Show Hide image

Latin Americans are one of the UK's fastest-growing groups. So why aren't they recognised?

Latin Americans have been ignored by politicians, the media and the national census. A new British-born generation is trying to change that. 

Over fuzzy shots of South London terraces, tower blocks and high streets, several teenagers explain the cases of mistaken identity they confront on a daily basis. Moroccan, Asian, Turkish, Indian; you don’t look Cuban, you look Mexican. “I know where I’m from,” counters one. “And I’ll tell you that.”

The newly released documentary More than Other profiles what it calls the largest ever generation of British-born Latin Americans. They form one of the country’s fastest-growing ethnic groups, but are rendered “invisible” by official policies and a near-total absence of media portrayals, says Canadian-Brazilian filmmaker Romano Pizzichini. Over chicken soup in an Ecuadorian restaurant in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, Pizzichini explains how the local Latin community made him feel “very much at home” when he arrived in London as a student. But British colleagues have told him that they have never met any Latin Americans. “What about the guy who comes in and says hello to you and cleans your desk every night? They’re all Latin American, I can probably guarantee you that.”

The UK is now home to around 250,000 people of Latin American origin – born or with ancestry in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries of the Americas. Roughly half live in London, where they form the eighth-largest ethnic community. Nationally, they are already comparable in size to the British Asian population in 1991. Fleeting connections between Britain and Latin America go back a long way: statues and plaques around Marylebone, Belgravia and Richmond mark where historical figures like Simón Bolívar plotted South American independence. Last year, a Chilean student discovered a mural on the walls of Leeds University Union, painted in 1976 by some of the 3,000 exiles from the Pinochet regime granted asylum by the UK.

But the vast majority of Britain’s contemporary Latin American population – in large part made up of migrants from Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador, and refugees from Colombia’s civil war – only arrived in the 1990s and early 2000s, making them and their children comparative newcomers. The resulting uncertainty and unfamiliarity is both a source of challenge and heady sense of possibility. “Everything’s so new with Latin Americans here. It’s the first generation growing up here that’s going to set the roots for the culture. They’re doing it from scratch,” says Pizzichini, whose 16mm short was backed by Brazilian production house Capuri after potential UK funders fell through. “It’s a shifting landscape. I wanted to document this very precise moment in time.”

***

Culturally speaking, 2019 has felt like a watershed moment for British Latin Americans. The inaugural Festival of Latin American Women’s Art (FLAWA) in May brought together 68 artists in venues across London for discussions and performances, including Expresión Inca, a British-Andean dance group, and the subversive, clownish comedian Andrea Spisto, a Venezuelan-Londoner. Stubborn Archivist, the debut novel of British-Brazilian writer Yara Rodrigues Fowler, has been widely praised since its publication in July for distilling the British-Latin American experience of navigating multiple languages, countries and identities. The first major anthology of British-Latin American writers, poets and playwrights, Un Nuevo Sol, was published this December. Meanwhile, the Colombia-born, Tottenham-based artist Oscar Murillo was one of the four nominees to insist on jointly accepting the Turner Prize – a gesture of unity that the four winners described as a protest against “the Conservatives' hostile environment that has paradoxically made each of us and many of our friends and family again increasingly unwelcome in Britain.”

Yet although British Latin Americans are increasingly visible in the arts, their political representation still lags behind. Perhaps most strikingly, Latin American ethnicity is not recognised as a distinct category on the national census or other official forms. This makes it hard to even know for certain how many Latin Americans there are in the UK, Krishmary Ramdhun, a co-founder of the campaign group LatinXcluded, featured in Pizzichini’s documentary, tells me when we meet in a café in Clapham, South London. 

This huge data gap means national and local authorities struggle to target or even understand the need for culturally-specific healthcare and community services, including those for domestic abuse survivors and recent migrants, which are still largely provided by charities like Latin American Women’s Aid. The experience of not seeing oneself represented on a form – and instead having to tick the “Other” box – can have a profound personal impact.  “You feel like you don’t belong in society,” says Ramdhun. For outsiders, it may seem like a “miniscule thing,” notes British-Chilean illustrator Javie Huxley. “But there’s a dehumanising effect when you’re not able to see yourself in the census. I can’t speak for everyone, but I used to feel really frustrated and ashamed,” she adds. “It has a really negative effect on your self-esteem.”

Ramdhun, who moved to the UK from Caracas aged ten with her Venezuelan mother and Mauritian father, started LatinXcluded in August last year with her fellow sixth-formers Cecilia Alfonso-Eaton, a Cuban-Briton, and Zharinck Lopez, whose family came to Britain from Colombia six years ago. The three students – now each studying or with a place at university – called the admissions service UCAS to report the absence of a Latin American category for applicants. They were told to just tick “Other” or not identify their heritage at all. “We just found it really weird that people don’t care, that they encourage you not to care about your ethnicity,” says Ramdhun.

This, she adds, is just one of many indignities that British Latin Americans experience. When her family arrived in Clapham nearly a decade ago, it was home to hardly any Latin American families. Teachers told Ramdhun to mix with Portuguese-speaking children. Later, they tried to discourage her from taking English Literature at A-Level instead of taking Spanish, her first language. And despite years of British schooling, she had to sit the rudimentary “Life in the UK” test as part of her recent citizenship application. “Like, how is it that I still have to do this and answer questions about Henry the Eighth?”, she asks.  

***

Many young Latin Americans living in the UK who are eligible for citizenship are deterred by Home Office fees of £1,012 per child, over ten times more expensive than in other European nations. And this socio-political invisibility, some suggest, underlies existential threats to London’s two major Latin American hubs. “Latin Americans aren’t properly recognised in this country,” says Huxley, who is a trustee of the Save Latin Village campaign. “I feel like if we were, this perhaps wouldn't have happened for so long.”

We’re sat inside the Seven Sisters Indoor Market in Haringey, north London. Commonly known as the Latin Village or Pueblito Paisa, at least half of its 60 small shops, cafés and businesses belong to owners of Latin American or Hispanic origin. The warren-like building is a source of empanadas, arepas and hearty plates of Colombian beans, pork, rice and plantain – but it also helps recent migrants get their bearings. Noticeboards hold handwritten adverts for jobs, rooms for rent, legal advice and language classes, and it provides a vital community space for the area’s Latin and working-class population. It also offers an invaluable link to a far-away continent, says Huxley, who grew up in rural Suffolk feeling distant from both her Chilean heritage and her adoptive country.

“This is the only place in my life where I've been able to come and reconnect to my roots at a pace that suits me,” she explains. “The importance this place has for first- and second-generation immigrants from South America is absolutely huge.” The market also houses traders from Uganda, Romania and beyond, forming a “100 percent BAME migrant community” whose earnings circulate in the local neighbourhood rather than being siphoned off by short-lived high-street chains, Huxley adds.

But as part of local regeneration plans dating back to 2004, Haringey’s council has agreed to allow property developer Grainger to tear down the Latin Village, which has existed for nearly 50 years, and replace it with 196 flats – none of which will be available at affordable rates – and a far smaller retail space, with a temporary market over the road made available in the interim. While some traders support the plan, and others point to the cost of cancelling the agreement with Grainger, critics liken the proposals to demolishing Chinatown. Campaigners have fought a council-requested Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) but lost an appeal in the High Court this October. Some business-owners say they have suffered abuse and arbitrary rent hikes in an attempt to break their resolve.

The experience is traumatic for Vicky Alvarez, one of the market’s most outspoken defenders, who runs a beauty salon and currency exchange. She fled Colombia two decades ago after her father was murdered, but now feels victimised all over again. “All these ghosts come out at night. I have nightmares and panic attacks,” she says. “I was forced to get a second job to be able to fight this stupid, crazy social cleansing. What else can I do? I feel the Latin American community is such an invisible one, and we are such a hardworking people. This is just the right thing to do.”

Save Latin Village has secured the backing of UN human rights experts and Oscar Murillo, whose studio is nearby. The campaigners have organised noisy demonstrations outside the High Court, held colourful fundraisers with children smashing piñatas labelled “gentrification,” and worked with architects to develop an alternative vision for the village, the Wards Corner Community Plan. They are still hopeful that legal and public pressure can turn the tide. “Maybe because Latin Americans are so underrepresented, [Haringey council] thought that this would be a quiet decision, but actually communities have fought back with force,” says Huxley. The newfound sense of solidarity, she adds, “is something that makes it all worth it.”

Traders in Elephant and Castle, an even larger Latin American cultural and commercial hub, have undergone a similar experience. Controversial plans to demolish and redevelop the 1960s shopping centre by housing developer Delancey were approved last December, with the results of judicial review this October still pending. But tenacious campaigning by traders and residents has already won several important concessions, including a larger relocation fund, an extended rent cap, a traders’ panel, first choice of units and 116 social rented homes, up from zero originally.

Both campaigns have helped the Latin Village and the Shopping Centre become more visible and strengthen networks within the community and beyond, said Patria Roman-Velazquez, a professor at Loughborough University and founder of the Latin Elephant charity. “The Latin American community is asserting the right to the city, saying that we belong here, we’re here and we’re here to stay,” she added.

***

LatinXcluded have also scored some early wins. Lambeth Council, whose borough encompasses major Latin American communities in Brixton, Clapham and Vauxhall, has agreed to include a Latin American category on all its forms – for example, those surveying patients in local hospitals or the performance of students in the borough’s schools. The trio met with the Office of National Statistics earlier this year, and hope that the next ten-year national census in March 2021 seizes the opportunity to do the same. Kings College London launched a report last month alongside LatinXcluded detailing how the government and universities can better support young people of Latin American heritage. Nevertheless, most emphasise that Britain’s burgeoning Latin American community is far from monolithic, nor is it in complete agreement on several issues.

The most obvious question is what to call itself. Latinx avoids the binary, gendered connotations of Latino – a problem not shared by descriptors like African or Asian – but some find the term confusing, Ramdhun explains. Others warn about erasing national and ethnic differences under an umbrella term like Latin American, which itself has a complicated history. In the US, notes Pizzichini, the centuries-old Latino population tends to identify in more specific terms: Salvadoran-American, Afro-Colombian, indigenous Maya, or Chicano (Mexican-American) for example. “It feels that over here, because everybody needs that recognition,” he adds, “they need to pull together first.” 

“One thing for sure is that not all Latin Americans are the same. There’s more to us than just being ‘other’ in the tickbox,” narrates Dylan Bedoya, one of the film’s subjects. British Latin Americans have a complicated joint heritage to live up to, he adds. “It’s our job to create something to look forward to, something new.”

Laurence Blair has reported from across Latin America for the Economist, the BBC and the Financial Times. His book about South American history will be published by the Bodley Head in 2020.