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.

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, 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, 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, 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., 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.

[4] “Interview with Rhoda Worku.” Interview by Krystyn Moon. May 20, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016., 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., 10.

Changing Face of Italian Immigrants in the Early Twentieth Century

During the early twentieth century in the United States, a wave of Italian immigrants came to America seeking economic opportunities, many with hopes to create a better life back home. In her book on Italy’s migration patterns, historian Donna R. Gabaccia referred to these as “Conservative Adventurers”, men who would migrant to work wage jobs, and then return to Italy with the spoils of their American escapade.[1]

Many Italian immigrants–whether because of the lack of funds or interest in staying in the United States permanently–also did not buy homes.  This is supported by the fact that out of the 39 Italians immigrants listed in the 1920 U.S. Census for Alexandria, Virginia, 17 did not own a home and only 2 reported that they had become citizens.[2] Citizenship also was not among the top priorities for a migrant who planned to return to Italy. 

Status of Italian Immigrants in the Alexandria

Year Citizen Status
1920 19 Non-Citizen

2 Citizen

1940 41 Citizen

24 Non-Citizen

(Data collected from 1920 and 1940 US Federal Census (population schedule) records, accessed from

By 1940, many Italian immigrants had begun to find their prospects in U.S. better than war-torn Europe. Even before the outbreak of war, Benito Mussolini’s abolition of constitutional rights and establishment of a police state in Italy would have been a damper on many immigrants’ plans to return home. The 1940 U.S. Census also shows an increase in Italian immigrants taking more skilled jobs, starting their own businesses,  buying homes, and gaining citizenship and, for their children, an education.[4] Italian immigrants found that life in the United States had become more attractive than returning to an uncertain conflict and repressive regime back in Italy.

Housing Situations for Italian Immigrants in Alexandria

Year Housing
1920 20 Listed as renting, boarding, lodging
1940 25 Owned

12 Rented

(Data collected from 1920 and 1940 US Federal Census (population schedule) records, accessed from

The lack of education also impacted the ability of Italian immigrants to access certain types of jobs. According to census data from 1920, out of forty Italian immigrants, only half claimed that they were literate, 7 were illiterate and many did not disclose.[5] The 1940 U.S. Census, however, did not include questions about literacy, but educational level. Interestingly, about half of Italian immigrants stated that they had completed some elementary education and a fourth had some high school or college education. Whether this group of immigrants, many of whom were new to the area, went to school in Italy or the U.S. is unknown.  

Even the cultural barriers for women working began to dissolve between 1920 to 1940. One example in the 1940 U.S. Census was Mary LItterio whose husband owned a construction business.  She was born in Virginia; it is unclear whether she is of Italian ancestry, but she found employment as a typist for the government and made more than a male relative in their household.[4] Women’s role in the workplace had become a necessity for the onset of war in Europe and the Great Depression. 

Example of female work opportunity in the United States, 1940

Lunzio Creiv cousin M bricklayer building $1,166
Mary Litterio wife F typist gov’t $1,456

(Data collected from 1940 US Federal Census (population schedule) records, accessed from

Whether motivated by terrible prospects back at home or genuine interest in pursuing citizen, between 1920 and 1940, there was a serious shift among Italian immigrants in Alexandria to remain in the U.S. 

[1] Donna R. Gabaccia, Italy’s Many Diasporas (New York: Routledge, 2000) 94.

[2] 1920 US Federal Census (population schedule) Alexandria, Virginia, digital image, accessed on October 11, 2016,

[3] 1940 US Federal Census (population schedule)  Alexandria, Virginia, sheet number 19A, line 1-3, digital image, accessed on October 11, 2016,

[4] 1920 US Federal Census (population schedule) Alexandria, Virginia, digital image, accessed on October 11, 2016,

[5] 1940 US Federal Census (population schedule)  Alexandria, Virginia, sheet number 19A, line 1-3, digital image, accessed on October 11, 2016,

Portrait of an Upper Class English Immigrant Family in 19th Century Alexandria

One migrant community in the United States who not many people think of as migrants are the English.  Their help in colonizing and founding colonies in North America has made their continued migration over the centuries nearly imperceptible. To understand these invisible immigrants, I used the 1860 U.S. Census to investigate a family of English immigrants and observe how they integrated into their new home. One such family were the Bells. Robert and Mary Greenhalgh Bell, both English immigrants, were wedded and had their first child by the winter of 1832.  They had nine children total.[1] Also included in the Bell family was Robert’s 90-year-old mother, Elizabeth Bell, who migrated from England and lived as a dependent of Robert.[2] This structure gives us an idea of how the households of English migrants would have been organized–a couple who either married in England or the U.S. and created a household, that included possible three generations and extended kin.

Photo taken of St. Paul's Episcopal Church as a garrison in 1862 (Picture Courtesy of St. Paul's Episcopal Church retrieved at

Photo taken of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as a garrison in 1862 (Picture Courtesy of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church retrieved at

The patriarch of the family, Robert Bell Sr., seemed to have integrated quite thoroughly, participating in many facets of American life such as business, church, community, and politics. Robert was deeply involved in his community.  He acted as a member of the vestry and the superintendent for the preschool at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria.[3] Robert was also an active voter who participated in elections, both national and local.[4] This community and political activity illustrates how some English immigrants quickly found their own niche in American society.    

Advertisements for Robert Bell's stationary store circa March 14, 1860 (courtesy of the Library of Virginia, retrieved at

Advertisements for Robert Bell’s stationary store circa March 14, 1860 (courtesy of the Library of Virginia, retrieved at

As a businessman, Robert was a successful bookseller and stationer, being one of the city’s prominent merchants of books and educational supplies since the early 1840’s.[5] As an English migrant, Robert sold many of his items in advertisements using British provenances, such as “EXCELSIOR SCHOOL PENS” manufactured in Birmingham and religious lectures from Liverpool.[6] At the time of the 1860 U.S. Census, Robert’s wealth was recorded as $22,000, a very handsome sum for the time and is an indicator that–at least this English immigrant–found little trouble in adapting to his new surroundings.[7]

Another member of the Bell family who played an active role in the community was Robert’s son, Robert Jr. Robert Bell Jr., a first generation American, followed his father in many ways, voting for the same candidate, taking the same profession, and going to the same church as his father.[8] One area in which Robert Jr. and his father differ was the ownership of slaves. According to the census, Robert Bell Jr. owned a female mulatto slave. It is not clear whether Robert Bell Sr. did not own sells because he disagreed with the practice or that he felt that he could not afford one.

From the example of Robert Bell and his family, one can see how an English immigrant family is structured and how they became involved in their community. Within one generation, the Bell family established themselves economically and politically in their community and their new country. This integration reflects the ease with which many English immigrants found adjusting to life in the United States; without a language barrier, culture shock or radical division, integration for English immigrants came easier than for other migrants.

[1] 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Alexandria, Virginia, sheet no. 7, Robert and Mary Greenhalgh Bell & Family, line 3-14, digital image, accessed September 29, 2016,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Harold W. Hurst, Alexandria on the Potomac: The Portrait of an Antebellum Community (Lanham, MD:University Press of America 1991), 76.

[4] Voting Viva Voce, (accessed 9/27/16).

[5] Hurst, 22, 77.

[6] Alexandria Gazette, Volume 61, Number 63, March 14, 1860. A1.

[7]1860 U.S. Federal Census, Alexandria, Virginia, sheet no. 7, Robert and Mary Greenhalgh Bell & Family, line 3-14, digital image, accessed September 29, 2016,

[8] 1850 U.S. Federal Census,  Alexandria, Virginia, Cecilia Nelson, line 41, digital image, accessed September 29, 2016,