Restaurants are places to eat, but they are also places to have community. They are more important than they might seem on the surface.

Clare Sammells

Given that Bolivia is a country of only 10 million people, its migrant community in Spain of about a quarter-million is relatively large. Professor Clare Sammells, sociology & anthropology, did her doctoral research in Bolivia, where she studied how the country's culture had changed with increased tourism and emigration. So, she says, it was natural for her to focus her new research project on Bolivians who had gone to live in Spain. She spent a year living in a working-class Bolivian neighborhood a few miles from the central tourist area of Madrid.

"It is close to where tourists visit, but actually no tourists come to this part of Madrid, so it was interesting to study," said Sammells. Since she had researched food and its distribution while she was in Bolivia, she chose to concentrate on the area's Bolivian restaurants, which are popular breakfast and lunch gathering places for the community. "These weren't tourist restaurants, but catering to Bolivians who live nearby."

The majority of these Bolivians arrived in the neighborhood starting around 2000, when there was an economic boom in Spain. Since 2008, though, there have been tough times in Spain. Bolivians living there have had to think about whether to stay, return to South America or migrate elsewhere, Sammells explains. The social spaces of restaurants gave her a window into how and why individuals made those decisions.

"What was interesting is that while several of these restaurants were struggling, other people decided to open new restaurants," she said. She determined that while some jobs were lost in the economic downturn, other people had accumulated a bit of capital. If they opened up a restaurant, they became self-employed, and could maybe provide a job for a family member as well.

"A lot of these restaurants were small and sometimes pretty empty," she says. "But some people wanted to stay in Spain — for example, some had children who loved it there — and this was a way to stay."

She also noted how Bolivian restaurants for expatriates in Spain were different from restaurants in Bolivia. Some products, particularly cheeses and vegetables, were just not available in Spain, and since Spain's siesta is such a part of the country, dining hours were modified somewhat.

Sammells teaches Food, Eating and Culture and team-teaches a course called Global Cuisines, Local Context with Professor Philippe Dubois, French & Francophone studies. This research fed right into both these classes. "Restaurants are places to eat, but they are also places to have community," she says. "They are more important than they might seem on the surface."

Updated Sept. 30, 2016