S. Census Bureau, 2010.Web. 7, November 2016; U.S. Census, 2010: Bolivian Americans. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2010.

ii. Pamela Constable, “A New Accent on Education: Rise of Immigrants Means Schools Must Navigate a Sea of Diversity,” Washington Post, April 2, 1995, B1.

iii. “T.C. Williams High School,” last modified September 20, 2015, http://www.acps.k12.va.us/profiles/tcw.php.

vi. Patrick Welsh, “Lure of the Latino Gang,” Washington Post, March 26, 1995.

v. Pamela Constable, “A New Accent on Education: Rise of Immigrants Means Schools Must Navigate a Sea of Diversity,” Washington Post, April 2, 1995, B1.

vi. Patrick Welsh, “Lure of the Latino Gang,” Washington Post, March 26, 1995.

vii. “Alexandria Bar Foundation Awards,” last modified April 18, 2014,  http://www.alexandrianews.org/2014/alexandria-bar-foundation-awards-2014-beat-the

Late 20th-Century Bolivian Immigration to the United States

Prior to the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965), foreign nationals from a select few European countries were the only ones who really had a realistic chance at immigrating to the United States. However, with the passage of this new law, these types of discriminatory immigration practices were removed, and it drastically improved immigration opportunities for everyone else in the world. As National Public Radio correspondent and author Tom Gjelten reveals in A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story (2015), this new act made it possible for nine Bolivian immigrants in particular to come to the US and have a chance at success.[i]


Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Aida, Marilu, and Rhina lived with their mother, Eduviges Veizaga, in La Paz, Bolivia. In 1980, a friend convinced Aida and Marilu to go with her to Washington, DC, so that they could go to college in the area. Neither Marilu nor Aida had ever been to the US before, which was fairly common for the majority of Bolivians at the time. According to Gjelten, “[o]nly about sixty Bolivians visited the United States on an average day that year, and almost all of them were businessmen, government officials, or wealthy Bolivian tourists traveling for pleasure. Just three countries in South America—Guyana, Paraguay, and Uruguay—sent fewer visitors to the United States.”[ii] Unfortunately, Marilu and Aida’s first trip to the US was a bust; they did not speak English very well and did not know their way around the area.  Even worse, their travel liaison failed to register them for college and swindled them out of their money. Consequently, Marilu and Aida took on jobs as nannies in lieu of attending college.  Both were miserable and eventually returned to Bolivia; however, Marilu and Aida would come back to the US a couple of years later.[iii]


(Image Courtesy of Ancestry.com)

Marilu’s second trip to the US was much more successful than her first. She was better prepared and took English classes upon her arrival. Through family and friends, she found her future husband, Raúl Plata. Raúl was a fellow Bolivian immigrant and dentist in northern Virginia who had already become a naturalized US citizen. On her marriage to Raúl on December 22, 1984, Marilu was granted legal residency.[iv] According to their marriage license, Raúl was born in Bolivia, and his parents were Placido Plata and Genoveva DePlata. He was 39 years old at the time, white, had gone to college and probably dental school, and lived in Vienna, Virginia. Meanwhile, Marilu was listed as having been born in Boliva to Luis Luna and Eduviges Veizaga. She was 21 years old at the time, white, had finished high school, and lived in Falls Church, Virginia. They had a religious ceremony in Fairfax County that was officiated by Pastor John Goodwin. It was both Marilu and Raúl’s first marriage.

By the time of Marilu’s marriage to Raúl, her oldest sister, Rhina, had married Victor Alarcón and had two kids, Victor Jr. and Alvaro.[v] Victor came to the US first on a tourist visa and lived with Marilu in Fairfax County until he could afford his own apartment. Victor’s transition to the US was not easy; he worked several jobs, had been the victim of a shooting, and his home was burglarized. Yet, notwithstanding these hardships, his drive and determination led to his perseverance and success. He ultimately saved enough money for Rhina to join him in the US and she worked just as hard as him. However, despite his hard work ethic and optimistic attitude, like Marilu, Victor realized that English literacy was required if he was going to truly succeed. Therefore, Victor utilized the public library and translated words via language dictionaries in order to teach himself how to repair cars and household electronics.[vi] Meanwhile, the Alarcóns two boys and daughter eventually joined the Platas and Alarcóns in the US.[vii]

It has been over thirty years since these nine Bolivian immigrants came to the US, and it is apparent through Facebook and other online sources that they are the personification of the American dream.

Raúl and Marilu
raul-1   marilu-1
(Photographs Courtesy of Facebook)

Raúl’s business website states that he attended dental school at Virginia Commonwealth University and earned a doctor of dental surgery. His dental clinic is located in Fairfax, Virginia.[viii] Records indicate that his business was previously located in Falls Church.[ix] As for his home residence, he lived in the City of Fairfax.[x]

raul-2   raul-3   raul-4
(Photographs Courtesy of Zocdoc, Inc.)

Raúl’s Facebook profile shows that he has embraced some “American” cultural traits. For example, he is a fan of the National Football League and cheers for the Dallas Cowboys. Though he listens to bands that are popular in many other countries, such as the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, he also likes uniquely American bands, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, which is in the southern rock genre.[xi] As for Marilu, her Facebook privacy settings restrict those who are not her friends from viewing anything other than her profile picture.[xii]


Victor and Rhina
victor-1  rhina-1
(Photographs Courtesy of Facebook)

On their Facebook accounts, Victor and Rhina have posted numerous pictures of themselves as a couple throughout the years, so it is likely that they are still married.[xiii] Many of their pictures have La Paz, Bolivia, listed as the location, indicating that they have visited their home country.

(Photograph Courtesy of Facebook)

Like Raúl, Victor has adapted to life in Virginia; however, between the two, Victor was the only one to choose the correct NFL team to support (e.g. Washington Redskins)! Victor also listens to American bands, like the Eagles, and even country music; most surprisingly, he is a fan of the heavy metal band, Hatebreed. Additionally, on Victor’s page, he posted the following about A Nation of Nations (translated from Spanish to English using Facebook translation):[xiv]

victor-fb   victor-fb-2
(Images Courtesy of Facebook)

(Photograph Courtesy of Facebook)

According to Gloria’s Facebook page, she is a small business owner at Luna’s Cakes, account liaison at Heartland Home Health Hospice and IV Care, and a Zumba fitness instructor. Additionally, on September 13, 2015, Gloria posted the following Facebook post:[xv]

gloria-2(Image Courtesy of Facebook)

aida-1   aida-2
(Photographs Courtesy of Facebook)

Aida also has a Facebook account and it appears that she permanently resides in Bolivia. However, there are many pictures that show her with Rhina and Raúl, so it is clear that they are still a close-knit family.[xvi]

aida-3   aida-4
(Photographs Courtesy of Facebook)

[i] Tom Gjelten, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015). According to the National Public Radio’s (NPR) website, Gjelten has been with NPR since 1982 and he is the recipient of two Overseas Press Club Awards, a George Polk Award, and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. For more, see National Public Radio, “Tom Gjelten,”accessed November 16, 2016, http://www.npr.org/people/2100536/tom-gjelten.
[ii] Gjelten, 23.
[iii] Gjelten, 23-24.
[iv] Gjelten, 24; Virginia, Marriage Records, 1936-2014, accessed November 10, 2016, http://www.ancestry.com.
[v] Gjelten, 22, 25. Victor was born in Argentina but grew up in Bolivia.
[vi] Gjelten, 26, 50-51, 218-20, 233-34.
[vii] Gjelten, 27.
[viii] Zocdoc, “Dr. Raúl E. Plata, DDS,” accessed November 10, 2016, https://www.zocdoc.com/dentist/Raúl-e-plata-dds-164765.
[ix] U.S. Phone and Address Directories, 1993-2002, accessed November 10, 2016, http://www.ancestry.com.
[x] U.S. Phone and Address Directories, 1993-2002, accessed November 10, 2016, http://www.ancestry.com.
[xi] Raúl’s Facebook page, accessed November 10, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008295788890.
[xii] Marilu’s Facebook page, accessed November 10, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/marilu.plata.35/friends?source_ref=pb_friends_tl.
[xiii] Victor’s Facebook page, accessed November 10, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/victor.alarcon.399?fref=ts; Rhina Facebook page, accessed November 10, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/rhinaalarcon.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Gloria’s Facebook page, accessed November 10, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/gloria.luna.944?pnref=friends.search.
[xvi] Aida’s Facebook page, accessed November 10, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/aida.lunaveizaga/friends?source_ref=pb_friends_tl.


Migrants decide to move to a new country for a plethora of reasons. Some migrate in order to take advantage of new opportunities that are not provided in their home countries, and others move to avoid adverse conditions back home. Coming from a different culture, the United States can feel strange as migrants adjust, and learn the social norms within the United States. Many believe that migrants simply “assimilate” into American culture, but that is rarely the case. Migrants learn to blend their old customs with the American ones. They adapt to their new home.

For Afomia Wendemagegn, she migrated to the U.S. at the age of seven. Her family had made the move while she was young in order for Wendemagegn to adapt more quickly and with ease, especially to the American educational system. A better education was the opportunity that the Wendemagegn family was seeking in the U.S.[i] Traveling from Ethiopia, the Wendemagegn family reached out to relatives for support. At first, the family lived with an aunt in Fairfax County, Virginia. Soon thereafter, they moved to an apartment on King Street in Alexandria, Virginia.[ii]

For decades, immigrants, such as the Wendemagegn family, chose the United States as their final destination.[iii] Wendemagegn never forgot where she came from. Her family lived in a neighborhood filled with other African families, from Ethiopia and elsewhere.[iv] For Wendemagegn, food was key to maintaining a connection to her own heritage and her family. While in America, the Wendemagegn family continued to celebrate Ethiopian holidays, like  Genna, or Christmas. Instead of gifts, Ethiopians emphasize family time and food during the holiday.[v] Family elders also continue to speak Amharic, Wendemagegn’s native language, in order to keep their heritage alive.


Migrants move to countries like the United States in order to access educational and economic opportunities. The Wendemagegn family moved to the US to advance their children’s education in hopes that they would have a brighter future. While in the US the family maintained their traditions and culture, they believe in the “American Dream.”

[i] Afomia Wendemagegn, In terviews by Krystyn Moon, Interview with the Afomia Wendemagegn, Immigrant Alexandria: Past, Present, zfuture, June 4, 2015.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Elizabeth Chacko, “Identity and Assimliation among Young Ethiopian immigtants in Metro Washington,” Geographical Review, Vol. 93, n0. 4 (Oct. 2003), Accessed Oct. 26, 2016.

[iv] Afomia Wendemagegn, In terviews by Krystyn Moon, Interview with the Afomia Wendemagegn, Immigrant Alexandria: Past, Present, zfuture, June 4, 2015.

[v] Ibid.

Ethiopian Restaurants in the Metropolitan Area

In the metropolitan area, ethnic identities manifest themselves through the stores, restaurants and other commercial attractions. Ethiopian restaurants, in particular, are physical representations of their owners and many–although not all–of their customers’ heritage. Most Ethiopian restaurants are decorated with bright orange, yellow and green walls; curtains (which represent their flag), colorful mesobs (traditional straw serving plate in which the food is presented), and beautiful artwork decorate the space. Ethiopian restaurants also do not shy away from using the traditional names of dishes and names of their restaurants; in Alexandria, there are Enat, Hawwi, and Meda. These restaurants go beyond mere sustenance and play a vital cultural and social role in Ethiopian immigrant communities where people gather around and provide relief from these stresses of American life by offering validation, comradery, and economic opportunity.


(Image courtesy of Tripadvisor.com, Addis Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant )

Restaurants are not merely about food; they are a form of cultural expression. When the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants came to the United States in the mid-1970s, racial politics in the United States meant that incoming Ethiopians had to deal with centuries of baggage related to skin color. Ethiopian immigrants also wanted to be recognized for their ethnic and national heritage, which was distinct from that of native-born African Americans. This was especially important to Ethiopian Americans with children, since they had never known their parents’ home country,  and it would be easier for them to lose their ethnic and national identity. Kassahun Kebede, cultural anthropologist from Syracuse University, explains that Ethiopian immigrants “were able to create vibrant social institutions, including churches and cultural centers and ethnic restaurants that have become the center of gravity for most second generation Ethiopians.”[1] It was because of these strong symbols of cultural individuality, such as restaurants, that subsequent generations of Ethiopians could affirm their ethnic identity and help to resist being classified simply because of the color of their skins. These establishments not only provided cultural support, but also an economic opportunity for Ethiopian immigrants.



(Image courtesy of Tripadvisor.com, Interior of the Caboose Cafe, Alexandria)
One such example is Rhoda Worku, who runs Caboose Cafe in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria. Worku immigrated to the United States in the around 1980, and before she started her own restaurant, she worked for other immigrants at a regional bakery chain, Bread and Chocolate.[2] She opened her own restaurant in 2004 where she offers a broad array of American dishes plus Ethiopian food (evenings only) to a mostly non-Ethiopian clientele.  Last year, her restaurant was voted the Heart of Delray in a contest of whom best represents the heart and soul of the community.[3] She explains how the connection between her and her employees is like family and how in the kitchen, she is no one’s boss.[4] Rhoda’s story shows how these restaurants not only provide opportunities for Ethiopian immigrants to become their own bosses, but it also serves as a second family for those who work and patronize them.


(Image courtesy of matadornetwork.com, Little Ethiopia Restaurant)
Some have questioned whether there are too many Ethiopian restaurants in the area, and if they will be able to support themselves in the expensive market. Reporter  Jeff Pruzan from the Financial Times in his piece on the historic Ethiopian immigrant community at 9th and U Streets in Washington, DC claimed that, as property values continue to rise in D.C., restaurants may consider relocating somewhere cheaper.[5] Worku also experiences the difficulties of higher property values in 2015 and its effect on the cost of living saying, “It’s very hard to find an employee, really hard, especially in Alexandria. Alexandria’s getting very expensive. I don’t blame them [for leaving].”[6] Property value increases show how Ethiopians took a downtrodden neighborhood and revitalized it with new economic opportunity and made it valuable real estate in only a few decades.

It seems that despite the pressures of racial conformity that has been placed on Ethiopians and the challenge of becoming economical stable in a foreign country, they have been able to maintain their strong cultural heritage. Through these hardships, Ethiopian Americans have created a new ethnic community across the metropolitan area that has enriched the area both culturally and monetarily. The commercial space, such as grocery stores, music shops and  restaurants, in these communities serve a vital role in cementing ethnic identity, being around one’s own culture and people. Restaurants, in particular, are one of the most accessible to non-Ethiopians as a way to connect, support, and understand the proud heritage of Ethiopian Americans. It is this ability to outwardly reinforce Ethiopian cultural individuality that makes restaurants such an important part of integration into American culture, not through conforming or assimilating, but by making one’s own identity known and respected as valuable.


[1] Kassahun Kebede, Buechler, Hans C., Carty, Linda, Getahun, Solomon, Kelleher, William, and Schwarz, Maureen. Double Engagements: The Transnational Experiences of Ethiopian Immigrants in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area, 2012, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 287.

[2] “Interview with Rhoda Worku.” Interview by Krystyn Moon. May 20, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016. https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/Immigration/WorkuRhoda1.pdf, 7.

[3] Mary Ann Barton, “Caboose Cafe Wins Annual Heart of Del Ray Award.” Del Ray, VA Patch. February 17, 2016. Accessed November 06, 2016. http://patch.com/virginia/delray/caboose-cafe-wins-annual-heart-del-ray-award.

[4] “Interview with Rhoda Worku.” Interview by Krystyn Moon. May 20, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016. https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/Immigration/WorkuRhoda2.pdf, 10.

[5] Jeff Pruzan, “Ethiopians Feast from Melting Pot Can a Single Block in Washington DC Really Support Nine Ethiopian Restaurants? Jeff Pruzan Reports,” Financial Times (London (UK)), February 26, 2005.

[6] “Interview with Rhoda Worku.” Interview by Krystyn Moon. May 20, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016. https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/Immigration/WorkuRhoda2.pdf, 10.

Ethiopian Christmas in America

Ethiopian holidays are important to the country’s history, and how Ethiopian immigrants carry on their traditions abroad. Many Ethiopians celebrate Christmas or Genna, which is held on January 7th. On the day before, Ethiopians attend church all day, with women wearing a shamma, a traditional wrap.[1] The video below shows Ethiopians attending church the day before Christmas.

Two images of Ethiopians in Shammas


Image courtesy of The Lebanon Truth Seekers


Image courtesy of BuzzEthiopia

Ethiopians continue these traditions in the Washington Metropolitan area to bring Ethiopians in the area together and to celebrate an important holiday. Rhoda Worku, an Ethiopian asylum seeker who came to the United States in 1980, sat down with Krystyn Moon (the interviewer) for a city project, Immigrant Alexandria: Past, Present and Future in Alexandria, Virginia. In her 2015 interview, Worku talks about how important the holiday is to her and her family. In her interview, she talks about how she celebrates January 7th, and how Ethiopians follow the Greek Orthodox calendar.[2] Afomia Wendemagegn, another Ethiopian immigrant interviewed by Moon describes Genna as her favorite holiday and compares Christmas in America to Christmas in Ethiopia. Wendemagegn stated that Ethiopians do not give gifts like American’s but celebrate the holiday with their loved ones.[3] Doro wat was described by both Worku and Wendemagegn as a dish made for the Ethiopian Christmas. Wendemagegn described doro wot as “a stew made with chicken with the hard-boiled eggs in it and it’s really spicy. I mean you can change like the use of spiciness, but we like it hot.” Although Wendemagegn said that doro wat can be made at any time, it is one dish many Ethiopians eat on Christmas. [4]

From the evidence based on the two interviews with Rhoda Worku and Afomia Wendemagegn, we can see how important Christmas is to Ethiopians. Not only have some of Ethiopian immigrants had to escape war, but they are now citizens in a country extremely different than what the one they are accustomed to. Holidays are a way for Ethiopians to gather and celebrate an important day within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and maintain connections to their heritage. Ethiopians do not give presents like Americans do and instead focus on spending time with their loved ones and enjoying the company of the people surrounding them. Holidays and the foods associated with them are incredibly important in different cultures, and is the middle-ground for bringing new people together across cultures. The arrival of Ethiopians in the Washington metropolitan area has also led to opportunities where food and festivals are celebrated with non-Ethiopians too.

[1] Zion Bezu, interviewed by Krystyn Moon, July 23, 2015, interview transcript; Richard Pankhurst, “Ethiopian painting of King Takla Haymanot’s war with the Dervishes.” African Arts 39, no. 2 (2006): 64.

[2] Rhoda Worku, interviewed by Krystyn Moon, September 10, 2015, interview transcript.

[3] Afomia Wendemagegn, interviewed by Krystyn Moon, June 4, 2015, interview transcript.

[4] Ibid.

Food – the Universal Language

For many Ethiopians, the decision to leave Ethiopia can be an incredibly emotional process. Many left, not because they wanted to, but because their lives were in danger during the country’s civil war. The adjustment to living in the United States was difficult for many due to its different language and customs. Immigrants handled this transition in a number of different ways. Some rigorously held onto their home country, doing their best to maintain their traditions in a new place. Others threw themselves into their new host countries and adopt a new culture and way of life. However, many immigrants chose to adopt coethnic approach – focusing on the merging of both cultures – and choosing to take the best of both and pass those values on to their children.[1] One common aspect that is central to immigrants and culture, whether they are in their home or host country, is food. Food has the ability to remind people of where they came from, but also can help them connect to their new home. But, perhaps most importantly, food can also help to bring people together.

Once settling in the United States, many immigrants strived to feel a connection to their home country, and food maintained that connection. In oral histories with Ethiopians immigrants in Alexandria, traditional foods were central, and this can be most clearly seen around the major holidays. Alexandria’s Ethiopian immigrant population is largely Orthodox Christian, and one of the most important holidays is Christmas, known as Genna. Afomia Wendemagegn and her family immigrated to the United Stats when Wendemagegn was just a little girl. While Wendemagegn does not remember much about what Ethiopia was like, she has fond memories of Christmas traditions, particularly the dishes that were always eaten. The main dish she loves is doro wot, which is a “stew made with like chicken with like hard-boiled eggs in it and it’s really spicy.” She adds that the levels of spice can be change so that it is less spicy, however her family loves it hot. Wendemagegn loves this dish so much that even though she is now a vegetarian, but she makes an exception every year for doro wot.[2]

[Figure 1: Doro Wot – courtesy of https://ethiopianfood.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/doro2a.jpg]

[Figure 1: Doro Wot – courtesy of https://ethiopianfood.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/doro2a.jpg]

While food can help immigrants stay connected to their home countries, food can also help immigrants adjust and feel at home in the United States. For many immigrants, the new food is a drastic culinary change. FAmerican cuisine is viewed as unhealthy and artificial, but despite this, many immigrants find themselves drawn to it. One example can be found in the oral history given by Aida Abdul-Wali. She was born in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa, but when she was eight, Abdul-Wali and her family were forced to flee after a violent military coup in 1974. After going to Yemen, her family went to Egypt, before finally settling in the United States. While Abdul-Wali does miss the food of Ethiopia, she has come to love some American foods, most of which are junk foods. She states specifically that she really like “McDonald’s… Honey Buns and Twinkies and stuff… Diet Coke.” Abdul-Wali really came to love the food in the United States, and even joked that they were her friends in her high school. Later, in her interview, Abdul-Wali is asked to give advice to new immigrants and her best advice is “just really assimilate with the culture” and it is clear that Abdul-Wali did just that when experiencing part of a new country’s diet.[3]

[Figure 2 – Map of Aida Abdul-Wali’s Life – Map Created by Helen Salita Using Google Maps]

[Figure 2 – Map of Aida Abdul-Wali’s Life – Map Created by Helen Salita Using Google Maps]

One example of the blending of cultures through food can be seen in the Caboose Café run by Rhoda Worku. Worku immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s and settled in Alexandria, Virginia. She opened her café in 2004 in the Del Ray Neighborhood. Her restaurant is famous in Alexandria for being a family friendly café, offering a unique blend of American and traditional Ethiopian dishes. When she initially opened her restaurant, Worku only served American foods, such as sandwiches, salads, omelets, and waffles. After opening, she was encourage by friends to serve traditional Ethiopian food as well. This started when a group of yoga students from the yoga studio down the street asked her for some vegetarian dishes.[4] One Ethiopian dish featured at the Caboose Café is zilzil tibbs, which is steak with onions, tomato and berbere served with cabbage and salad.[5] This dish is often served with a type of Ethiopian bread called injera, which is a spongy flat bread. It is often typically eaten with one’s hands, instead of with utensils.

[Figure 1: Zilzil Tibbs – image courtesy of - https://ethiopianfood.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/teretibssiga.jpg]

[Figure 3: Zilzil Tibbs – image courtesy of – https://ethiopianfood.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/teretibssiga.jpg]

Under the dinner section of her menu, there is an Ethiopian section that describes the dishes and also contains a handy English-Ethiopian dictionary that helps to translate both foods, and some basic Ethiopian foods. This dictionary also helps to illustrate a desire to educate the local Del Ray community about Ethiopia. Another way that Worku tries to help Americans experience Ethiopian culture, is by serving Ethiopian food only at dinner. This is because in Ethiopia eating a meal is a leisurely activity and is something that should be enjoyed and experienced.[6]

[Figure 4: Courtesy of Café Caboose Online Menu - http://caboose-cafe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Caboose-Dinner-Menu.finalprint.pdf]

[Figure 4: Courtesy of Café Caboose Online Menu – http://caboose-cafe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Caboose-Dinner-Menu.finalprint.pdf]

Adjusting to a new host country can be a difficult process for an immigrant. They are faced with many difficulties, such as learning a new culture and language and set of social norms. While many immigrants want to adjust to a new country, they want to make sure that they remain a sense of their old life. For many Ethiopians immigrants, food is central to how they can both still maintain a sense of connection to their home country while also helping them to become accustom to a new place. However, perhaps the most important thing that food can do is to build a bridge between home and host country and offer a chance to feel connected to both places.


[1]. Elizabeth Chacko, “Identity and Assimilatin Among Young Ethiopian in Metropolitan Washington,” Geographical Review 93, no. 4 (Oct. 2003): 499–500.

[2]. Afomia Wendemagegn, interviewed by Krystyn Moon, Alexandria Legacies, Office of Historic Alexandria, June 4, 2015.


[3] Aida Abdul-Wali, interviewed by Apasrin Suvanasai, Alexandria Legacies, Office of Historic Alexandria, August 25, 2015.


[4]. Rhoda Worku, interviewed by Krystyn Moon, Alexandria Legacies, Office of Historic Alexandria, May 20, 2015.

[5]. Rhoda Worku, “Caboose Café: Dinner Menu,” 10, accessed October 30, 2016, caboose-café.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Caboose-Dinner-Menu.finalprint.pdf.

[6]. Ibid.

Ethiopian Immigration

Ethiopian immigrants are a newer immigrant group that began migrating to the United States at the end of the twentieth century because of political and economic unrest.[i] As a result, many Ethiopians sought asylum in the United States.[ii]

pic-of-ethiopia (Picture of Ethiopia Courtesy of BBC)

The Ethiopian Civil war began with the Marxist Derg government overthrowing the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, in September 1974 and lasted until May 1990. The Civil War in Ethiopia affected both the upper and lower classes. In November 1974, two months after the Derg government took power, the new government executed all high-ranking officials from Emperor Haile Selassie’s government. In response to the violence, the U.S. government granted the Ethiopians who came to the United States on tourist or student visas permission to stay in the country indefinitely, through “extended voluntary departure” or asylum.[iii] An example of an Ethiopian immigrant who came to the United States on a tourist visa and requested asylum was Rhoda Worku. The Ethiopian Civil War affected Rhoda Worku directly; her parents, brothers, and uncles were in Haile Selassie’s cabinet, and were executed in 1974 with the other officials when the Derg government came to power. Once Worku was given the chance, she left Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States. When she first arrived in the United States she stayed with Presbyterian missionary family in California. Soon after she arrived, Worku applied for asylum. It took years but she was eventually granted asylum by the United States government. Today, Worku lives in Alexandria, Virginia and owns a successful restaurant, the Caboose Cafe.[iv]

Throughout the many years of warfare that Ethiopian Civil war created, more and more Ethiopians immigrated to the United States. The number of immigrants coming to the United States from Ethiopia, doubled every ten years from 1980 to 2000. Many Ethiopian decided to settle down in D.C. Metropolitan area. [v]

[i] Elizabeth Chacko, “Ethiopian Ethos and the Making of Ethnic Places in the Washington Metropolitan Area,” Journal of Cultural Geography, 20, no. 2 (2003): 21-42.

[ii] Jill H. Wilson and Shelly Habecker, “The Lure of the Capital City: An Anthro-geographical Analysis of Recent African Immigration to Washington, DC” The Brookings Institution, (April 2008), 443-448.

[iii] Caryley Murphy, “Top Ethiopian Diplomat Here Requests Asylum,” Washington Post, May 8, 1984.

[iv] Rhoda Worku, “Interview with Rhoda Worku,” Interview by Krystyn Moon, Alexandria.gov (May 20, 2015), 5-7.

[v] Wilson and Habecker, 443-448.