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The story of Maria Salazar-Gil, or how the arepa became a C'ville staple

It was at breakfast that Maria Salazar-Gil decided to flee the country she loves.

The thought had crossed her mind before.

Life was becoming more difficult in Venezuela, with a corrupt government and an economy in crisis. Salazar-Gil’s husband, Fernando, had protested the administration; she was fearful that authorities would try to exact revenge.

Still, her family’s cell phone store was doing well, and she was in her hometown of Barquisimeto, near beloved friends and family.

So it wasn’t until one of their daughters spoke up that Maria and Fernando Salazar-Gil determined it was time to go.

“One day, our oldest daughter said at breakfast, ‘We need to go. I don’t want to grow up here. I don’t have any economic opportunities here. I need to leave. We deserve a better life,’” she recalled.

Her husband made the trip first, choosing to settle in Charlottesville where a cousin lived. Maria Salazar-Gil and her two daughters followed soon after, arriving on Mother’s Day 2016. They made the trip using a tourist visa and asked for political asylum upon arrival. They currently have temporary protected status as they wait for their interview with immigration authorities.

Starting a new life was difficult, not just because of the long hours she worked as a nanny, house cleaner and food delivery driver, but because she was without family and friends for the first time in her life.

“I was alone just with my daughters and husband. It was hard raising two kids. Where is my mom? In Venezuela, when I worked, my mom watched my kids,” she said.

But they were able to send money back to their loved ones, and they were working towards a dream: to start their own Venezuelan restaurant.

“We always think: If you want something, you have to work hard. One day, you can do it,” she said, sitting in her restaurant on Cherry Avenue. “You have to work hard to build what you want.”

Arepas on Wheels, as the name suggests, started as a food truck selling Venezuelan fare: empanadas, fried yuca and plantains and, naturally, arepas.

The truck alone was $28,000, plus thousands more to convert it into a fully functional kitchen. It was a big investment, and a big risk, one that frightened Maria Salazar-Gil. But it was also a big step toward achieving a dream she’d held long before coming to the U.S.

While Fernando Salazar-Gil is confident about the business’ future, his wife said she still worries.

“Every time money is involved, I’m scared,” she said with a laugh. “But I always say I don’t want to get old working for someone else.”

Nevertheless, the food truck was an instant success. For roughly two months, the family had nonstop business, selling out virtually every day as long lines of people queued up for the only spot in Charlottesville serving Venezuelan food.

“People waited for food for maybe an hour. It was crazy,” Maria Salazar-Gil recalled.

It’s especially surprising considering that arepas, a sort of sandwich with cornmeal bread stuffed with different fillings, are a South American staple but were virtually nonexistent on the Charlottesville dining scene before the Salazar-Gils arrived.

The Arepas on Wheels website is a testament to that. It includes a list of frequently asked question. The first one: “What are arepas?”

But Charlottesville has learned the answer to that quickly.

And the quicker the better for Maria Salazar-Gil.

While the food truck was popular, she told her husband early on that it would not be a viable option in the winter.

“I need a restaurant by November,” she said, just one of the demands she said she regularly makes of the man she’s known since the two were in middle school in 1993.

Fernando Salazar-Gil obliged, finding a vacant space at 814 Cherry Ave. in the city’s Fifeville neighborhood. Apreas on Wheels, the restaurant, opened on Nov. 14, 2022.

The hands of the Salazar-Gils crafted everything inside the physical restaurant. They assembled all of the tables and chairs, painted every wall and designed the decor. Now they work the kitchen, slowly serving more and more customers.

“The restaurant is growing every day. Every day is better,” Maria Salazar-Gil said. “When any people try our food, they always come again. That’s a good marker for us.”

One year in, their restaurant is off to a promising start. Still, the hours are long and Maria Salazar-Gil said she misses her family in Venezuela.

“They are proud. We try to just tell them the good things that we have. We never tell them the worst parts,” she said. “When I get sick, I never tell my parents because they are so far. They need to know that I am safe, that my family is safe. I don’t want to worry them.”

She has mixed emotions about having built a successful life while much of her family is still in Venezuela, and worries that if her mother falls ill, she will not be there to support her.

“But I know we are doing the best we can for our family,” she said.

The city has made the transition easier.

“They are receptive and friendly, and maybe gentle with us,” she said. “This is a noble town. It’s a good town. Good for creating, good for family, good for business. An excellent place to live. We are feeling very, very grateful for the Charlottesville community.”


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