Alicia Cabrera doesn’t live in Chirilagua, the Latino neighborhood hugging Alexandria and Arlington in Virginia, but she calls it home anyway. 

The 46-year-old moved to Annandale, Va., eight years ago with her son and husband, leaving their extended family behind in Bolivia. A year later, she opened Feria Bakery — “the fair” in English — on Mount Vernon Avenue, a two-mile thoroughfare connecting the cultural worlds of Del Ray and Arlandria.

A short woman with an easy smile, Cabrera says the neighborhood is “excellent,” and that talking with people in her native Spanish comforts her. She hesitates to speak English, and customer Kelvin Rivas offers to translate for us as he waits for his order. 

“She said she feels like she is in her home,” Rivas translates for Cabrera.

I know only a handful of Spanish words, but I recognize me gusta — meaning, “I like” — which Cabrera repeats when asked why she chose to open a business in Chirilagua, which is named after an eastern city in El Salvador.

Through Rivas, Cabrera says her customers reflect the community: mostly Bolivians, Salvadorians, Guatemalans and a few Peruvians.

Rivas, who shops but doesn’t live in the neighborhood, tells me Cabrera came to the United States to make a better life and support her family back home.  

Cabrera lives in the United States as a permanent resident and is thinking about pursuing citizenship in the next year or two. First, she says, she wants to improve her English. She tries to attend an English language class in Seven Corners, Va., twice a week, but says her baking — a skill she brought with her from Bolivia — keeps her from going regularly.

Feria Bakery sells more buns and warm breads when the weather is cold, while entrees, such as pique a lo macho, a traditional Bolivian dish with sausage and potatoes, are popular during the summer, Cabrera said. It’s an overcast, rain-spitting spring day, and several customers leave with a steaming to-go cup of atol de elote, a Salvadorian sweet corn and milk beverage.

Cabrera hopes to move closer to the bakery, saying Chirilagua has a reputation for crime and gangs that isn’t true to her experience. Would she change anything about the neighborhood?

“No,” she said in English, her face lighting up. “I’m happy.”

This story is part of a partnership between The Washington Post and students from American University. To read more stories from this collaboration, click here.