Growing up in London as a British Latina was both exciting and at times disheartening. I have always been proud of the rich culture of my Latin American roots. One of my best memories as a child was whenever we would go to parts of South London, such as Elephant and Castle, where a large proportion of today’s Latinos live and we would go to the Latin American restaurants and shops.
It was like walking through Latin America, in a nutshell, seeing all of my favourite dishes, buying Ecuadorian products and meeting people who were just like me. South London always felt like home. Now, due to regeneration plans and consequent gentrification in these places, many Latino businesses have now been forced to shut or move elsewhere. The older I got, the more I began to realise how severely unrepresented my community was in British society.
For me, it first started when I would have to fill in forms and tick my ethnicity. Every time I was either having to state “other” or “other mixed background”. I still have to today. Many people actually have questioned why I don’t just tick British? After all, I was born in the UK. However, I personally do not fully identify as British, so why should I have to deny a part of my ethnic identity that has great importance to me? Furthermore, even if I did identify as fully British, I would never be regarded that way by society because of the way I look or because of my surname.
Another issue that always crossed my mind was that there was never any British Latinos on UK television, in politics, or any high earning professions for that matter. My family immigrated from Ecuador to the UK in the late 90s, like many Latin Americans, in search for better jobs and a better life for their children. At the time, Latin America was going through a tough economic and political turmoil which made life in those countries considerably more difficult than they were before.
Many immigrants were in fact highly qualified and held degrees, which naturally gave them high hopes of finding a well-paid job. However, qualifications not accredited by recognised education systems are most of the time not recognised by UK employers and, with an added language barrier, the majority had no other option but to take jobs cleaning or, if they were lucky enough, in retail. As a child noticing that there was no real representation of Latin Americans in society, it made me sometimes think that we were all destined to clean the offices of the skyscrapers in the Capital.
I later began to be fascinated and take a liking to American media and politics. For the first time, seeing shows like Jane the Virgin or Cristela starring actress Gina Rodriguez and comedian Cristela Alonzo respectively, which celebrated Latinos in America and dealt with issues that they face in American society. Likewise, seeing American politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julian Castro being praised for their contributions and go on to successful political careers. It felt refreshing and almost unbelievable to see because I had never seen anything like that on British television or in politics.
One of the most ironic things is that The Guardian recently reported that Latin Americans are the eighth biggest ethnic group not born in the UK, currently living in London alone. This makes them almost as big as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Nigerians. Yet, today we are still fighting for recognition and representation. The recent 2021 Census is a perfect example of how we are still only considered an ‘other’ in British society.
What makes this issue even more concerning is that, as a result of the pandemic, Public Health England is only now realising that they do not hold official health data of many Latin Americans residing in the UK and one in seven are not registered at their local GP, meaning they would not be able to notify them when they are eligible for the coronavirus vaccine. It was also found that roughly 77% of the Latin American community is not able to work from home which makes their recognition and representation more crucial now more than ever.
Image: Santiago Sito via Flickr