Skip to content


Bolivia’s Migration Picture
Migration seems to be in Bolivians’ blood. In the long view, South America was the last place on earth reached by the human migration diaspora which left East Africa 200,000 years ago. More recently, political turmoil and poverty especially in the 1980s has been a push factor leading millions of Bolivians to migrate.

Of a national population of 10 million, as many as 2 million Bolivians live abroad especially in Spain, Argentina, the US, and Brazil as well as Israel, Sweden, and Japan. FedBol, for example, is the Bolivian federation of Sweden.

There are a reported 100,000 Bolivians living in the US (2010 Census) but most agree that there is an equal number of undocumented Bolivian immigrants. Many more have migrated internally within Bolivia in search of work bringing the total of Bolivian citizens who have migrated to around 50%.

Map: Migration Flows from/to/in Bolivia
click to enlarge
-Migration numbers are estimates based on comparative sources and include unreported migrants.
-Bolivians total population is 10 million

Ironically, the Santa Cruz region of Bolivia has been a destination for immigrants both from foreign countries and from other regions of Bolivia. Thousands have immigrated to the tropical Santa Cruz Deparment over the past 60 years–and continue to arrive–from neighboring Brazil and Paraguay as well as faraway Eastern Europe and Japan. The attractions include opportunities for entrepreneurship, cheap farmland, lots of space and independence. Immigrants are thriving in Santa Cruz: for example, one female immigrant from Curitiba across the border in Brazil sold all her property at home and bought four times as much land in Santa Cruz. (Soldana, 2007)

Northern Virginia holds America’s largest concentration of Bolivian immigrants
The DC metro area holds America’s largest Bolivian community. It centers on Northern Virginia’s Arlington County (just across the street from Northern Virginia Community College, where the author works). Arlington County alone is home to as many Bolivians as New York City.

In Arlington, a Bolivian “ethnoburb,” there are apartment buildings filled with people from the same towns around the Cochabamba Valley, hence the nickname “Arlibamba.” Many Bolivian restaurants and grocery stores dot the suburban landscape, notably Pike Pizza and “El Pike”, the former a converted pizza place that does not sell pizza but instead traditional Bolivian food including salteñas, chicharrones,  and pique a lo macho. Pike Pizza and El Pike are speakeasys for the Arlington Bolivian community. They are also places to watch the Bolivian national soccer team play games on TV.

Soccer leagues
Bolivians have formed several major soccer leagues in the Arlington region including Arlington Bolivian Soccer League (ABSL), INCOPEA, and the 35+ Bolivian Veterans Soccer League BVSL. Over 2,000 players and fans come out each Sunday to participate. It is serious business: some are former professional players and coaches from Bolivia. The ABSL allows five non-Bolivians on a team’s roster and three on the field at any one time and draws players from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and other Latin American countries. Many of the 22 teams in the BVSL are named for towns in Bolivia like Real Santa Cruz, Punata, La Paz, Arani Junior, and San Benito.

The mission of the INCOPEA (Incorpoacion del Pueblo del Esteban Arce) league is specifically to improve life in the small rural villages that dot the Esteban Arce province of Cochabamba Department in Bolivia. Most people there live off of basic agriculture and remittances from abroad. (Arreola) Teams in INCOPEA are named for the towns players come from and compete for pools funded by registration fees concessions sales at the games. They send winnings back home to fund schools, infrastructure, churches, etc. since government assistance has long been absent, although this is changing since Evo Morales took office. It has been estimated that villages in Bolivia received over $20,000 a year from INCOPEA revenues. (Arreola)

Arlingtonian Bolivians received an award from the sheriff of Arlington for being law abiding.

Dance troupes

Even more numerous than Bolivian soccer teams are Bolivian dance troupes performing caporales in parades.

Check out this Arlington Neighborhood Day parade from 2008.

Pike Pizza on Columbia Pike in the heart of the Bolivian community in Arlington, Virginia
(Sources: Donald P. and Washington City Paper)

New lives abroad, new lives at home
Many Bolivians migrate abroad with the intention of returning eventually. They invest in estates and property in Bolivia that they plan to retire in with their earnings abroad. Many others, however, stay abroad permanently, even as the dream of returning home remains.

Circular migration at home
Thousands of Bolivians have “one foot in the city and one foot in the countryside.” (Levy, 2001) Since pre-Inca times they have lived rural life on the altiplano but are migrating in huge numbers to El Alto & La Paz. (See blog page on El Alto). Many maintain farms far out while setting up businesses and residences in the city. Some bring produce and/or animals with them. An Aymara Amerindian city, El Alto is even attracting Amerindian immigrants from far away on the altiplano in Peru.

Circular migration abroad
Many Bolivians go to work in another country, return to Bolivia after 6 months or a year, then go out again, sometimes to a different country. For example, one might spend a few years working in Argentina then return to Bolivia only to go out again to Spain or the US, often with a dream of one day returning to Bolivia to retire.

Map: Bolivians in America by State (click to enlarge)
Source: Miguel Souza
The map below shows by far the largest concentration of Bolivians in the US living in Virginia, DC, and Maryland with the vast majority in Northern Virginia.

Undocumented Migrants

It is difficult to get an accurate figure as to the Bolivian population in the US because there are many undocumented Bolivian immigrants. Many have lived in the US for years, even decades, but that does not make it easy. One such family interviewed by the author migrated in a chain starting with the father a decade ago and followed by his wife and children. They made it clear that without citizenship life and work are very difficult. Despite advanced university degrees and college teaching experience in Bolivia, the father has taken mostly day laborer jobs 3-4 days a week in the DC area, waiting in front of a Home Depot in the mornings to get hired. Meanwhile, the eldest daughter has just finished high school with a stellar academic record and at the time of writing is waiting to hear back from UVA, William and Mary, and Georgetown.

Visa issues
One may wonder how so many undocumented could enter the US from Bolivia which is so far away? Some pay up to $10,000 for help (“coyotes”) crossing the Mexican border. But, in fact, it is relatively easy to get a tourist visa from Bolivia to the US. According to a knowledgeable source the US refuses only 20% of tourist visas requests. Many Bolivians on tourist visas simply stay well past the expiration, but the problem is they remain illegal. Prior to immigration reform under President Clinton no visa was necessary and many of those who came during this time are still here.

Work visas “nearly impossible” today
But work visas are a different matter. “It is virtually impossible to get a visa now; Spain is hard, US is harder,” according to one young undocumented woman (who graduated from a well-respected DC-area high school with a stellar GPA). One root of the problem is the low number of work visas given by the US. For example, the US Congress grants less than 50,000 employment-based visas worldwide for workers with only a Bachelor’s degree, of which only 10,000 can be unskilled workers. So without a special skill and/or advanced degrees, Bolivians are competing with workers around the world for a handful of visas.

The DREAM Act is a bill very relevant to undocumented Bolivians. It was first introduced to Congress in 2001 granting six-year conditional permanent residency to undocumented people who finish a 4-year degree and/or 2 years military service. Despite being re-introduced several times, the DREAM Act has not passed on a national scale but California has passed its own Dream Act allowing undocumented students to apply for financial aid. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has halted deportation of the who would have qualified for the US DREAM Act.

Remittances bring in millions of $ from abroad
Remittances (remesas) are funds sent home by those working abroad. A common example would be a Bolivian who migrates to the US and does construction work then sends $200/month back to Bolivia via Western Union. Bolivians like this working abroad sent home over $1 billion in 2011. This staggering number is around 5-9% of Bolivia’s GDP and twice the foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country.

How is this possible?

The key is that these remittances cannot be taxed, seized, stolen, or otherwise siphoned off by governments. The money goes directly into the hands of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents, children, and others who need them. For this reason, many believe that remittances are the greatest force fighting poverty in developing nations today, because they bypass the hands of corrupt governments and go straight to the people who need them.

In the blog for the Valle Alto Pueblos of Cochamaba are photos that I took of some houses, sports fields, a community center, and churches all built with remittances.

This map by the Bolivian Central Bank shows the sources of remittances to Bolivia:

Bolivians in Spain
Spain is home to the largest number of Bolivian emigrants. Many have settled permanently but with the recent economic downturn in Europe, many have returned. In the past migrating to Spain was relatively easy and did not require a visa, but things have changed and in the past decade Spain has made it much more difficult to immigrate. In 2009 President Evo Morales visited Spain’s capital Madrid and 7,000 Bolivians turned out to hear him speak.

Advertisement for Evo Morales’ 2009 speech in Madrid, Spain

Bolivians in Argentina

Paraguayos y bolivianos en Argentina
Map: Bolivians and Paraguayans make up 40% of foreign-born inhabitants of Argentina and most are now legal citizens after the Patria Grande reform of 2006 (Source BBC Migration in Latin America)

Bolivians and Paraguayan immigrants Argentina form a distinct minority as Argentina is roughly 95% white. In recent decades many Bolivians have found work in factories around Buenos Aires and as seasonal workers on the pampas farms and vineyards in the Andean foothills. Much tragedy and often racism (see movie Bolivia) has surrounded Bolivians in Argentina, especially sweatshop workers in the garment factories of Buenos Aires a world fashion center. Many undocumented Bolivians have worked illegally in urban sweatshops located inconspicuously inside townhomes around Buenos Aires. Some Bolivians were denied the possibility of leaving, often blackmailed with the possibility of being turned in. The situation came to a head when several Bolivians, including children, were locked in a sweatshop that caught on fire and all died. International outcry and many protests by Bolivians ensued.

Partly in response to these problems, Argentina recharted the course of its immigration policy. In a sweeping change Argentina instituted the Patria Grande (Greater Fatherland) program in 2006 which granted citizenship to anyone currently living in Argentina, documented or not, from neighboring countries which include Bolivia (i.e. part of Argentina’s “greater fatherland”). Thousands of once-undocumented Bolivians now enjoyed health care, education, etc.

Migration from Cochabamba

The Department of Cochabamba has sent more emigrants abroad than any other in Bolivia. (see blog page on Cochabamba). Unlike the rural poor around La Paz, Cochabamba’s solid middle class  population has more of the education and funds required to migrate abroad.

Why Cochabamba?
One answer is that in the 1960s Bolivia enacted major land reforms designed to give more land to peasants or campesinos and break up massive elite-owned landholdings known as latifundia. Campesinos could now basically claim the land they worked as their own, creating a vast number of new small  farms known as “minifundia” owned by the campesinos who worked on them. At that time, Cochabamba was the agricultural center of Bolivia, so its population and social order was greatly shaken up.

On the good side, these land reforms did successfully break up many latifundia, create more even income distribution, and was a big step in integrating many campesinos into Bolivia’s economy if they could grow a surplus to move beyond subsistence farming. (2)

The problem, however–which led to major migrations out of the Cochabamba region–was that minifundia were so small (rarely over 5 hectares/12 acres) and farming technology so lacking among campesinos that it became difficult to produce a surplus and run a profitable farm. Simultaneously, Cochabamba was receiving an influx of immigrants from other regions of Bolivia which further exacerbated pressure on the land. This is one reason major migrations from Cochabamba began.

Another cause of migration is that Cochabamba has a large middle class population which has the money and education to migrate internationally, in contrast to the Highland regions on the altiplano where extreme poverty is common.

Migration into Boliva
Even as thousands of Bolivians have emigrated abroad, thousands have simultanously immigrated into the booming eastern region of Santa Cruz. This region had long been sparsely settled until the 1950s when oil and gas were discovered and developed by Gulf Oil and other multinational corporations. Cheap farmland in a lush tropical climate brought many more immigrants including neighboring Brazilians who found land prices 4X cheaper in Santa Cruz than in Brazil. Today entrepreneurs of all stripes have flocked to Santa Cruz from Brazil, Paraguay, Eastern Europe, including a large contingent of Mennonites, and even Japanese. (see Santa Cruz blog page including photos)

Further Reading
“Soccer and Latino Cultural Space” Hispanic Spaces, Latino Places: Community and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary America
Arreola, Daniel, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX 2004

Bolivia in Motion: Migration Patterns of a Nation in Flux
by Robert Thornett

Rural Migration in Bolivia: The Impact of Climate Change, Economic Crisis and State Policy

Levy, M Bolivia Oxfam Country Profile, Oxfam Press, Herndon, VA 2001

Soldan, Edmundo Paz Santa Cruz: Bolivia’s “Other Country”
The Virginia Quarterly Review, University of Virginia October 1, 2007 quoted April 18,2009



Leave a Comment
  1. Mladen Vranjican / Aug 25 2015 3:39 pm

    The Department of Cochabamba is not the agricultural heart of the country, and hasn’t been so for the last half century. The local enviromental conditions and weather, traditionally made it’s capital city attractive for a great portion of the Bolivian middle and upper classes to settle down. But these people/city were unable to find/créate an economic sustainable enviroment for the next generations, and this is why they have sent more emigrants abroad than any other department in Bolivia.

    Cochabamba consistently failed to meet these expectations during this last period, In many ways, with their former and present virtues, they became overpopulated for the natural resources they had and those created in the past and in these 50 years. Sympathetic articles continue to contibute in feeding this perception and idea of being a desirable place for our older ages, and influx of people into this área continues, but apparently even more people move out.

    What they really need now, is a new paradigm that is conceived to make them sustainable again, failing to do so they will start shrinking in population like for example, Potosí.

  2. Robert Thornett / Aug 26 2015 9:56 pm

    Hi –

    1. You are correct Santa Cruz has surpassed Cochabamba in agriculture. However, Cochabamba is not only still a major agricultural region but also a major industrial, manufacturing, and services region. What makes you think it is especially problematic today and/or unsustainable relative to other regions of Bolivia? At 2 million strong with strong support by remittances from the US, it seems to be clearly growing so I’m not clear what you mean by a threat of shrinking.

    2. Assuming you are from Santa Cruz, do you realize your region is dominated by multinational agribusiness corporations and that one million hectares are controlled by foreigners especially Brazilians? Santa Cruz is also by far Bolivia’s largest and fastest deforestation region–one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world (see article below). Is that the kind of “sustainable” model you want Cochabamba to emulate? And do you realize that Cochabamba has far more smallholder farmers than Santa Cruz, and that smallholders in Santa Cruz are dirt poor? see articles below

    3. I’m unclear what you are saying about the role of the elderly moving Cochabamba… Sounds like you are saying that elderly people (Bolivians?) are moving to Cochabamba due to some positive articles that have been written, I guess in Bolivian magazines or newspapers? Assuming this is true, why would this be a problem, seems like a positive? The city undoubtedly has a great climate. I’ve never seen these or heard of this trend, if you have a link please pass it along.

    4. What are you trying to say about Cochabamba’s economic history? You say the major shift (when?)was that middle and upper classes moved in primarily because they liked the climate and scenery (sounds unlikely) and that they are to blame for Cochabamba’s migrations. In reality, however, land was taken away from the wealthy during land reforms of the 1960s which later inadvertently created smallholder farms (minifundia) too small to be profitable. That’s one of the major causes of migration.


    Brazilian land grabs in eastern Bolivia

    “Smallholder colonist farmers in the tropical lowlands of Bolivia are extremely poor”

    Santa Cruz deforestation

  3. Jessica Lea Arthurs / Oct 25 2017 2:50 am


    I am really interested in your research and would like to talk more about this article particularly. Is there a way to contact you?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: