Latin American Exiles in London
…by Sofia Buchuck
“Already in 1976, Latin-Americans used to gather, especially Chilean exiles, at the football pitch of Clapham Common. The reunions included barbeques, mates, folkloric dances and serenades, not necessarily by professional folklorists. They were many performed by exiled workers who, in their spare time on Sundays, used to gather and celebrate their cultural heritage. It was like being there in your homeland.’
Interviewee: Berter Techera, Uruguay
There are probably somewhere between 700,000 to 1,000,000 Latin Americans in the UK. The Brazilians make up the largest group of around 200,000, then there are about 130-160,000 Colombians, 70-90,000 Ecuadorians and 10-15,000 Peruvians.
It is hard to quantify the number of Chileans in the UK — many have gone back to Chile, or move fluidly between several places. These numbers are guesstimates from embassies, community centres and refugee groups, but there has never been a precise census of Latin Americans in the UK.
Still, an article in The Guardian in September, 2005, argues that Latin Americans are one of the fastest growing communities in the UK. They have gained confidence, creating Sunday schools, taking jobs, and being responsible for many of the 800,000 salsa classes that take place across the UK every night.
An Oral History of Latin Americans in London
During 2005, we ran an oral history project led by the Evelyn Oldfield Unit and it was based at the Latin American Association. We interviewed people from different walks of life and different cultural backgrounds — from television journalists to poets to musicians. The only thing they had in common was the fact that they were all refugees from the different countries of Latin America such as Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador and El Salvador. The result was a CD that looked at the reasons for leaving their countries of origin and the experience of life and home-making in London.
Many have used the arts to express and hang onto their culture. There’s a vivid Latin American art scene in London, and images, poems and music from the community are reproduced on the CD.
“The historical experience has shown us, and the reality
confirms, that there is an invasion toward the rich centres from the basins of the World, this is the ‘invasion of the invaded,’ before they have suffered in the times of conquest, from the soldiers of the colonisation. Today the invaders are not soldiers; they are workers who come to offer their labour. That generates a huge quantity of contradictions which can only be solved with unity, not only of the ones who settled here. The immigration drama is the symbol of our times, reflecting that there are people of a first, a second and a third category. It is false that there is democracy and that we are equal.”
Eduardo Galeano — Interview for Que Magazine — 2004
Latin Americans migrated for two reasons: firstly, people fled political persecution from the military dictatorships of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile during the 60s and 70s and more recently in Peru and Colombia. Then there is a second group, not exactly political refugees, but rather those who are fleeing economic hardship and violence of many countries on that continent. Status will determine what life a refugee in London will be like — a professional refugee who arrives with no English may take many years before they are able to resume their previous careers in London.
Many Latin Americans not only with having to learn English but with the subtle cultural codes of Londoners. They have to adopt new values and combine their own culture with the English one; embracing a cross-cultural identity to deal with everyday life in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the World.
Some hybridisation of English occurs, just as in the New World: Spanish itself has changed. Latin American Spanish is influenced by the native languages such as Quechua and Aymara in Peru, and Bolivia, while in Mexico and Guatemala, Spanish is influenced by the Mayas and other languages. This heritage provides a new musicality and rhythm to the Latin American-speaking of the English language.
Some Latin Americans in London have an older Latin American language such as Quechua as their native tongue, rather than Spanish or Portuguese.
Shopping and London Areas
Latin Americans also bring their own native products and food. Increasingly, there are places where people can purchase exotic products, for example, at Brixton and Seven Sisters markets, where sellers even speak Spanish. Latin American culture dominates shopping centres at Elephant and Castle and at Peckham Rye, where they promote different facilities for their community. These include work opportunities and international phone centres for calling families abroad.
Latin American Festivals
Latin American culture is widely exposed at established festivals across London. This allows Latin Americans not only to share their culture with the vast diversity of people at London’s main festivals (Notting Hill Carnival and the Thames Festival, for example).
The Carnaval del Pueblo is a specifically Latin American festival that takes place every year in early August; it’s the largest Latino festival in Europe. Originally led by Colombians, it has in the last two years had more of an Andean presence — especially Peruvians, Bolivians, and Ecuadorans.
The Art of Belonging
“Two things, in reality, are part of the same. One of them belongs to the past and the other to the present. One is the possession of past memories and the other is the actual memories, the will to be together and live together, the will to keep the great love of your historic heritage…”
Ernest Renan — La Sorbona
A sense of belonging becomes urgent, especially for refugees and exiles who, for political reasons cannot go back to their countries of origin. Therefore, the concept of community becomes a unifying element, helping to give exiles a sense of ownership – and reach a point when they are able to create a new cultural identity abroad.
First generation migrants in particular prefer to reproduce very similar cultural expressions to the ones familiar at home – keeping their heritage in the most traditional form. It represents a way of returning or holding on to their homeland.
Migration and Re-Migration
Some migrants find that when they are finally able to return to their homeland, perhaps after many years, they still feel as if they are in a foreign society. It has perhaps particularly been the case for Chilean exiles, some of whom have returned home, only to come back to England once more, feeling that their homeland has changed beyond recognition.
Latin American governments have yet to put any mechanisms into place to help returnees readjust: one of the coming issues of a globalized world.
“In exile, we adopt each other, we tend to fill in the gaps of friends, parents, and sons, and replace them with new friends. For example, I have adopted the Latin American community and my friend Denis as my family.”
Families, and replacement families, often become stronger once abroad. It’s perhaps because of this that Latin Americans expand their horizons by identifying themselves as Latin Americans first, and only then to clarify the country they actually come from, say, Ecuador.
People call themselves ‘Latin Americans’ only when living outside the continent; the nation seems less relevant than it might do back home.
Music allows us to enter different emotional spaces. It can vary from simple entertainment to music with social meaning or ritualistic music to pay respect to the dead. The latter is especially used by people who lose members of their family while they are abroad and are unable to travel back to pay their respects.
By the same token, when refugees die in the UK, music becomes the conductor of memory to celebrate culture, identity and to provide a ceremony for the dead. This song, by Henry Bran, a refugee from El Salvador, is perspective from abroad:
Literature provides a platform for the under-represented, especially refugees, as they are silenced in their own countries-of-origin. They find through literature, the channel to express themselves and tackle problems of racism, sexism, and other problems of repression which remain unsolved in post-colonisation.
Hence, the arts are a way for Latin Americans in London to keep their identity and celebrate their cultural heritage. Interviewing refugees for this project has often given them an outlet for expression for the first time and has succeeded in linking them closer to their communities.